Assad hopes rebels will disarm after Astana talks
DAMASCUS - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he hopes rebels attending peace talks next week in Kazakhstan will agree to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
The talks, sponsored by regime allies Russia and Iran and rebel backer Turkey, will begin Monday in Astana and are expected to last less than a week.
Details on the format remain murky, but Assad told Japanese television channel TBS that he hoped rebels would "lay down their arms and receive an amnesty from the government".
"This is the only thing we can expect at this time," he added, according to excerpts from the interview released by his office on Thursday.
Assad said the talks would "prioritise, as we see it, reaching a ceasefire".
"At this time, we believe that the conference will take shape as talks between the government and terrorist groups in order to reach a ceasefire and allow these groups to join the reconciliation deals in Syria," he said.
Damascus has reached a series of local agreements under which rebels -- which it refers to as "terrorists" -- evacuate areas in exchange for an end to bombardment or siege.
Such deals have been fiercely criticised by rebel groups as a deliberate strategy of displacement.
Assad said the talks would also aim to "protect people's lives and allow humanitarian aid to reach various areas in Syria."
Repeated attempts by world powers have failed to end Syria's war, which erupted nearly six years ago with widespread anti-Assad demonstrations.
Last year, the United States and Russia worked together to put a temporary truce in place and sponsored several rounds of talks in Geneva, but they did not secure a political solution.
In late 2016, a new partnership between Moscow and Ankara emerged, despite their backing for opposite sides in the conflict.
They secured a fragile ceasefire deal that went into force on December 30, and the Astana talks will be the first real test of their joint efforts.
The two powers have said US President-elect Donald Trump's administration should attend the talks, but Iranian officials have voiced strong objections to Washington's presence.
On Thursday, the United Nations said its peace envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura would be at the meeting.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked de Mistura to attend "in light of the complexity and importance of the issues likely to be raised in Astana, and of the senior level at which the conveners of the meeting will be represented," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
UN officials have expressed hope the Astana talks may provide a base for UN-sponsored negotiations on Syria that are due to resume in Geneva on February 8.
Earlier this week, rebel groups announced their delegation to Astana would comprise eight rebel figures, led by Mohammad Alloush of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction.
But the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group, which has thousands of fighters in central and northern Syria, said Wednesday it would sit out the talks.
It blamed "the lack of implementation of the ceasefire" and a fierce regime offensive on Wadi Barada, an area 15 kilometres (10 miles) northwest of Damascus.
The area is the capital's main source of water, and the fighting has left around 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs facing water shortages since late December.
Rebel groups and government figures on Thursday reached a new truce deal for Wadi Barada, a local official said, hours after regime forces encircled the area.
Abu Mohammad al-Bardawi, head of Wadi Barada's Media Committee, said "the cessation of hostilities came into effect at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT)" and the area was "calm."
Under the deal, maintenance teams will enter the area to fix the water pipes and rebels who do not want to surrender will be given safe passage to opposition-held Idlib in the northwest.
It is the second such deal in a week, after a previous agreement collapsed when a key mediator was killed by unknown assailants.
It came hours after Syrian troops and allied militia surrounded Wadi Barada, where around 20,000 live, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
The regime is seeking to gain full control over the area -- including the key Ain al-Fijeh spring -- to restore running water to the capital.
In addition to devastating infrastructure, Syria's conflict has killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.