The meeting in Astana is unlikely to lead to the solution of the Syrian crisis, but the very readiness of competing actors in Syria to engage in dialogue is an encouraging sign.
Today, 23 January 2017, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is hosting political consultations between the Syrian government and the opposition in an attempt to resolve the Syrian conflict. The negotiations were initiated by Russia and Turkey, with Iranian support. The main Syrian opposition bloc, including the High Negotiations Committee and representatives of the Free Syrian Army, is supporting the initiative.
Support of these negotiations by the above-mentioned parties to the conflict is to a large extent a result of the general fatigue of both government forces and opposition groups, who have suffered serious losses in Aleppo in recent months.
The meeting has been made possible by the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey on the Syrian issue, which took place at the end of 2016. The outcome was an agreement on a ceasefire, which came into force in late December. The seriousness of Russia’s intentions manifested itself, among other things, in the Russian Navy’s aircraft carrier group leaving the Mediterranean. On January 18, the trend towards widening this cooperation was confirmed by joint Russian-Turkish airstrikes in north-western Syria, directed against Islamic State.
This cooperation between Russia and Turkey – countries that previously supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict – is perhaps the main reason for optimism. In addition, the Russian-Turkish initiative could potentially contribute to the success of negotiations under the leadership of the United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis, Staffan de Mistura, which will start in Geneva in early February.
The choice of venue for the meeting is also revealing. It is not only about the close relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia; by hosting this meeting, Kazakhstan is promoting its status as a respected international peace broker.
Participants at the meeting in Astana will discuss opportunities for prolonging the truce, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the release of captives, as well as (probably) the issue of a referendum on the country’s new constitution, which is crucial to Syria’s future.
Any assessment of the prospects of these negotiations is a complicated matter for several reasons. It is still unclear to what extent the Syrian government is ready to make concessions. The behaviour of the Syrian opposition, as experience confirms, is also difficult to predict. Given Donald Trump’s recent inauguration, it is still uncertain how the new US administration will respond – namely, in what direction the Syrian (and indeed the wider Middle Eastern) policy of the White House will evolve. Finally, the possibility of provocation from various sides remains high.
Preparations for the meeting in Astana have also been accompanied by speculations of a different kind, most notably the story of the invitation of the new American administration’s representatives to the negotiations.
Moreover, it is not difficult to predict that the absence of Kurds among the negotiators will be a weak point in this initiative; without taking Kurdish interests into consideration, it is hardly possible to expect a sustainable solution to the conflict, either in Syria or in neighbouring Iraq. In this context, the strict refusal of Ankara to recognise the Kurds fighting in Syria as a party to the conflict is bound to become a serious obstacle on the way to a desirable settlement.
One of the most important circumstances that must certainly be kept in mind during the meeting is the fact that Syria today is a breeding ground for international terrorism, where organisations such as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are gaining fighting experience and a platform from which to spread their activities. The terror attacks in Europe over the past two years demonstrate that the intentions declared by these organisations are not idle threats, and their activities in the propaganda war also unfortunately seem very effective.
In addition to all of this, the war in Syria is one of the main sources of the ongoing migration crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean. The longer the conflict lasts, the smaller the chances of Syrian refugees returning home. Such a return could not only help restore the country, but also reduce social and economic pressure on those countries that continue to receive floods of refugees.
Finally, the civilisational dimension of the crisis should not be disregarded. Throughout its long history, Syria has been a region where different ethnic groups and religious denominations were able to get along with each other. Today, the very existence of this cultural mosaic is under threat. The acting Syrian authority in Damascus, whatever its numerous critics might say, is currently the only reliable force in the country capable of preserving the secular character of the state and upholding tolerance for Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities – a fact that has been repeatedly proven over the course of this long conflict.
In a crisis where so many multiple interests are intertwined, it is hardly possible to predict the outcome. With a certain degree of confidence, one can only suppose that the conflict will persist for a long time and will only be successfully settled when the key players involved in the process are truly ready to cooperate. Should the Russian-Turkish rapprochement continue and a kind of détente between Russia and the US take place, we will have good grounds to hope for effective progress on the way to a settlement.