Astana talks change the rules on Syria negotiations

Sunday 29/01/2017
Talks in Kazakhstan torpe­doed Geneva I

Beirut - Russian-sponsored Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh­stan capital Astana were declared a success by all parties involved, except perhaps the Syrian opposition.

The January 23rd-24th gathering was the brainchild of Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin, who wanted to draw up new terms of reference for any future negotiations between the Syrian government and its op­ponents.

The benchmark for previous talks had been the Geneva communiqué of 2012, better known as Geneva I. That called for regime change in Da­mascus and the creation of a Tran­sitional Government Body (TGB) to rule Syria instead of President Bashar Assad during a transition period.

The Russians agreed to that ter­minology five years ago but, since their game-changing intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015, they have been working to hammer out a very different endgame for the conflict.

The talks in Kazakhstan torpe­doed Geneva I and made no men­tion of the TGB, which was music to Putin’s ears. “Transition govern­ment” was crossed off by the Rus­sians and replaced with the vague phrase “political process”.

Moscow also created a legal docu­ment that Syrian negotiators can take with them to Switzerland when they meet there in late February. The new terms for any negotiations will be the Astana Communiqué, Putin’s endgame.

The talks succeeded in excluding all major regional and international stakeholders from the Syrian con­flict, except Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Saudi Arabia, a key rebel sup­porter that has long sought Assad’s overthrow, was very visibly cut out as a participant in the negotiating process, along with Qatar, France and the United States, which was only symbolically represented by its ambassador to Astana.

There is seemingly an unspo­ken agreement between the three big patrons of the Astana talks to gradually sideline the foreign-based Syrian opposition from the process, transforming its members from ne­gotiators and decision-makers into advisers to the armed opposition.

The Astana conference is now seen as the benchmark for the next stage of UN-mandated talks in Ge­neva.

In their final communiqué at Astana, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to mention the Vienna pro­cess of late 2015 and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

These positions, engineered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for the creation of a national unity cabinet in Damascus that would supervise a new consti­tution and elections in Syria, with­out specifying whether these would be parliamentary or presidential polls or both.

At the end of the conference, the Russians distributed a draft of a new Syrian constitution to the op­position delegation, asking for its comments.

Turkey made no mention of what Assad’s future might be or even whether it might be necessary for him to depart before the transition period could start.

The Turks have long demanded that Assad must go but of late they have sidestepped the issue amid speculation they were bowing to Russian and Iranian insistence the Syrian president must stay, if only for a time to get the process under way.

The Turks promised to guarantee that their proxies in Syria would respect the nationwide December 30th ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey and help with the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) while similar guarantees were made by the Russians on behalf of their prox­ies, the Syrian Army and Iran on be­half of Hezbollah.

To the disparate Syrian opposi­tion, Astana was a flop. Its members argued it showed just how far Tur­key had gone with its rapproche­ment with Russia, clearly at the re­bels’ expense.

From this standpoint, the Turks are no longer interested in bring­ing down the regime in Damascus, certainly not after the sweeping Russian-backed military victory in Aleppo in December, which de­prived the rebels of their last major urban stronghold.

The rebels’ Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, led by for­mer Syrian prime minister Riyad Hi­jab, was not invited to Astana. That was a clear message that the rebels, with their militias, were more im­portant in the endgame than for­eign-based opposition figures who have not been in Syria for years and do not have the same influence with rebel fighters.

Hijab and other politicians were invited to Moscow on January 27th to discuss the outcome of the Astana talks in what appeared to be an effort to create a united delega­tion to represent the opposition in Geneva. However, Hijab and the others, including the former and current presidents of the Syrian Na­tional Coalition, were invited only as individuals, not as leaders of op­position party organisations.

This underlined how the Russians are steadily dismantling the Saudi monopoly over the opposition and that, from now on, the opposition delegation will only include figures who are either Moscow-backed or considered regime-friendly.

Finally, Astana was intended to prove that talk of major differences between Tehran and Moscow is not true. Although their strategic ob­jectives diverge, Moscow appears to have agreed to divide their roles in Syria and is coordinating closely on an endgame in which the regime stays on in one form or another.