Syrian regime and opposition representatives failed to reach a breakthrough during Thursday's talks in Kazakhstan, even as key power brokers Turkey, Russia and Iran sought to shore up a shaky ceasefire, delegates to the peace talks said.
The meeting was the second time key players Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have brought the warring sides to the Kazakh capital Astana. The talks come ahead of a new round of UN-led negotiations, scheduled to open on February 23 in Geneva.
The Syrian regime delegation and opposition representatives did not hold one-to-one talks in Astana, and no joint statement was agreed on after a final 40-minute meeting involving all the parties.
Turkey, which supports the opposition, and regime supporters Russia and Iran agreed to set up a joint monitoring group to police the fragile six-week ceasefire in Syria, brokered by Turkey and Russia in December.
Russia's role in Syria has grown since it threw its military weight behind regime leader, Bashar al Assad. Moscow's intervention stalemated the six-year conflict. But the Russian delegation says it remains optimistic of forward movement.
"The question of observing the ceasefire is being solved and we are hopeful to solve political questions too," Russian mediator Alexander Lavrentiev said on Thursday.
Lead opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush said that the meeting "didn't achieve anything practical" but indicated that Moscow had made several pledges.
Russia promised to stop shelling opposition areas and to help push for the release of political prisoners, according to Alloush.
Alloush also said the issue of a prisoner swap with the Syrian regime was raised and that separate talks in Turkey's capital Ankara would follow up on the issue.
Syrian regime officials said they are prepared to swap prisoners for people "kidnapped by terrorist groups."
Prosecution for war crimes
"The Astana meeting has paved the way for the next Geneva conference," lead Syrian regime delegate Bashar al Jaafari said, blaming Turkey and opposition it backs for the failure of the talks to produce a final statement on Thursday.
The opposition continues to object to Iran's military participation in Syria, Alloush said, adding that the issue was hampering progress in the talks with the Syrian regime.
Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari said that the sides were at "the beginning of a difficult road."
Ansari, who led his country's delegation, said the sides would meet again in "less than a month" in either Astana, Moscow, Tehran or Ankara.
In Damascus, Assad on Thursday in an interview with French media showed no sign he was ready for concessions.
He said his goal was to retake "every inch of Syrian territory." Such was the "duty of any government," the regime leader said.
Meanwhile a new body is being set up at the UN in Geneva to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria, UN officials and diplomats said on Thursday.
The General Assembly voted to establish the mechanism in December last year and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to name a judge or prosecutor as its head this month.
"We expect to start very, very shortly with just a handful of people," a UN human rights official told Reuters.
The team will "analyse information, organise and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes – primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – and identify those responsible," she said.
While it would not be able to prosecute itself, the idea is to prepare files for future prosecution that states or the International Criminal Court in The Hague could use.
The focus on prosecutions means evidence collected since 2011 by a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) may be sharpened into legal action.
The COI has issued 20 reports accusing the Assad regime, opposition forces and Daesh of mass killings, rapes, disappearances and recruiting child soldiers.
US stance on Syria
Largely sidelined by the Astana process is the US, whose secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is expected to be grilled on Friday by global peers seeking clarity about Washington's position on the Syria conflict ahead of the next round of UN-led peace talks in Geneva.
Tillerson will join a group of countries supporting the Syrian opposition for talks pushing for a political solution to the war on the sidelines of a G20 gathering in Germany.
US President Donald Trump says he is open to closer cooperation with Moscow on Syria, particularly in the fight against Daesh, leaving open the question of Assad's future.
"It's essential to know what the US administration has in mind," a European diplomat said ahead of Friday's talks in Bonn.
It will be the first meeting of the so-called "like-minded" nations – made up of around a dozen Western and Arab countries, as well as Turkey – since Trump took office in January.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is hosting the G20 meeting, said he wanted the "like-minded" countries to speak as one.
"It is clear that all who met want a political solution... and that this political solution must be achieved in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and that there cannot be any parallel negotiations," Gabriel said on Friday.
Al-Bab operation nearing end
Turkey's military said on Friday it was close to taking the northern Syrian city of al-Bab from Daesh, a victory that would deepen Turkish influence in an area where it has created a de facto buffer zone.
Al-Bab is a Daesh stronghold 30 km (20 miles) from the border. It has been a key target in Operation Euphrates Shield, launched by Turkey last August to secure its border with Syria and clear the region of terrorists.
"The operation to gain complete control of the al-Bab region has neared its end and the resistance of the Daesh terror group has largely been broken," the Turkish military said.
Friday's statement walked back to a degree an earlier claim by the military that the battle for al-Bab was "over."
"Congratulations to all of us, the al-Bab operation is over," the Daily Sabah newspaper on Thursday quoted Turkey's Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar as saying.
Turkey's Defence Minister Fikri Isik on Friday said that the military's goal after al-Bab would be advancing on the town of Manbij, followed by the city of Raqqa, Daesh's de facto capital in Syria.
TRT World's Ediz Tiyansan has more from Gaziantep, on Turkey's border with Syria.