In late 2016, the heads of Russia and Turkey proposed to hold talks in Astana. The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, during the telephone talks with Presidents Putin and Erdogan, supported this initiative and expressed readiness to provide a platform for such talks.
For the first time in the 6-year history of the civil war in Syria, representatives of the incumbent Syrian Government and the armed opposition directly involved in military operations met at the same table. The situation became possible due to the involvement of Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the preparation and organization of negotiations.
In the negotiation process, 15 insurgent groups numbering from 1,000 to 20,000 people were involved.
In fact, the separation of moderate opposition groups from terrorist organizations operating in Syria began.
Both the opposition and the government delegation were not ready for a direct dialogue. In addition, the list of participants from the opposition in the Astana talks clearly lacked representatives of a number of major opposition groups.
The question of the participation of Western partners in the January talks was considered separately by the organizers of the Astana process. In particular, a request was sent to the US side for the participation of US representatives in the upcoming consultations. However, the degree of involvement in the negotiations of such a significant player in the Syrian issue, like the US, was limited to the presence at the Astana meeting of the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol.
The united opposition was headed by Mohammed Allush, head of the Supreme Committee for the negotiations and leader of the combat group “Jaysal-Islam”.
The Syrian government delegation was led by Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, who noted Iran’s important role in the negotiation process as a coordinating link.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey were represented by the foreign ministers of these countries: Sergei Lavrov, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Representatives of the Syrian opposition passed their demands only to Moscow and Ankara, ignoring Tehran. Representatives of the official Damascus already refused to accept the preconditions. A joint communiqué was never signed. Nevertheless, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara issued a joint statement in which they expressed their commitment to the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and stipulated the impossibility of a military solution of the conflict. The final document was read by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Kairat Abdrakhmanov.
The document stresses that the international meeting on Syria in Astana is an effective form of direct dialogue between the government and the opposition.
The Russian side conveyed to the representatives of the armed Syrian opposition the draft of the proposed future constitution of Syria, which envisages the following changes:
– Renaming the Syrian Arab Republic to the Syrian Republic.
– Carrying out the process of decentralization of state power on the basis of the principles of national-ethnic federalism according to the model of “zones of association”.
– Strengthening the legislative role of parliament as opposed to the constitutional functions of the president. Implementation of the concept of secularism with the gradual weakening of Islamist law as a source of legitimacy.
After this meeting, several more rounds of talks were held in Astana. They were very important. So on the 4th of May, 2017, the Memorandum on the creation of zones of de-escalation in Syria was signed.
The statement of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is very important. He noted that “the Astana process is still the only one that brings results. This must be given due, considering the tragic situation in the region, where conflicts and bloodshed continue, “the head of Iranian diplomacy said. We are sure that Iran, Russia, and Turkey must continue to work to strengthen the Astana process, contributing to international efforts whose goal is to bring peace and stability to Syria and to seize all parties at the negotiating table” he added.
According to Mr. Zarif, thanks to the Astana process, many things have already been done to stabilize and improve the situation in Syria.”We need to consolidate these results by creating conditions for the work of observers, the provision of humanitarian assistance, as well as participating in the political process,” the minister added.
It can be said that the past rounds of negotiations led to a dialogue between the Syrian authorities and a significant part of the opposition. This is already good.
And, in general, negotiations for a settlement in Syria are actually not so much about Syria itself, as about the future configuration of the Middle East as a whole. The region is very important because it is close to Europe, there are a lot of people there, and also there are sacred places of the Abrahamic religions and significant reserves of oil and gas. That is why there are so many sides of the conflict, and far from all of them are located in this region – many beyond it, but still have some sort of allies inside Syria.
The conflict itself is also a challenge for negotiations: first, it is very large (millions of refugees, half a million dead), secondly, there is a split along ethnic, tribal and religious borders, which greatly exacerbates, and thirdly, sabotage is often used against enemy commanders. It turns out that people who ordered the killing of each other should sit down at the negotiating table.
In conclusion, it can be noted that the Astana negotiating process will continue, because the guarantor countries and the government of Syria are at least interested in it. But, to what it will ultimately result, depends on all the parties involved in the conflict and around it.
Mr. Leonid GUSEV, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow of the Analytical Center of Institute of International Studies of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of MoFA, Moscow, the Russian Federation.
Note: This paper was presented during the International Conference “Evolutions in Fighting Terrorism and the New Challenges of the Middle East”, held in Bucharest on the 5th of July 2017.