The Astana peace talks achieved several things. Syria’s ceasefire still largely holds, the terrorists have been separated from other opposition groups and the next round of talks will be held in Geneva at the end of this month.
If February 2011 saw the beginning of the war imposed on Syria, February 2017 may witness the beginning of its end. Is there room for optimism when previous efforts had faltered as a result of untenable demands, especially by the opposition and their foreign sponsors? Given recent developments, there is room for some guarded optimism.
The two days of talks (January 23–24) in the Kazakh capital Astana between the Syrian government and opposition figures made limited but significant progress. In the first session on the first day, the participants at the intra-Syria talks initially traded allegations but later settled down, in separate rooms, to serious discussions. All parties agreed to continue with cessation of hostilities and working to extend this to other areas of the country. They also agreed to meet again in Geneva on February 8 to continue the talks under United Nations auspices (these were postponed to the end of February following talks in Moscow between Russian Foreign Minister Sergeo Lavrov and Syrian opposition groups on January 27).
Iran, Russia, and Turkey, the three countries sponsoring the talks, agreed to establish a trilateral mechanism to support the ceasefire and monitor possible violations of which there have been many, especially by the terrorist groups, since it went into effect on December 30, 2016. The final joint communiqué read by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov on January 24, underlined the importance of maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. It also stressed that there was no military solution to the foreign-imposed war on Syria; only a political process based on full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 could bring about peace in the country that has been shattered by war for six years.
Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Dr. Bashar al-Ja‘fari, headed his country’s delegation to the talks while Mohammed Alloush, a rebel commander, headed the Syrian opposition. It was a spectacle to see Alloush in his new plume — suit and tie and the beard nicely trimmed — discarding his military fatigues and the Kalashnikov. What was even more noticeable was the absence of swagger that had characterized the rebels’ demeanor in previous talks. Nor did they make the ludicrous — and untenable — demand that President Bashar al-Asad must resign before there can be peace in the country. The terrorists’ defeat in Aleppo has knocked some sense into their thick skulls. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has also caused panic in their ranks because he has said he would go after the terrorists. Trump repeated this assertion in his inaugural address following his swearing-in ceremony on January 20.
Two other features of the Astana talks were noticeable. The first was the sidelining of the US. Iran had objected to US presence. While Russia had extended an invitation, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said no joint invitation had been extended to Washington for participation in the talks. Aware of its diminished role in influencing events in Syria, the US decided to send its ambassador to Kazakhstan who took part in the meeting but only as an observer.
Two other troublemakers and principal instigators of the mayhem and terrorism in Syria were also not invited: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both had taken part in previous UN-sponsored meetings in Geneva and had played a disruptive role in urging the rebels to stick to maximalist demands. This time, the Syrian government put its foot down and insisted it would not allow Bani Saud and the Qataris to be present because of their support for terrorist groups in Syria.
Damascus’ allies Iran and Russia had insisted all along that the terrorist groups or their representatives — al-Qaeda offshoot Da‘ish, al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fath al-Sham — would not be allowed to participate in the Astana talks either. While there is little to choose between these well-known terrorist groups and other so-called moderate factions that merely keep on adopting new labels of convenience, the opposition groups have realized that they do not have many cards in their hands. Instead of losing everything, they decided to cut their losses and accept whatever deal was available.
On the urging of its friends and allies, the Syrian government has adopted a conciliatory approach. It has kept the door open for rebels and others to abandon violence, give up their arms and return to society in return for full amnesty. Many rebels have accepted the offer; others are seriously considering it realizing that their military prospects are rapidly dwindling with their foreign sponsors abandoning them. This has come about as a result of the steadfast support Iran, Russia, and Hizbullah have offered to Syria.
The Astana talks were proposed in the aftermath of the defeat of the terrorists and the evacuation of their families from eastern Aleppo on December 13, 2016 as Syrian forces backed by Russian air support and Iranian and Hizbullah fighters closed in on the city. The evacuation deal was worked out between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. That also paved the way for a ceasefire applying to the entire country, which has been largely holding except around Damascus where the terrorists have occupied a water reservoir preventing supply to parts of the city.
A day prior to the formal start of the talks in Astana, Syrian ambassador al-Ja‘fari made clear that these were intra-Syrian discussions. Only Syrians would take part while their friends were welcome to act as facilitators. “For us and for our Russian and Iranian friends, neither the Turkish side nor any other side will be taking part in the meeting, as it is an intra-Syrian dialogue among Syrians without foreign interference or preconditions, except for the common denominators that we talked about and which are supposed to be on the agenda,” al-Ja‘fari said.
This is what Iran and Russia have done, unlike the disruptive role played by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and until recently Turkey. The latter has finally had a change of heart realizing the futility of its position on Syria although it continued to represent the opposition point of view in the indirect talks.
Syria’s Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar said on the first day of talks (January 23) that they were also addressing the prospect of the Syrian government and opposition carrying out joint anti-terrorism efforts and an absolute differentiation of the opposition from terrorist groups. The opposition groups at the talks have also accepted this position.
Addressing the opening session of the meeting, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Jaber Ansari, heading his country’s delegation, thanked Kazakhstan for hosting the talks. He said the talks should ultimately seek to irreversibly end the confrontations in Syria. He highlighted the sufferings of war-stricken Syrians, many of whom have been displaced internally and externally, adding that people in some parts of the capital, Damascus, have no access to drinking water because the terrorists have blocked water supplies.
Ansari condemned warfare as “the most reprehensible representation of conflict of ideas and interests,” stressing the Syrian people’s right to self-determination and sovereignty. “Syrians are entitled to decide their own fate free from foreign meddling,” the senior Iranian diplomat said, adding that the parties who seek to prolong the crisis in line with their personal interests were preventing the people from exercising their rights.
He urged the international community to help stop the “illegal” flow of arms, funds and militants into Syria. These have come through Turkey and Jordan, facilitated in both instances by the regimes there with the active connivance of the US, Zionist Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Ansari also called for efforts to confront the takfiri terrorist groups, Da‘ish and al-Nusra Front that have been excluded from the ceasefire currently holding across much of Syria.
Perhaps the most optimistic assessment about the talks came from Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representative on Syria. Heading the Russian delegation to the talks, he said, “If at the beginning, the members of the [opposition] delegation were somewhat under stress, the level of distress significantly decreased.”
One hopes so, especially for the long-suffering Syrian people who have had to bear the brunt of the consequences of warfare, not the least of which is loss of life and dislocation, as a result of the six-year-long war, imposed by the friends of Israel.