Russia takes the initiative at Astana talks in Sochi

The opposition delegation failed to secure a postponement of the upcoming battle for Idlib in north-western Syria.
Sunday 12/08/2018
A Syrian woman talks on a mobile phone next to a poster of President Bashar Assad with Arabic that reads, “Assad has Triumphed,” in Damascus. (AP)
Syria’s endgame. A Syrian woman talks on a mobile phone next to a poster of President Bashar Assad with Arabic that reads, “Assad has Triumphed,” in Damascus. (AP)

BEIRUT - The tenth round of the Astana talks have wrapped up, this time in the Black Sea resort of Sochi rather than in the capital of Kazakhstan. Saturated with the Syrian conflict, international and regional media did not pay much attention, although several developments happened, making Astana 10 different — symbolically and substantially — from previous rounds of the Syrian peace process.

The choice of venue was noteworthy. When the process began in 2017, the Russians insisted on neutral territory — not in Russia, Turkey, Iran or Syria. That seemingly has vanished, with the Russians no longer claiming impartiality and setting the talks at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite meeting spot, a decision marked with high symbolism.

Second, Astana 10 ended all wishful thinking about the Russians applying pressure on Damascus to democratise and hand power to the opposition. The political process has morphed from creating a “Transitional Government Body” with “full-executive powers” (as stated at Geneva I in 2012) into “discussing the constitutional committee” and the return of refugees.

Both are Russian projects and not a single US diplomat was present to object because the Trump administration is apparently uninterested in what happens in Syria at a micro-level, surrendering, it seems, to Putin’s version of an endgame.

Also interesting was the composition of the opposition delegation at Astana 10. During previous rounds, only military figures attended, creating a major fissure between the political movements that boycotted the talks and the armed opposition that attended.

This time, both camps were present, through low-grade figures who were largely unknown but who had no previous stances that would limit their bargaining options. That means none of them had climbed the ladder too high with aggressive statements about the regime, making it easier for them to sign any agreement that would have been too difficult for men like Mohammad Alloush of the Islamic Army or Khaled Khoja of the Syrian National Coalition. It occurred against the backdrop of thundering setbacks for the armed opposition, both in East Ghouta and throughout southern Syria.

Six representatives of the armed opposition attended the talks in Sochi, along with four from the National Coalition, which had previously shunned such gatherings and demonised attendees as traitors.

The new head of the National Coalition, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, a Turkish protege, was absent but representing him quietly was his special envoy, Mohammad Salim al-Khatib, along with coalition members who are all part of the Saudi-backed camp. This means Saudi Arabia’s position on the peace process has softened and that, even if unwilling to join it, Riyadh is not going to bring it down.

The opposition delegation failed to secure a postponement of the upcoming battle for Idlib in north-western Syria, which is scheduled for September. They were also unable to talk the government delegation into confidence-building measures, such as a general pardon.

What they did discuss, albeit indirectly through UN personnel, were two lists submitted for a committee charged with reviewing the Syrian Constitution. No agreement was reached on when it would start work, how long it would take to finish or where its meetings would take place.

Additionally, the two sides did not decide on whether to amend the present constitution or write a new document and no agreement was reached on who would create this committee — Syrian President Bashar Assad, the United Nations or the Sochi conference.

Only names were discussed at Astana 10, given that both sides had forwarded lists of 50 candidates for the committee, although the panel itself was fixed at 50. Half the names must be crossed off before progress is made and Damascus insists that it gets majority representation on the committee. It is unlikely the committee will convene before 2019.

The Russian strategy for returning refugees took up the largest portion of the talks, given that Moscow hopes to repatriate approximately 2 million refugees by the end of the year and re-establish regime legitimacy in the process.

Putin is serious about being remembered as the person who solved what has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster since the second world war. The return of refugees would help attract foreign aid, much needed in Damascus to feed, school and house the returning citizens.

Moscow talked its Syrian allies into facilitating the comeback, through dropping arrest warrants and postponing conscription into the armed forces, along with providing basic services and construction material to rebuild homes.

Russia is asking the opposition to cooperate as well, either to talk its constituency into going home or, at a minimum, not preventing them from doing so.