Astana Talks: Tangible Step Forward to End Syria’s Crisis

Astana Talks: Tangible Step Forward to End Syria’s Crisis

The Astana talks on Syria ended up without breakthroughs. No sensational news hit the headlines. But there are results significant enough to pave the way for the resumption of UN-brokered intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Switzerland. «We are hoping very much that the Astana talks will be a sound basis in order this negotiating process can be continued in Geneva», said Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II on January 25.

The «troika» of organizers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – affirmed their commitment «to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multiethnic, multireligious, nonsectarian and democratic state». The three expressed their conviction «that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process». A joint communiqué released in the aftermath of the talks underlined the need for the continuation of the nationwide ceasefire in Syria and noted that talks would be held once more under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva on February 8.

The Astana event was the first time the representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition groups sat around the same table face to face since the conflict began in 2011. The parties agreed to listen to each other without walking away – a noteworthy achievement. A direct contact was established between the Syrian government and armed groups of the opposition. On the sidelines, they conceded that ending the bloodshed is the key priority. The talks underscored basic demands such as separating the rebels from the terrorists. With all the differences in existence, the rebels talked with one voice to make the negotiations easier.

The armed opposition agreed that the Syrian crisis has no military solution. The agreement that it will participate in further negotiations regarding the Syrian reconciliation was a major achievement. The sides also agreed to jointly fight the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) – the extremist groups left out of the peace talks.

Iran strengthened its role as an actor who takes responsibility for cease-fire by using its influence on Shiite militias and Hezbollah. 

It's the first time Washington did not play the main role in talks as the US wasn't among those making the conference. The United States was represented at the ambassadorial level. The Trump administration did not obstruct the process in any way.

The ceasefire will be monitored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. They agreed to: «Decide to establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, to prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire». This is the key part of the final joint statement. The role of UN in the crisis management was emphasized. The parties agreed to establish a mechanism, which is to be in place by the time the UN-sponsored Geneva talks kick off on Feb. 8. According to the head of the Russian delegation in Astana, Aleksander Lavrentiev, the work of the trilateral operative group, which will monitor the ceasefire, will be started in February. Representatives of the Syrian armed opposition would be also invited to work together with the group.

Russia presented a draft constitution of Syria. The blueprint document written by Russian experts is based on ideas from the Syrian government, opposition and regional powers. It proposes a seven-year term for president without the right to seek re-election. It also suggests that the country will have a parliament with two chambers and rejects Islamic sharia as the basis for law. The draft could be debated, amended, altered or even rejected but that’s a start to give impetus to the peace effort underway. It’s important that the armed opposition expressed its readiness to work on the new constitution.

The conference was not just another routine «talks about talks» meeting. The event took place because the situation changed after the Aleppo victory held by Russia-supported Syrian forces. The changes on the battlefield made the Astana talks possible. Besides, the emerging Moscow-Ankara cooperation made the Turkey-influenced groups join the process.

All told, the results are extremely important as they take the settlement efforts to a qualitatively new level. The sole fact that the Syrian government and rebels have finally met and talked is a positive trend. UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, praised the Astana talks and noted that the UN commends Russia, Iran and Turkey for deciding to establish a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire in Syria.

The continuation of the negotiation process won’t be a cakewalk. There are serious obstacles to overcome. Only a fraction of the hundreds of armed rebel groups were represented in Astana - mostly those backed by Turkey. Iran is opposed to widening the process by bringing in the US or its regional Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

Though the armed opposition groups support a political solution based on UN auspices, they still demand the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and are not going to engage in any talks with Iran. The Kurds are a powerful force on the ground not included into the negotiation process.

As experience shows, the organizers of the talks should put forward initiatives acceptable to the warring sides, otherwise the process will be stalled. This is a lesson to learn.

Much will depend on the position taken by the new US administration. It is still to articulate its stance on Syria. Donald Trump has said he wanted to cooperate with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group. If so, Astana could be an important moment for crisis management in Syria, and maybe a start to normalizing the US-Russia relationship.

The talks were just the start of a long and extremely complex process. There is a long way to go. There will be obstacles artificially created to hinder the talks. There will be bilateral confidential negotiations before multilateral meetings. But the launched Astana process is unique. Never before an attempt to jumpstart multilateral negotiations on Syria ended up with any results. This time it’s different. It’s a start sparking hope. Russia, Turkey and Iran should be given credit for what they have achieved.