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Zarif in Damascus ahead of Astana talks

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met with the Syrian President in Damascus yesterday ahead of a new round of talks in Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss ending Syria’s eight-year war.

According to a statement from Syrian President Bashar Assad, the two leaders discussed: “The next round of Astana talks and the importance of lasting communication between Damascus and Tehran for continued cooperation”.

Zarif also met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, in Damascus. The pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported that Zarif said talks next week in Kazakhstan will focus on the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. In September 2018 Russia and Turkey agreed in Astana to create a 15-20km demilitarised zone between regime forces and rebel fighters in Idlib province, but this has been repeatedly violated. Iran and Russia are key allies of Assad’s regime while Turkey backs some of the rebel groups in Idlib.

Zarif said: “The Astana guarantors … need to abide by the commitments linked to the Idlib file” including “disarming terrorists groups and them leaving Idlib”.

Assad has recaptured most of Syria apart from parts of the northwest and southwest, while a Kurdish-led alliance backed by the US holds most of the northeast. The region bordering Turkey is held by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK.

Kazakhstan is to host a fresh round of negotiations on 25-26 April in its capital (recently renamed from Astana to Nur-Sultan). Several rounds of UN-backed Syria peace talks have failed to make progress. Iran, Russia, and Turkey have sponsored the parallel Astana negotiation track since early 2017.

Zarif is expected to visit Turkey after his trip to Damascus.

Iran’s parliament approved a bill designating US forces in the Middle East a terrorist organisation, a day after the US decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation formally took effect. The Defence Minister, General Amir Hatami, introduced the bill on Tuesday, authorising the government to act firmly in response to “terrorist actions” by US forces. It demands authorities use “legal, political and diplomatic” measures to neutralise the US designation decision.