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BEIRUT – Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana come at a time of significant changes to the conflict in its sixth year. Although promising to focus on reinforcing a cease-fire, the conference has raised expectations of a path toward a political settlement of the civil war.
The talks are sponsored by Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey, which supports the opposition. They notably lack any U.S. role and come days after new President Donald Trump took office.
Here's a look at what is at stake:
WHO IS THERE?
Iran and Turkey sent foreign ministry delegates. Russia's delegation is led by President Vladimir Putin's special adviser on Syria.
Russia has invited the U.S., which is represented by its ambassador in Kazakhstan. Syria sent a military delegation, headed by the country's U.N. ambassador.
The U.N. envoy is mediating.
For the first time in internationally sponsored talks, Syrian armed groups — not political — are leading the opposition. Thirteen rebel factions, including from the western-backed Free Syrian Army, sent delegates.
These groups are the original signatories of the Russia, Turkey-sponsored Dec. 30 cease-fire, approved by Iran and the Syrian government. Most have suffered major battlefield losses. Others have been forced to merge with larger groups.
WHO IS NOT?
Al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front is excluded from the cease-fire and has criticized the talks as a "conspiracy" aimed at driving a wedge among rebel groups and putting out the rebellion's fire.
Notably absent are the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and Nour el-Din el-Zinki groups, among the most powerful fighters on the ground in Syria who have also worked closely with Fatah al-Sham.
Also absent is the main U.S.-backed Kurdish rebel group. The group, a lead U.S. partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamist State group, has been a source of tension between Washington and Turkey, which sees it as an extension of its own Kurdish rebel group it labels as terrorists.
Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the opposition, has no representatives to the talks. Its participation was a sticky issue with Iran.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT THIS TIME
The U.S. has played no role in arranging these talks. They come days after Trump took office — signaling that Putin aims to "start the post-Obama chapter in Syria on his terms, confronting the new American administration with the fait accompli of regime victory in Aleppo," said Fabrice Balanche, of the Washington Institute.
The rebels lost the northern Syrian city last month in a Russian-backed government offensive. Rebels are also losing backing, as generous supporters such as Gulf countries and Turkey are going through their own economic crises. Trump has signaled that he will stop support for the rebels, saying they "could be worse" than Assad.
The talks come at a time when Turkey's policy in Syria is changing. Turkey has sent troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State group, who turned their terror against the Turkish state, and thwart Kurdish aspirations for autonomous rule along Syria's border with Turkey. After years of supporting the opposition's call for Assad to step down, Ankara has signaled it accepts a role for him in the transition. Ankara is also pivoting toward Moscow as its relations with the U.S. become strained over Washington's support of Kurdish rebel fighters.
WHAT IS ON THE AGENDA?
Russia says the talks will help pave the way for U.N. talks expected in Geneva next month by ensuring field commanders participate in the peace process.
Rebels say they are in Astana only to ensure a cease-fire is extended to all of Syria, while Washington is contemplating its new Syria policy.
For Assad, the talks are another capitulation by the non-Jihadi rebel groups, who are reeling from battlefield losses. Before the talks, he said the conference offers armed groups a chance to join reconciliation initiatives through which the government has negotiated local surrender deals.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said Assad is unlikely to depart from this policy at Astana.
"By now, it has become clear that Assad cannot offer major political reform without jeopardizing his regime security," he said.
IS THIS THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
Possibly. The talks represent the best chance yet for a resolution of the conflict, simply because the three most influential sides — Russia, Turkey and Iran — are working together to find the contours of a settlement.
If they make it past the first round of talks, it would represent a first step in a long journey toward a political solution.
However, there are enormous challenges, including convincing rebels to distance themselves from the jihadist al-Qaida-linked groups, and accepting a political agreement that preserves the main pillars of the Assad regime.
The Astana talks will cement the Kremlin's role as the primary architect of a political solution, but a short-term breakthrough remains uncertain, said Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group.
In principle, Putin's effort is also set to eliminate any negotiating structure that would require Assad's removal. But Moscow will press hard for a power-sharing arrangement that includes non-Islamist opposition figures.