The eight round of Syria peace talks sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey began today in the Kazakh capital of Astana, the Iranian media reported. Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari is representing Iran at the meeting, while Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, leads Moscow’s delegation. The Turkish delegation is headed by Sedat Önal, the deputy undersecretary of Foreign Ministry. According to the Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, representatives from the Assad government, Syrian opposition groups, the U.N, Jordan and the U.S. are also attending the talks. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is expected to join the talks tomorrow.

Comment: The meeting in Astana is expected to discuss the implementation of the so-called de-escalation zones in the war-torn Syria. Russia, Iran and Turkey are the three guarantor states these zones that are largely in opposition-held regions. Despite the ceasefire agreements, however, the Assad and Iranian-led forces, backed by Russian air support, have continued an aggressive military campaign in some of these areas. Indeed, pro-Syrian regime forces have used the de-escalation agreements more to expand its territorial control than prepare the ground for peace and a political settlement with the opposition.

Air strikes, for example, killed 19 people, including seven children, in Idlib Province on Wednesday. The rebel-held province, which borders Turkey, is part of the de-escalation agreements. Similarly, pro-regime forces have relentlessly bombarded Eastern Ghouta, a region close to Damascus where hundreds of thousands of people remain trapped. According to the Syrian Observatory, more than 200 civilians have been killed in air strikes in Eastern Ghouta since November.  

The ongoing Astana meeting is also expected to discuss the creation of a “national congress” of Syrian government and opposing forces to be held in the Russian city of Sochi next year.

The Astana talks come a week after a parallel U.N.-sponsored conference on Syria in Geneva failed to produce peace negotiations between Damascus and opposition groups.