FIRST-ever negotiations between the Syrian government and the Syrian armed opposition hosted by the Kazakh capital Astana remain a heated topic among analysts, experts, diplomats and journalists. Russia, Turkey, Iran — the counties acting as guarantors of the Syrian peace talks, as well as Staffan de Mistura, UN secretary general’s special envoy for Syria, and US ambassador to Kazakhstan, who took part in the talks as an observer, participated in the negotiations. The scale of the talks, arranged largely through the efforts of Moscow, was such that the participants could have resolved absolutely all, or at least the majority of the topical issues.
Though some experts and in particular journalists of certain views and from certain countries assess the significance of the event differently, though everybody agrees that the elaboration of strategy for the Syrian peace process was ‘rough and tough.’ Military experts meeting in Astana finally managed to identify the regions on maps occupied by Daesh terrorists and those controlled by the opposition. Participants of the Astana negotiations acknowledged for the first time ever that the resolution of the Syrian crisis would require much more than just military actions. They also expressed hope for a continuation of the Geneva peace talks.
A note was made that Riyadh and Doha had used every opportunity to oppose to the Astana negotiations and urged their accomplices to derail any agreements. For example, the Ahrar Al-Sham militant group that had refused to come to the negotiations is patronized by Qatar. Though Saudi Jaysh al-Islam came to Astana, its delegates had been trying to thwart the negotiations that had been arranged with great difficulties. Riyadh, which was reluctant to take up the role of an official peace process broker in the Astana negotiations, managed to secure its mercenary interests in Syria by ensuring the delegation is headed by a representative of a loyal faction.
Some observers still wonder why Turkey did not pull its lever of influence to ensure the Qatari Ahrar Al-Sham shows up in Astana. There is a rather reasonable opinion that Ankara and Doha are holding back this group in reserve, so as to employ it as a restraining tool if negotiations start moving in a ‘wrong direction’. After all, Ahrar Al-Sham, being one of the groups from the Russian defense ministry’s list of armed opposition groups, would fall under the ceasefire conditions and might hypothetically accede to the agreements later. In other words, not only Riyadh and Doha are playing with a stacked deck. The Russia’s current ally Ankara is acting rather suspiciously. But with this ‘fishing in troubled waters’, parties should keep in mind that they are playing with fire.
Meanwhile, opponents of the Syrian peace process have continued sabotaging ceasefire even after the completion of the Astana talks. At the end of January, Head of the Russian foreign ministry Sergei Lavrov met the ‘not armed’ Syrian opposition in Moscow. Though representatives of different factions of the Syrian opposition interested both in negotiations and in a peaceful settlement of the crisis have arrived in Moscow, the Riyadh backed opposition group (The Supreme Commission for Negotiations) ignored Moscow’s invitation as it had been disapproved by its Saudi masters.
The Moscow meeting turned out to be a litmus test, as it drew a clear line between the opposition seeking a peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict and those interested in its continuation to satisfy their selfish interests. Actually, shouldn’t those fanning the Syrian carnage be persecuted and tried according to the international law? Perhaps, this approach could sober warmongers up and put an end to the Syrian civil war instigated by external forces.
Today supporters of a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis are joining their efforts in an attempt to arrange and hold productive Geneva peace talks postponed to February 20. UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura justified the new date by saying that the United Nations wants to allow some time for the Astana initiatives to begin bringing fruit, ie Geneva talks would greatly benefit if Astana ceasefire initiatives take root. He also noted that the Syrian government needs some extra time to properly prepare for the event and come to Geneva with a solid strategy.
One of the major problems is to bring representatives of all the opposition groups together to form a single delegation. Opposition groups tend to act indecisively. At one point, they agree to sign ceasefire agreements, but at the other — abandon their commitments. Their seemingly irrational behavior is easy to explain: these ‘justice fighters’ are only puppets in the hands of their patrons. Another problem — opposition groups, no matter whom they represent, are rarely interested in the establishment of relations with each other. It is especially true for the Kurds, who come to the negotiation table as a separate group advocating its own national interest.
In this complicated situation, Moscow is trying to engage other countries of the region, Egypt in particular, to resolve the bloody Syrian conflict in a peaceful way. Moscow is not the only broker in the Syrian peace talks. Two other countries — Tehran and Ankara — are acting in the capacity of guarantors. Both Syria and Egypt note that implementation of the Russian initiative would drive the Syrian peace process. Ankara, however, objects the strategy put forward by Moscow. There was a radical cooling in the Turkey-Egypt relations after the Egypt’s military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. That explains why the Turkish authorities object Egypt’s participation in the Syrian peace process. They, however, should be reminded of the lesser of two evils principle and let go of grudges in the face of the Daesh threat.
Moscow is also advocating the return of Syria to the League of Arab States. Syria’s participation in this organization would foster stability and joint resolution of problems that have accumulated during the years of the crisis.
At the meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Jordan’s King Abdullah II assessed Russia’s actions in the Middle East and its role in the Syrian peace process and in the Middle East as ‘crucial’. In King’s opinion, Russia plays an important role not only in the resolution of the Syrian crisis, but also in the settlement of other regional conflicts.
As for the Syrian opposition groups and their foreign sponsors, ie Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, disagreements between them are deepening. These warmongers, allegedly asserting the rights of Syrians, in fact are advocating the fight until a ‘decisive victory’, or, as some of them say, until the ‘last Syrian is dead’. External enemies of the Syrian state turned the country into a ring where they settle their disputes. Syria has become a zone of religious confrontation between the Sunni and Shia of the region and its people — hostages of grim circumstances. Although the main political players in the Syrian conflict claim that they want Syria to remain a single indivisible State, the chances that the country could be split into three or four enclaves in the future are high. This ‘flawed’ policy has already been tested in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq.
If Syria is split, the stakeholders would face another challenge — the division of the sphere of influence. Would Syria follow in the footsteps of Lebanon where each party and each minister is backed by a different foreign master, and where the government system is so unstable that any minor argument between the stakeholders could lead to a major collapse? Given Syria’s economic worth, interested parties would have to work much harder (to compare to the case with Lebanon) to get a ‘slice’ of the ‘Syrian pie’. That implies that the way to the political stability in the country will be long.
New Eastern Outlook, February 9. Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, writes exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.
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