There has been quick and intensified diplomatic activity in Syria ever since Aleppo’s fall. Many agreements have been signed and the political process has been divided over three phases. They’ve also set dates and meeting places for holding negotiations. On January 23, they will meet in Astana to negotiate solidifying the truce in Aleppo and the ceasefire across Syria. On February 27, they will meet in Geneva to hold the negotiations for a peaceful solution. The Iranians, Turks and Russians agreed to guarantee the ceasefire. The Iranians refused to include Saudi Arabia at the Astana talks, according to the Iranian minister of defense. Meanwhile the Russians said the Saudis’ participation was essential but they did not clarify in which phase of the roadmap.
The conference at the Kazakhstani capital, Astana, neither enjoys international consensus nor legitimacy. The international parties interested in the Syrian crisis, like Germany and France, suspect it and it seems the UN’s role in it is limited. The Iranians, the Turks and the Russians decided to meet in Astana and bring fighters from the Assad regime and the armed Syrian opposition to the table of preliminary arrangements in this city which is considered to be affiliated with Russia.
The organizers say that five weeks after this Astana meeting, they will hand over the issue to the UN to hold the negotiations for a political solution in Geneva. So will Astana witness a conference to impose surrender on Turkey and Syrian opposition parties - like what happened in the Safwan negotiating tent where Saddam Hussein signed the defeat document following the Kuwait war? Or will Astana witness a conference to arrange for a truce and a preliminary reconciliation that precedes negotiations? It’s really suspicious.
It seems the Russian-Iranian aim is to drag the armed Syrian opposition forces to a slow negotiation process while they enjoy freedom of movement and violate the ceasefire in the areas they want in order to pressure armed groups and force them to accept their conditionsAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Turkey’s weak position
Preventing others from participating or even being present in Astana increases these suspicions. Turkey is in a weak position and it may not be able to confront the Russians, Iranians and the Assad regime alone when they impose the truce arrangements. It’s difficult for Turkey to be the guarantor for armed Syrian factions which have different orientations. This may interpret why Iran and Russia want Ankara to be present all by itself in Astana. Turkey has only set the condition of not allowing the People’s Protection Units - a Syrian-Kurdish militia that enjoys western support - from attending as it believes this group wants to establish a Kurdish zone inside Syria, near Turkey’s borders. The three countries had also agreed on excluding ISIS and al-Nusra Front from the meeting. There are also other factions that were not invited to attend. But they also did not announce excluding them and they’ve thus ignored them for the meantime.
The Astana conference cares about solidifying the ceasefire in all of Syria. This concerns the Syrian regime at this phase as it wants to deploy its forces again and to administratively control the country which it lost control of during the past five years of war. The ceasefire does not serve the opposition in anything because most passages are closed and are being targeted by the Syrian regime’s alliance which is supported by Iranian and Russian forces, Hezbollah militias and other sectarian Shiite militias that are under the command of the Iranian revolutionary guards.
It seems the Russian-Iranian aim is to drag the armed Syrian opposition forces to a slow negotiation process while they enjoy freedom of movement and violate the ceasefire in the areas they want in order to pressure armed groups and force them to accept their conditions. The Assad regime alliance is also rearranging its situation on ground as Russian forces were tasked with being present in areas close to Turkey, including in Aleppo. Iran and its militias are stationed south in Daraa, near the Jordanian borders, in border areas with Iraq and in the surroundings of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
There are around 20 days to the Astana meeting which is important as it will further clarify the Russian role and show whether it still matches that of the Iranians or leans towards a moderate political one in order to achieve a solution that’s accepted by everyone. The meeting will also reveal Turkey’s stance after its recent positions changed and it will show whether Turkey has decided to end its relation with the Syrian revolution and recognize the Assad regime or if it’s still leading the Syrian process alongside the majority of the Syrian people.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 4, 2017.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed