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Syria dialogue to be held behind closed doors

ASTANA/DAMASCUS/RIYADH

Kazakhstan said Tuesday that a new round of Astana talks on the Syria conflict led by Russia, Turkey and Iran will take place behind closed doors, as Russia said United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura will visit Moscow for talks on February 16, RIA news agency quoted Russia’s foreign ministry as saying on Tuesday.

The “closed format” negotiations are set to start on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital some three weeks after representatives from Damascus and the armed opposition failed to make a breakthrough at indirect talks in the city.

The meeting – pushed by Moscow – is viewed as a warm-up for UN-led negotiations on the protracted war that are due to begin in Geneva on February 23.

While Kazakh officials said they invited both the Syrian government and rebels for the new talks, several of opponents of the Syrian government who took part in the previous Astana talks said that they have not received invitations.

Damascus has confirmed it will be represented again by its ambassador to the UN Bashar Al Jaafari.

Russia is sending presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev while Iran said it is dispatching Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari.

De Mistura said  he would not participate personally in the latest Astana meeting but that his office would be represented by a “technical team”.

Jordan will also be represented by a “high level delegation” government spokesman Mohamed Momani said.

The Astana initiative has left the West on the sidelines of the latest push to end the war in Syria that has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011.

Moscow has invited the US to participate as an observer but the State Department has yet to confirm Washington will be involved.

Talks are likely to focus on bolstering a shaky ceasefire on the ground after Moscow, Tehran and Ankara agreed to establish a “mechanism” aimed at ensuring the truce.

Separately, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Saudi Arabia’s top leadership on Tuesday during a visit to further strengthen ties as part of a Gulf tour ahead of Syria peace talks.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud hosted a banquet for Erdogan, who arrived in Riyadh late on Monday, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

It gave no details of their discussions, but said Erdogan also met Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the Interior Minister, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is the Defence Minister.

The two powers have become increasingly close over the past year, sharing in particular a backing for the opposition in Syria’s war.

As Erdogan held talks in Riyadh, his Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his ruling Justice and Development Party lawmakers in Ankara that Al Bab in northern Syria was “largely” under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

Agencies