Astana talks achieve mixed results although crucial issues broached

As the debate draws on, planners in Moscow are growing concerned that the Kremlin will be left bearing the burden.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Officials attend a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, August 2. (Reuters)
Modest objectives. Officials attend a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, August 2. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Results from the 13th round of Astana talks on Syria were limited, as expected, but there was reported progress on establishing a ceasefire, forming a constitutional committee and mulling reconstruction.

The talks August 1-2 in Kazakhstan were sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Representatives from Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and the United Nations attended as observers.

Expectations for the Kazakhstan talks, which began when the country’s capital, now Nur-Sultan, was called Astana, were limited. Beginning in January 2017, the negotiations were intended to complement the United Nations’ Geneva process on Syria, which stated in 2014.

For many Western observers, the Astana process was considered a bid by Russian President Vladimir Putin to stake his claim to a central seat at the diplomatic table as the conflict in Syria drew down. While progress across both processes has been faltering, they have maintained a dialogue between many of the conflict’s principal actors.

On completing the latest round of talks, all parties expressed satisfaction towards establishing a constitutional committee.

However, there was no indication as to who might sit on that body, only that it would convene in Geneva at the earliest opportunity. Delegates committed to reducing civilian casualties within the conflict while protecting Syria’s territorial integrity.

There was a call for the United Nations to deliver aid as soon as possible and without precondition, a key test for Western diplomats wary of offering any form of recognition to the Assad regime.

The most significant gain appeared to have been secured during the first day of talks, with the announcement that Russia and the regime’s bombardment of Idlib would be halted, allowing Turkey an opportunity to marshal its forces in the area.

With large parts of Syria reduced to rubble and living conditions of many Syrians, residing either within the country or the sprawling refugee camps of its neighbours, desperate, the argument for reconstruction is growing increasingly urgent.

As that debate draws on, planners in Moscow are growing concerned that the Kremlin will be left bearing the burden.

“Russia finds itself in a quagmire,” former US Ambassador William Courtney, of the RAND Corporation think-tank, said. “It continues to support the brutal Assad regime but worries that Syrians will come to blame Russia for destroying much of their country and for not helping to rebuild it.”

For Moscow, the chances of European powers contributing to the country’s reconstruction without first achieving tangible progress in the Geneva process are slim. To this end, the Astana process has rarely been more vital to Russian interests.

“This is the quagmire for Moscow. For the Geneva process to succeed, the Kremlin must pressure the Assad regime to cooperate, thus, to some extent, jeopardising its relationship with Damascus, including its hopes for a ‘great power’ role in Syria and permanent naval and air bases there,” Courtney said.

Without European involvement, “much of Syria could remain a wasteland, an enduring reminder of Russia’s destructive role there,” he concluded.

Whether Astana can achieve those ends is unclear. While the UN talks have maintained a broad remit, hoping to bring a stable peace to Syria, the Astana process has been more limited.

“Astana’s stated objectives were always more modest,” IHS Markit Principal Analyst Ege Seckin said, “focusing on tactical military deals rather than political ‘grandstanding’.”

“Each party in the Astana, (process) has its own reasons for being there,” Seckin said. “For Russia and the Syrian government, the ceasefires provided them with time and space to consolidate territorial gains, while dividing the opposition, with some groups, particularly in Idlib, refusing to cooperate outright.

“For Turkey, Astana served to restrain Syrian government advances into opposition-controlled territories, such as Idlib, which would risk triggering new refugee influx towards its borders. Being a member of the tripartite mechanism also provided Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria with some form of political legitimacy.”

While the Idlib ceasefire may have bought Turkey time, it was unclear whether Ankara will be willing to engage with the province’s principal jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Until HTS can be disbanded or contained, it will remain a threat to Damascus and Russia.