Latest round of Syria peace talks goes nowhere

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that, by March, the US election campaign will keep all parties too busy to interfere with his Middle East plans.
Sunday 15/12/2019
Syrian opposition representatives attend a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, December 11. (Reuters)
Little hope, if any. Syrian opposition representatives attend a session of the peace talks on Syria in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, December 11. (Reuters)

BEIRUT  - With little surprise, the 14th round of Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan ended December 11 with no breakthrough.

The three guarantors of the Astana talks (in the city now called Nur Sultan) hoped for confidence-building measures at the meetings, mainly related to the release of prisoners but that did not happen.

Damascus insists it will make no concessions before the guns go silent on the Syrian battlefield.

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in Kazakhstan to restore calm to the north-western province of Idlib but also pledged to eradicate terrorism in the area, without specifying who the terrorists were. The ambiguous wording was carefully crafted so as not to upset the Turks, who consider their Syrian proxies members of the moderate Syrian opposition.

Syrian officials consider them terrorists, however, no different from the Islamic State (ISIS) or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. No decision was reached on resuming military operations in Idlib with Ankara, Moscow and Tehran seemingly more focused on prioritising eradicating Kurdish ambitions east of the Euphrates River.

An October 13 agreement between Damascus and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stated that the Kurds would leave all areas that had been under their control since 2014 and facilitate their transfer to Syrian authorities. That happened in the strategic cities of Manbij and Raqqa but did not materialise in Malkieh, which is where the Remailan oilfields are situated.

The Kurds have been trying to wiggle out of their commitment, delaying, for example, dissolving the SDF and the People’s Protection Units, which were to merge with the Syrian Army by the end of December.

They are now saying they want to keep their flag and parts of their self-administration, which contradicts what they agreed to with the Russians and Syrians. The reason for this sudden change was US President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to keep US forces in Syria, ostensibly to protect the oilfields from ISIS.

Trump’s U-turn injected Syrian Kurds with new confidence, prompting many of their leaders to seek a revised agreement with Damascus, now assured that their US patrons were not leaving the area anytime soon. They only rushed into the hands of Russia after the United States said that it was leaving Syria, which coincided with Turkey’s October 9 operation into north-eastern Syria.

Their new position infuriated Russian negotiators who mediated the October agreement and, more so, the Turks who see continued Kurdish arms as a direct threat to their own security.

The Turks were willing to settle for the return of government troops along the border area, as long as the Kurds were contained and kept at bay. At Astana 14, Russia and Turkey strongly rejected Kurdish separatism and pledged to work towards “unity of Syrian lands.”

This will materialise with a joint effort to dismantle the Kurdish military groups, forcefully if needed, with full cooperation from Damascus. The three guarantors sharply criticised Trump’s decision to stay in Syria and to grab Syrian oilfields, saying this was an illegal occupation.

Politically, the three guarantors discussed how to move forward with the Syrian constitutional talks, which started in Switzerland in October but collapsed at their second round. Although a 45-member drafting committee was assembled, government negotiators insisted they would not start work before agreeing on a series of “national principles,” which forcefully condemned the Turkish operation in Syria — something Turkey’s proxies in the Syrian opposition can never commit to.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was never too enthusiastic about the UN-mandated constitutional talks in Geneva, seeing the process as the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry. He has been trying to shift the talks either to Sochi or Astana, where neither the United Nations nor the United States has a role.

Members of the Moscow Platform, a Russia-backed branch of the Syrian opposition, hinted that future rounds could take place in Damascus, after arrest warrants for opposition negotiators were ostensibly lifted by government authorities at the request of Moscow.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has said he wanted the chairmen of the constitutional committee to attend Astana, an indicator that Moscow wanted to lay claim to the entire constitutional process.

At the 14th round of talks, all sides pledged commitment to the constitutional committee, with no suggestions, however, on how to jump-start its stalled process.

The three guarantors fixed a date for their next meeting in Astana for March 2020, one month after the US presidential campaign starts in Washington. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely hope that, by then, all policymakers will be too busy to interfere with his ambitions in the Middle East and those of his Iranian and Russian counterparts.