Another Stride Forward to Make Astana Talks on Syria Succeed

Another Stride Forward to Make Astana Talks on Syria Succeed

On January 8, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said he was prepared to negotiate on «everything» in proposed peace talks with rebels expected to take place in Astana, Kazakhstan, later this month. In his interview with French RTL, the president said «There's no limit to negotiations». Assad also said that he would be prepared to relinquish the presidency, should it become necessary.

According to him, warmer US-Russian ties under US President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration would help to resolve the Syrian conflict. Assad believes that the core of the six-year Syrian war is influenced by regional and international issues that depend «mainly on the relations between the United States and Russia». «If there’s a genuine approach or initiative toward improving relations between the United States and Russia, that will affect every problem in the world, including Syria», he said. It will «reflect positively on the Syrian conflict», the Syrian president added.

Thierry Mariani, one of the French lawmakers visiting Syria, said Assad was also willing to negotiate with rebel groups fighting against his government, excluding jihadist organizations. The Syrian president used to say before that he disregarded any opposition groups or figures supported by Saudi Arabia, Britain or France, including the opposition umbrella organization known as the High Negotiations Committee backed by Saudi Arabia.

These statements were made against the background of increasing Russia-Turkey rapprochement. In recent weeks, Turkey has been increasingly coordinating actions in the Middle East with Russia.The evacuation of opposition groups from Aleppo was a result of Russian-Turkish cooperation.  

Ankara guaranteed a Syria-wide ceasefire starting December 30 in the Moscow Declaration. By signing the document, Turkey recognized the sovereignty of Damascus bringing Moscow and Ankara positions closer. Turkey appears to abandon its previously declared goal of removing the Syrian president from power. It has made statements about the probability of normalizing relations with the current Syria government. Turkey is a key party to the upcoming Astana talks tentatively scheduled to begin on January 23 – the event President Assad has just supported.

It’s very illustrative that Russian experts arrived in Turkey on January 9-10 to align the positions before the Astana event.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran – the most influential actors in Syria – have announced their readiness to act as the guarantors of a possible peace agreement to be signed as a result of the Astana talks. This pledge raises the chances for finding ways to end the Syria’s crisis.

On December 31, 2016, the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported Resolution 2336, a Russia-drafted document enshrining the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan for Syria.

Cooperation is also indicated by the Turkish military command's statement that the Russian aircraft have bombed Islamic State (IS) targets south of al-Bab, Syria, in support of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield. This was the first time Russia provided air support for the operation. On Dec.29, Turkish President Erdogan said, «In our al-Bab operation, we do not get the slightest support from NATO, from so-called allied countries that have forces in the region».

The Russian-Turkish relations encompass military cooperation. Ankara has recently announced its interest in buying the Russian S-400 missile system to strengthen its national air defense. Both countries would look to establish a joint military, intelligence, and diplomatic mechanism. Industry sources say that Russia and Turkey can seek procurement deals in electronic systems, ammunitions and missile technology.

At the same time, Turkey does not take part in the US-led forces offensive to retake Raqqa from the IS. Before the New Year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated publicly that there is evidence that the coalition led by the United States provides assistance to terrorists in Syria, including the Islamic State. «We have evidence, including photos and videos», the president noted. Turkey questions the US-led coalition presence at Incirlik air base, which would be a major blow to the American-led air campaign.

The upcoming talks will effectively sideline the US and EU with their «Assad must go» precondition for diplomatic efforts. All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to make any progress in Syria have failed. As a result, their influence over the situation is waning. Perhaps, sidelining those who failed is the only way to pave the way for effective talks with tangible results.

The negotiation process won’t be a cakewalk. There will be differences and snags to overcome. But, unlike before, there are prospects for success in Astana because the three pertinent actors are present on the ground and enjoy real influence. Besides, their interest in positive outcome is real. The bloody crisis has been going on too long, it’s time to stop it. With results achieved other players may join.

And there is no time to waste because Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and other countries of Northern Africa as well as Afghanistan and Malaysia may fall prey to the Islamic State and other extremists. The experience gained in Syria will be of outstanding importance. The best deterrence to keep terrorists at bay is to make them know that influential actors can set difference aside and join efforts to defeat them. The Astana event may become a milestone in the fight against international terrorism.