Another round of Syrian talks was held in Astana on February 15–16. During the two-day meeting various talks have been held between Russia, Iran and Turkey with the participation of the government delegations of the Syrian Arab Republic and Syrian armed opposition, as well as representatives of Jordan and the United Nations.
The main outcome of the talks in Kazakh capital was a final agreement on the establishment of a joint group as part of Syria ceasefire monitoring mechanism with the participation of Iran, Russia and Turkey.
“The Astana platform is unique, and has, of course, proven its viability. It is the Astana platform where the most important issues are resolved, including issues of maintaining the ceasefire. I think that this is one of the priorities which will help in setting up a truly constructive political engagement,” said Russia’s chief negotiator at Astana talks on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev.
However, according to him, it is too early to consider the possibility of direct intra-Syrian dialogue.
“The reality of talks on Syria peace process shows that direct intra-Syrian dialogue is still far from being possible. As I said before, the level of mutual distrust is rather high and many mutual accusations still remain. But I believe that we must move ahead every time, step-by-step, without leaving any space for confrontation,” Alexander Lavrentiev said.
According to many observers, the agreement reached in Astana became possible largely due to the successful operation of Russian Air Forces and cooperation with Turkey and Iran.
In particular, victory in Aleppo has forced the countries, which have influence on the fighters, to move to negotiations and forced moderate opposition to start a real fight against Al-Nusra terrorists. According to several experts, this may become the beginning of the long war end.
Analyzing the situation in Syria, Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, former chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, distinguished global professor at New York University, foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, pointed to the strengthening of Bashar Asad’s position.
“The situation in Syria can be described as a consolidation of Bashar al Asad’s position that does not necessarily lead to a resolution of the Syrian crisis through the reestablishment of a unified Syrian state controlling the national territory through one central government,” he told PenzaNews.
In his opinion, this state of affairs is primarily the result of Russia’s military intervention on the Fall of 2015 and US policy of avoiding “boots on the ground” in Syria.
“The Astana Process reflects Russia’s diplomatic primacy in Syria but also its limitations. The process helps limit the violence to a level that the world can tolerate but cannot lead to a diplomatic solution. The Jihadist and the more moderate rebel groups are still entrenched in large part of the countries and neighbouring countries like Turkey, Jordan and Israel are looking after their particular interests. The Sunni Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia are still investing resources in order to prevent an Iranian Shiite victory and hegemony in Syria,” the analyst said.
He also stressed that the US policy under Donald Trump remains unclear.
“As in several other areas of foreign policy the Trump Administration is sending mixed and contradictory signals: talk of a ‘grand bargain’ with Russia and Pentagon sources speaking of a change in policy and sending US soldiers into combat in Syria,” Itamar Rabinovich reminded.
Thus a political diplomatic solution that would restore normalcy in Syria is not in sight, he believes.
“More likely is further consolidation of Asad’s control over part of the country and continued de facto partition of the rest of the country,” he said.
In turn, Kamal Sido, Head of Middle East Department of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), drew attention to the difficult humanitarian situation in the country.
“Today the situation in Syria is very complicated: civilian population suffers a lot. In particular, they do not have enough electricity, medicines and food in northern Syria, where my parents live. The Turkish authorities closed the border there. They continue to help Islamic extremists and militants and blocked the roads for humanitarian aid to the Kurdish population living there. There are reports that Turkey is trying to attack villages near Kobani,” the expert said.
He stressed that the Kurds condemn such movements by Turkey and expect particular actions from Russia to change the situation.
“Moscow and Ankara are cooperating in Syria, and we would like to see Russia having an impact on Turkey, so that it would not attack the settlements of Kurds, Christians and Assyrians in the north of Syria,” said Head of Middle East Department, STP.
Besides, in his opinion, Astana Process would be more effective with the Kurds participation.
“Of course, every peace negotiation on Syria is good, because the civilian population is tired of war, but we would like the representatives of all groups of the Syrian conflict to take part in these meetings. However, Turkey is opposed to the Kurds representatives in Astana. So, we also expect Russia to take certain steps in this respect,” Kamal Sido said, adding that the main goal is the end of hostilities and ceasefire respected by all parties of the conflict.
Meanwhile, Tor Bukkvoll from Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) expressed the opinion that Russian Air Forces operation provided necessary conditions for peace talks on Syria.
“In terms of assessing Russia’s contribution to the settlement of the conflict, it seems to me that there are many ways to a ceasefire. Russia chose a relatively brutal one, but it did lead to peace negotiations,” the expert said.
However, it is too early to speak about long-term truce and final completion of the acute phase of the conflict, he believes.
“Whether this will lead to a lasting peace, and by that justifying some of the carnage that has taken place, remains to be seen,” Tor Bukkvoll added.
