What Does Astana Bode for Next Week’s Peace Talks

For the first time since the war in Syria began six years ago, representatives from the Assad regime and the multiple opposition factions seeking its overthrow met face-to-face in a Kazakhstan conference room in an attempt to arrive at some minor understanding on tamping down the violence.  The initiative devised and sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey—the three countries that possess the most influence on the ground at this stage in the conflict—was never projected to be a Nobel Prize-winning event.  There was no chance, for instance, that Bashar al-Assad and the anti-Assad rebellion would have the political strength, courage, and fortitude to actually submit ideas for ending the conflict—let alone stay in the same room for more than an hour.  But the meeting in Astana was nonetheless better than no meeting at all—as insignificant as the discussions may seem from the outside, the fact that some kind of process occurred is a welcome break from the last nine months of zero diplomatic progress from the parties.

The two-day session ended with a vaguely worded statement from the guarantors of the process that Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara are committed to working with the Syrian regime and the opposition to shore up a shaky ceasefire across the country, monitor and punish any violations of that ceasefire, and smooth the way for the resumption of U.N.-sponsored negotiations scheduled to resume in Geneva on February 8.  Much like the U.S. and Russian-drafted ceasefires of the past, the tripartite declaration is short on specifics—the statement says nothing at all about the steps that Russia, Turkey, and Iran will take to ensure that violators on all sides of the war are sanctioned when the truce is broken.  A pledge to cooperate against the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is the same low-hanging fruit that Washington and Moscow grabbed during their own negotiating process.  And regardless of the communiqué’s support for the UN-led Syria peace process, there are still very legitimate concerns as to whether Tehran in particular will be a helpful partner genuinely committed to a Syria-owned political resolution or an intransigent player dedicated to the survival of Bashar al-Assad at all costs.

To the disappointment of some but to the surprise of virtually no one, a meeting that was billed by the Russians and the Turks as a direct negotiation between Assad diplomats and rebel representatives was extinguished after the opening statements.  The regime and the opposition worked in separate rooms and through mediators, convincing evidence if there ever was any that the parties engaged in the war still view one another as existential demons that need to be destroyed on the battlefield rather than potential negotiating partners.  Bashar al-Ja’afari, the Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. and Assad’s main negotiator in the Astana talks, continued to talk about the opposition as amateurs who know nothing at all about diplomatic etiquette, describing them as a bunch of bloodthirsty terrorists disguised in suits.  Mohammed al-Alloush, the main opposition delegate, referred to the Syrian government as a terrorist regime intent on destroying anything and everything in Syria if it means keeping power for itself a little longer.  These are not the words that one would use to begin a long, frustrating, but absolutely critical diplomatic channel to end the Arab world’s bloodiest conflict in the 21st century — particularly if the diplomatic channel is to survive the multiple obstacles that will line the road along the way.

The negative take on the talks, and not at all unjustified given how the diplomatic process has progressed since the conflict first started, is that Russia is using them to undermine the United Nations and solidify its position as a world leader. Even though the UN representative attended, the talks were outside of the UN umbrella, the United States did not send a delegation, instead having the US ambassador to Kazakhstan represent it. If the next round of UN-sponsored peace talks starts on February 8 as planned, Russia will be in a much stronger position for having organized these talks.

The more positive take is that the three major foreign powers in Syria’s conflict are trying to ensure that a weak ceasefire regimen lasts long enough for UN-mediated, intra-Syrian negotiations to have a fighting chance at producing something substantive and consensual. The deciding question will be whether Russia, Turkey, and Iran came to a consensus about enforcing the ceasefire and making the regime and opposition negotiate. Arriving at a consensus agreement among people who would rather kill one another is difficult enough in normal circumstances, but it is impossible if the regime has no incentive to not violate the ceasefire, and instead continues its campaign to retake all of Syria.  We can hope that Moscow’s involvement in the diplomatic process provides Russian leaders with more incentive to press Bashar al-Assad to act more responsibly. 

But hope, as the common mantra goes, is not a strategy; there has been no indication over the last six years that Assad is prepared to anything but re-capture every inch of the country.  The fact that his military is well past its breaking point and that his regime is dependent on foreign militias has not changed his overall military goal.  It will be incumbent upon the Russians to put enough pressure on Assad to get past his delusion of returning Syria to the pre-2011 status-quo.

UN envoy Steffan de Mistura is doing his level best with the resources he has.  But we should not get our hopes up for any magic formula to emerge next month.  If outside powers cannot impose a political resolution, and if Syria’s internal players aren’t willing to heed the demands of foreign dictates, then the war in Syria could unfortunately go on for another six years.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives for a news conference following Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov