Kazakhstan abruptly announces it will no longer host talks on Syria’s conflict. Russia is surprised

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Moscow (AP) — Kazakhstan said Wednesday it will stop hosting talks aimed at resolving Syria’s 12-year-old conflict. The abrupt announcement surprised Russia and other participants as they wrapped up the 20th round of talks in the capital of Astana.

Since 2017, the former Soviet republic has provided a venue for talks to representatives of Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran on ways to resolve the Syrian war.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said the talks have fulfilled their mission and that “the initial goals, including the creation of de-escalation zones, ending the bloodshed and reducing the number of casualties have been fully implemented.”

The ministry’s spokesman, Aibek Smadiyarov, cited Syria’s recent return to the Arab League and efforts to restore ties with Turkey as proof that the Astana talks achieved their purpose.

But Alexander Lavrentyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Syria who led Moscow’s delegation at the talks, said Kazakhstan’s decision was a complete surprise and an unexpected move.

Lavrentyev said that no decision was made about a new venue for future talks later this year, but suggested they could be held in Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, or even Damascus.

This week’s talks in Astana followed an improvement in ties between Syria and some Arab countries that once backed Syrian opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Lavrentyev said Syria’s return to the Arab League during the May summit in Saudi Arabia was an “important step” towards ending the conflict.

Representatives from the United Nations and Syria’s neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq — attended the Astana talks as observers and expressed hope for a swift end to the conflict and the return home of millions of refugees living in their countries.

Turkey, Russia and Iran described the latest talks in Astana as “constructive” and said they discussed “preparing the roadmap for the restoration of relations between Turkey and Syria.”

Moscow and Tehran have backed Assad’s government in the war and helped his forces reclaim control over most of the country. Even with the bulk of Russia’s armed forces fighting in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military foothold in Syria and has also made persistent efforts to help Assad rebuild fractured ties with Turkey and other countries in the region.

Turkey has had troops in northwestern Syria backing opposition fighters in the last rebel-held enclave. On Tuesday, Syria’s assistant foreign minister, Ayman Sousan, said Turkey should come up with a “clear timeline” for the withdrawal of its forces from Syria.

In May, after Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, Turkey and Syria’s foreign ministers agreed to set up a “roadmap” to improve strained ties. It marked the highest-level contact between the two countries since the 2011 start of the uprising turned civil war.

The war in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s prewar population of 23 million.

Hours after the Astana meeting ended, residents and a war monitor reported that Syrian government forces shelled an opposition-held town in Aleppo province, killing at least three people, including a child.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling also targeted other towns nearby controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham group. Syrian state media did not report on the shelling.

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