What comes after 11 rounds of Astana?
The latest round of negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Assad-led government in Damascus in the Astana process was not expected to succeed. The Astana talks, which were sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey — all with varying degrees of interest in the Syrian conflict — began in January 2017 and have now gone through 11 series of meetings.
The Astana initiative has taken on several tasks, the first of which was to stop the fighting in Syria through de-escalation. The second task was to end terrorist groups. The third task was to resolve humanitarian issues, release detainees and secure the provision of humanitarian aid to besieged areas.
Its final task was to forge a solution to the Syrian crisis based on the return of refugees, reconstruction and consensus on a new constitution.
The UN-directed Geneva process, on the other hand, specifically envisaged bringing about political change acceptable to all parties to end the conflict.
The Astana process was outside the framework of international resolutions regarding Syria, including the 2012 Geneva Declaration regarding the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, and UN Security Council Resolutions 2118 (September 2013), which came after the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, and 2254 (late 2015), which drew up a detailed and time-bound plan to resolve the Syrian conflict.
Astana, however, was cloaked in distrust and doubts from the beginning. Even the countries involved have not complied with their commitments. In addition, Russia, Turkey and Iran have different agendas in Syria and have sought to strengthen their individual foothold there rather than find solutions to the nearly 8-year-long conflict.
Take the goal of stopping the fighting or de-escalating it. It has not been achieved by all parties. In fact, 2017 witnessed the climax of the military intervention in Syria by Iran, Russia and Turkey, which were supposed to secure a ceasefire in de-escalation zones.
Russia stepped up its air raids on Syrian opposition positions without giving the agreements a second thought. Iran-supported forces and militias increased their attacks on areas under armed opposition factions. Turkey strengthened its positions in northern Syria, particularly in Idlib and its countryside, by conducting two campaigns: Euphrates Shield (late 2016) and Olive Branch (2018).
As a result of these attacks, armed factions of the Syrian opposition lost practically all area under their control, except Idlib and its region.
Turkey considers Idlib and the surrounding area as part of its zone of influence and as its special card to ensure its input in any plans for Syria, just like Russia and Iran.
Turkey has additional goals in Syria. It is seeking to wipe out the influence of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its Syrian extension, the Democratic Union Party, from Afrin to the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, along with the Iraqi and Syrian borders with Turkey. Turkey sees this goal as ensuring its national security.
Turkey is also seeking to limit Iran’s influence in the Middle East and especially in Syria while strengthening its alliance with Russia since the latter is heavily involved in the Syrian conflict. Ankara wants to maximise its power assets in the region to shore up its position when it comes to its troubled relations with the United States.
Iran saw the de-escalation zones as a threat to its influence in Syria so it decided not to abide by the Astana guidelines and tried to make sure areas in the south, north and centre returned to the bosom of the Syrian regime.
As for Russia, its position in Syria is not an easy one with all these complications. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not acquiesce to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s request to maintain Turkey’s presence in the de-escalation zone in Idlib during the tri-partite summit of the Astana partners in Tehran on September 7.
He did, however, recant ten days later, during a Sochi bilateral summit, which took place without Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Putin gave in to Turkey’s request to maintain good bilateral relations with Ankara and because of pressure from a group that includes the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The conclusion is that the three Astana partners do not have total control of Syria’s future. Moreover, the Astana allies will not be able to turn the Syrian conflict and their military influence in Syria into a political victory for them without the United States’ blessing.
Washington is adamant not to proceed with Syrian reconstruction and the return of refugees without removing Iran and its militias from Syria and without a political transition in Damascus.
The crisis of the Astana process does not reside only in failing to agree on forming a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria. With or without a constitution, the requirements for stability in Syria have not been achieved. The situation in Syria will remain as it is until relevant parties, and especially the United States, deem otherwise.