In turn, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings University and author of several publications for The National Interest magazine expressed the view that Astana meeting cannot give an additional impetus to the Geneva process.
“I think the Geneva process is dead. We need a fresh start based on the goal of some kind of confederation, or autonomous zones for the Sunnis and Kurds,” the American analyst said.
According to him, these changes should be documented at legislative level.
“These zones should be codified in a peace deal and backed up by peacekeepers including Russians, Turks, Americans, and Arabs. Then we can all collaborate to keep going after ISIS and al Nusra (Front for Conquest),” Michael O’Hanlon said.
In turn, Dr. Vassilis Kappis, Lecturer in Security and Intelligence Studies, Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies (BUCSIS), The University of Buckingham, United Kingdom, said that Bashar Assad’s army has sufficient resources for further progress.
“The situation can be characterised as volatile but rather clear in terms of who holds the upper hand in tactical terms. Both the rebels and the Islamic State are on the defensive while Assad forces make slow but steady gains across multiple fronts. This indicates that the Syrian army remains a cohesive and capable fighting force, possessing the requisite logistical and warfighting capacity to carry on with a long – if necessary – war,” the British analyst said.
However, according to him, ISIS also shows certain resistance.
“The ongoing battle for the city of Al-Bab demonstrates that the Islamic State does not –at this point at least – face an imminent collapse. Its battlefield resilience is an ominous sign about the prospects of swiftly capturing Raqqa, even though recently SDF/YPG forces have achieved considerable territorial gains in the vicinity,” Vassilis Kappis said.
“The situation in the country’s north, finally, is complicated, as Euphrates Shield forces, consisting of Turkish and Syrian rebel militias, appear to have established a zone of control, thereby attaining Ankara’s goal to prevent YPG forces from uniting the Kurdish cantons in Syria’s north and thus consolidate Rojava as a de facto Kurdish entity along Turkish borders. The ability of Euphrates Shield forces to retain a long-term presence in the area is doubtful, however, with Syrian government forces just a few kilometres away from Al-Bab after recapturing various cities and villages in the Aleppo province,” the expert added.
In his opinion, Astana meeting was an important step towards long-term truce, which, however, does not guarantee a complete cease-fire.
“During the Astana talks, Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed to jointly oversee the truce, a condition that can be considered necessary but not sufficient for the long-term viability of a cease-fire agreement. The two main points of contention, however, remain unresolved: the nature of the political transition in Syria, and more particularly the future role of Assad and his regime, as well as the political status of the Kurdish-held areas, a subject of utmost significance to Turkey. It is no coincidence, in this regard, that both the rebels and Turkey dispatched low-level delegations in Astana,” BUCSIS expert said.
He also stressed that a number of influential rebel groups refuse to engage with the Syrian government while Turkey would like to avoid a compromise with regards to its ongoing operation in the country’s north.
“While Washington’s approach to the Syrian conflict has yet to be fully determined by President Trump, both Russia and the United States regard the Kurds as a reliable ally and an effective fighting force against the Islamic State. At the same time, both powers have been equally sensitive to Turkish security and geopolitical concerns. Overall, there is little doubt that in the coming months, all cards will have to be placed on the table, as players prepare for the endgame in the Syrian conflict,” Vassilis Kappis said.
In turn, Ilgar Velizade, Head of the Baku-based South Caucasus Club of Political Scientists, said that Syrian conflict is quite internationalized, and its resolution is only possible with the participation of all stakeholders.
“Despite the obvious successes in Aleppo and some other areas, fierce fighting is still under way near Al-Bab, in the very vicinity of Damascus, in the territories controlled by the ISIS in the north. In addition, the conflict directly involves foreign players: Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and indirectly some other countries. Of course, Russian operation in Syria and its significance can hardly be overestimated. Today Moscow is one of the major players and resolution of Syrian crisis is impossible without its weighty contribution” the expert said.
According to him, the Astana Process indicates the desire of key parties of the conflict to contribute to its early resolution.
“However, the meeting had a working character, and we could not expect more than the parties’ consent to continue negotiations – with the discussion of specific subjects and some details. Besides, there will be no comprehensive outcome without active participation of the United States, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, main forces of the Syrian opposition and the supporters of the current president of the country,” Ilgar Velizade said.
He also praised the role of Kazakhstan as a facilitator of the negotiation process.
“It requires a lot of courage to carry out this mission in such a difficult period of time,” the analyst said.
According to him, now it is necessary to think over the agenda of a major international conference on Syria under the UN auspices.
“Perhaps this conference with a clear agenda and specific agreements may give rise to a large peace process on Syria. And most importantly – there should be a strong political will of all the parties of Syrian crisis, their willingness to compromise in order to achieve the main task for today – suspension of active hostilities. The success they will achieve coping with this task will determine Syrian future,” the expert resumed.