Those who had high hopes for the Astana peace talks were ultimately naïve. The most the conference could accomplish is preventing a very bad situation from getting worse. At the moment it appears that such a thing might be happening. I say so with caution.
The biggest obstacle to progress is the fundamental different way in which each party views peace.
Jaysh al-Islam, the terrorist group participating in the talks on behalf of the ‘armed opposition’ included in the current ceasefire, refuse to speak to Iran, one of the three conference organisers.
Jaysh al-Islam is a radical Salafist group, funded by Saudi Arabia who oppose secularism and the multi-religious programme of the Syrian government. Iran, as the most influential Shia Muslim state in the world, does not fit in to their extremist vision of Sunni radicalism.
Likewise, the Syrian government refuse to speak with Turkey due to Turkish support for various terror groups in Syria and their long standing – though now apparently abandoned – commitment to regime change in Damascus.
Syrian envoy to the UN, Dr. Bashar Jaafari said that although Turkey’s impact on the conflict is negative, one must sometimes work with enemies in order to preserve one’s nation.
Dr. Bashar is a highly learned and eloquent man who has spoken firmly on behalf of his country throughout the tragic conflict in Syria. He repeated the fact that all citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic are Syrian people whether Arabs, Kurds, or Assyrians, and that all religions have a right to co-exist in peace.
This message must have irked Turkey whose government is busily eroding what was once a secular state.
It must also confuse Western audiences who have been so brainwashed by the Western media in respect of what Syrians are fighting for: what they are fighting for are values that some might call ‘old Western values’ of secularism and religious tolerance; what they are fighting against is Saudi style fanatical Wahhabi sectarianism.
Dr. Bashar went on to say that it was painful to sit in the same room with terrorist elements but that one must approach such situations with ‘cold blood’. He reminded his audience that it was not the first time Syria has sat at the table with its terrorist enemies. Of course previous attempts amounted to nothing.
The key thing that has come out of the Astana conference is an commitment to continue the enforcement of a ceasefire agreement under the terms defined in UN Resolution 2254. Also, all parties, at least on paper, remain committed to the territorial integrity of a secular Syrian state.
Personally, I have little faith in Turkey doing anything positive in the process. As for Jaysh al-Islam, I have no faith in it at all. However I’d rather have them bark around a table than kill innocent Syrians. Nonetheless a Wahhabist group, loathed by the great majority of Syrians, has no place in shaping/destroying the country’s future.
My greatest sense of optimism in respect of Astana, is derived from the fact that it has got many armed groups to put down their weapons (for now). This will allow the Syrian Arab Army and its allies to go after terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra who are not included in the ceasefire.
Once they are destroyed, I can only hope that all others who think like them will follow them into the dark pages of history.