Russia’s chief negotiator at a sixth round of Syria peace talks in Astana said that a formal agreement on the establishment of four "de-escalation zones" in the war-torn Middle Eastern country was “very close.”
Aleksandr Lavrentyev said in the Kazakh capital on September 14 -- the first day of the two-day gathering -- that cosponsors Russia, Iran, and Turkey “are very close to signing an agreement on the creation of all four zones." *
The Astana negotiators hope to finalize plans for the fourth proposed zone, which would be centered around northern Idlib Province near the Turkish border.
Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a memorandum in May that called for the creation of the four zones. Russia has moved to establish three of them and there has been a drop in violence between combatants.
Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in the more than 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
CORRECTION: This story has been amended to clarify that Lavrentyev spoke of agreement on all four zones.