BY LEONID ISAEV
This piece first appeared at Intersection.
The Syrian regime, along with representatives of several rebel groups, resumed negotiations over the settlement of the Syrian conflict in Kazakhstan’s capital on January 23–24, after a break of over six months. Following the previous meeting, held in Geneva last April, attempts aimed at reaching a political settlement reached a standstill.
It would be premature to assess the results of the meeting in Astana since it was a priori intended to be an intermediary step, as evidenced by the low level of the representatives attending the talks (the Russian delegation, for example, was headed by Special Presidential Envoy to Syria Aleksandr Lavrentyev) and by the absence of a number of opposition groups. Hence the objectives set out by participants and organizers of the meeting were realistic and not overly ambitious.
Sergey Lavrov formulated the main goal of the Astana meeting in the run-up to the talks: extending the cease-fire agreement reached at the end of last year. Representatives of the Free Syrian Army confirmed their approval; however, they also demanded access to humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners. Officials in Damascus were not keen on honoring the cease-fire, which was repeatedly violated in Eastern Ghouta and Wadi Barada both before the meeting in Astana and while the talks were taking place, allegedly for humanitarian reasons; the violations of the cease-fire agreement were partly the reason behind Ahrar al-Sham’s refusal to go to Kazakhstan.
In line with the above, the main goal of the meeting in Astana can be defined as creating conditions for the resumption of the Geneva negotiation process in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was reflected in the joint statement issued by the representatives of Turkey, Iran, and Russia at the meeting’s conclusion in Kazakhstan. In this sense, the Astana process is little more than an attempt to accelerate the process of political settlement under the supervision of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, since it is precisely the Geneva format and not the Astana one that has a chance of leading to agreements being adopted throughout the entire Syrian territory and not merely in some of its regions.
Reducing the potential for conflict in Syria currently plays into the national interests of all three countries that act as guarantors of the cease-fire: Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Of all the external parties involved in the conflict, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara are the most active. Nevertheless, the advantages gained from their military presence in Syria need to be converted into political dividends as soon as possible. Otherwise they are at risk of being offset by the ever-increasing costs incurred by each of these three parties. This situation in particular helps explain this alliance of convenience, established in late 2016 between countries that otherwise could hardly be said to be allies. Moreover, the views they hold concerning postconflict Syria are radically different.
However, the problem lies in the fact that the troika’s efforts are currently proving insufficient to ensure a nationwide cease-fire, let alone to resolve the Syrian crisis. In fact, the northwestern area of Syria is the only region in which the mechanism proposed by the troika for controlling the truce could feasibly work. In this region, all three parties are in good shape to apply the necessary pressure to their allies “on the ground,” which could result in a relative lull. Despite some violations, the cease-fire has generally been observed on the whole since late December of last year. However, the key question is whether this truce will be a lasting one.
So far, actions carried out under the trilateral format, which succeeded the Russian-American dialogue as part of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), evoke a sense of déjà vu. Moscow and Washington were cochairs of the ISSG. The United States and Russia had already resorted to similar measures while preparing for the Geneva talks in order to create more favorable conditions for the negotiation process almost a year ago. Just as now, Russian-U.S. efforts did bring about a reduction in conflict potential in Syria. However, the main problem lies in the conflicting parties’ inability to arrive at a political solution that suits all parties.
Truth be told, this problem was never going to be resolved in Astana, as the initiators of the Astana talks did not manage to encourage direct negotiations between the parties, not to mention the fact that the number of participants paled in comparison to the number that participated in Geneva last spring. As a result, the role of Staffan de Mistura, who met each delegation in isolation on the sidelines in Geneva, in Astana was assumed by the troika, which acted as an intermediary in communications between the delegations of Bashar Jaafari and Mohammed Alloush. The fact that neither the opposition nor the regime was ready to adopt a more flexible approach, having departed from ultimatum-like, bilateral demands, proved less than advantageous also.
If the troika is to bring about a long-term cease-fire, it must do so in the near future. Apparently the Syrian opposition and Sergey Lavrov are holding a meeting in Moscow with this aim in mind on January 27. Discussions regarding the establishment of a Syrian constitution, as proposed by Russia, are on the agenda. The draft proposal was handed over to representatives of the opposition in Astana by Aleksandr Lavrentyev in a bid to make the talks in Geneva appear, at least to some extent, constructive. This is most likely the reason why the Geneva talks were postponed from February 8 to the end of the month, as announced by Sergey Lavrov. Geneva carries enormous reputational weight for Russia since if the negotiations produce no results, Russia will no longer be able to attribute that outcome to the “destructive” role of the United States or other “partners,” as it did a few times before. The stakes in Geneva are tremendously high while the results are unpredictable. That is why Moscow is being more cautious and contacting those whom it considered terrorists not so long ago.
The question as to whether Russia will be perceived by both the regime and the opposition as a reliable intermediary, which is the role Russia aspires to, remains unanswered. Officials in Damascus and Tehran increasingly observe engagement between Moscow and militant groups with utmost vigilance. The reputation of the Russian leadership, in the eyes of the rebels, is in tatters after last year’s bombing of Aleppo, which seriously undermined Russia’s credibility.
Finally, the success of the Astana process and the trilateral initiative overall will only be possible should new external participants be attracted to help guide developments in Syria: at least the U.S., the countries of the Persian Gulf, and Jordan. As it stands now, plans for the future of Syria and the conclusion of any agreements on Syria without the involvement of the Kurds, the Southern Front, and so on seem entirely unfeasible and cannot be implemented in practice. Hence the trilateral Russia-Iran-Turkey format is a good start for political dialogue surrounding Syria and can serve as a key venue for progress toward conflict settlement. However, whether the parties can build on this local success remains to be seen, given that they are forever at loggerheads.
Significantly different stances are held steadfastly by the troika countries, both with respect to the issue of settlement of the Syrian conflict and with respect to attracting new players to the negotiation process. No one should harbor any illusions that either internal or external players will be prepared to join the trilateral initiative under the terms set out by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Moscow, Tehran, and Erdogan’s Ankara have traditionally exhibited a reluctance to play by universal rules, as well as a desire to enforce their own moral and legal standards, which may prove to be a major stumbling block on the road to reaching a political compromise.