Russia’s chief negotiator at a sixth round of Syria peace talks in Astana says that an agreement to establish a fourth safe zone in the war-torn Middle East country is “very close.”
Aleksandr Lavrentyev said in the Kazakh capital on September 14 -- the first day of the two-day gathering -- that co-sponsors Russia, Iran, and Turkey “are very close to signing an agreement” on the so-called “de-escalation zone.”
The Astana negotiators hope to finalize plans for the fourth proposed safe zone, which would be centered around northern Idlib Province near the Turkish border.
Russia previously established three other Syrian safe zones, which have seen a drop in violence between combatants.
Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the six-year civil war that has cost an estimated 330,000 lives, while Turkey and the United States support different rebel groups.
Earlier on September 14, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said experts from Russia, Turkey, and Iran held consultations focusing on forces that those three countries plan to deploy within the safe zones.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ahead of the gathering that Moscow hopes agreements on the fourth zone would be formalized at the meeting.
Russian military officials have said Moscow wants Russian military police to be deployed in Idlib Province to monitor a cease-fire that is part of the de-escalation plan.
Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, and a Syrian government delegation arrived in Kazakhstan's capital on September 13 for the talks.
Some rebel groups are also in Astana, while the United States, Jordan, and the United Nations have sent observers.
The UN sponsors separate talks in Geneva that focus on a political solution to the conflict, while the Astana negotiations deal with cease-fires and battlefield issues.
The U.S. delegation is headed by David Satterfield, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.
The U.S. State Department said Satterfield would "reinforce U.S. support for all efforts to achieve a sustainable de-escalation of violence and provision of unhindered humanitarian aid."
But it said Washington "remains concerned with Iran's involvement as a so-called 'guarantor' of the Astana process."
The U.S. government is concerned about calls for Iranian forces to also be deployed as cease-fire monitors.
It says Iran's "activities in Syria and unquestioning support" for Assad's government "have perpetuated the conflict and increased the suffering of ordinary Syrians."
Syrian opposition fighters also reject the idea of Iranian forces being given a role as cease-fire monitors, saying they are not neutral forces.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Kazinform, TASS, Izvestia, and Interfax