Syria: Should Astana negotiations be expanded?

Christian Chesnot
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The defeat of the self-proclaimed Caliphate of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is almost achieved. It's only a matter of weeks for the pseudo-state before it disappears from the scene, most likely before the beginning of 2018. In Syria, a new diplomatic-military dispensation is being set up, the one succeeding that which emerged in 2011.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura summed up the current situation when he said: “ISIS has been routed in the desert (...) Terrorism is on the defensive, even if it cannot be defeated by military means only (... ) The de-escalation agreements are sometimes seriously questioned, but they have achieved results.”


New power equation

Let us take a look at the situation on the ground. The last battle in the east will soon leave the Syrian Democratic Forces (dominated by Kurds and supported by the United States and France) come face to face with Bashar Al-Assad's troops (backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah). Opposition by moderate rebel forces has almost completely disappeared from the map, apart from a few regions in the suburbs of Damascus and in the south. Only the region of Idlib will remain in the hands of the jihadists, some of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

In short, 2018 may prove to be a decisive year for Syria where one can finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

Christian Chesnot

Thus, the stage is set for great diplomatic maneuvering to commence, with two meetings scheduled in the upcoming weeks: the Astana meeting (October 30-31) and the inter-Syrian talks in Geneva (28 November). Earlier, France had tried to return to the game by proposing the creation of a contact group, including the P5 plus regional countries. In fact, Emmanuel Macron tried to unsuccessfully sell this idea to Donald Trump on the occasion of the UN General Assembly. The French idea fell as the US refused to include Iran into the process.

In fact, the UN process in Geneva (led by Staffan de Mistura) could not really take off today, nor build any momentum. In the new military configuration described above, there appears to be no conceivable reason for the situation to change any time soon. The regime of Bashar Al-Assad appears less inclined today than in the past to make any concessions or enter into any process of political compromise with the opposition.

Absent from Astana

Only the process of Astana currently remains on the table, which strictly speaking does not have a political framework. However, it is the only one to have produced results on the ground with the establishment of four de-escalation zones. Therefore, is it not the time to think of expanding the number of participants, which for the moment are reduced to Russia, Iran and Turkey?

The names of several countries — including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and China — have been suggested to take part in the Astana talks. Apparently, Turkey has opposed the suggestion. In any case, the real discussion on the future of Syria is taking place in the capital of Kazakhstan and not in Geneva. It is difficult to imagine that the fate of Syria now solely remains in the hands of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara.

The reconstruction of a country whets the appetite of international powers. China and Egypt have declared their readiness to participate in the effort to turn the page on the civil war. Although Europe outwardly seems unenthused by the ongoing diplomatic discussions, the mood is likely to change soon. In fact, several EU countries have already started sending diplomats and security agents back to Damascus.

Diminishing US role

Where is the United States in all of this? At this point, no one has a clear idea of its policy particularly after the eradication of ISIS from Syrian territory. Will the US withdraw and ditch the Kurds, just as it left moderate Syrian rebels in the lurch? Will it maintain its military presence on the ground to see how the situation evolves? Both scenarios are possible.

For Syrian Kurds, it would be better not to make the same mistake as their Iraqi cousins by waving the red rag of independence. By maintaining links and contacts with the regime, they can hope to find a modus vivendi with Damascus, wherein they may accept some form of autonomy for the ‘Kurdish state’ within the borders of Syria. In short, 2018 may prove to be a decisive year for Syria where one can finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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