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Syria holds high expectations for Astana peace talks

This article was originally published at Quemado Institute

As of March 2017, it will be exactly six years since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Some journalists have made unfavorable forecasts, wondering about the very possibility of reconciliation. Complicated by foreign intervention on the part of Israel, the war in Lebanon, for example, continued for about 15 years.

But even a six-year term is much too long. That is why we must maintain hope that the meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, scheduled for January 23, 2017, will eventually lead to a positive result. Following that, there will be an occasion to consolidate the success of the negotiations in Geneva under the auspices of the UN.

So what might the upcoming negotiations in Astana lead to?

Latest Statements of the Main Actors

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev backs the initiative to conduct the negotiations, and has announced his readiness to provide a platform and to support unconditional assistance to the peace process.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad considers the possibility of reaching an agreement on the Syrian crisis settlement and is ready to discuss with the anti-government forces any questions about ending the conflict, including a referendum on a new constitution of Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes that it is possible to give birth to the idea of Syrian-Syrian talks in Astana, and that a nationwide ceasefire will be signed as a result. Then practical negotiations on a political reconciliation could be launched.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expresses concerns about the violations of the ceasefire agreement, because the planned talks would not be able to take place as a result. Russia and Turkey are therefore working on the issue of implementing sanctions against those violating the ceasefire.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also said in a briefing that the meeting in Kazakhstan is very important and depends on observance of the truce in Syria.

The envoy expects that Russia and Turkey will influence the parties of the conflict to stop the violence. The UN hopes for positive results which might facilitate the Geneva talks scheduled for February 8.

Some opposition members have expressed a contrary attitude. They have repeatedly mentioned terminating preparations for the meeting, despite their commitment to form a delegation for the talks with the Syrian authorities in Astana. So it’s strange in this context to hear the words of John Kirby, Press Secretary of the U.S. State Department. The United States would not object if the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, abandoned the meeting on Syria in Astana.

It turns out, in fact, that the U.S. opposes UN involvement and is trying to distance itself from the talks. Non-involvement on the part of the U.S. may actually benefit the meeting’s participants. The cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran, in the absence of the U.S., has proven its effectiveness: more than 100,000 people were evacuated from Aleppo during the largest humanitarian campaign in history.

Reasons Astana Might Work Out

First, Ala’a Arafat, a member of the Change and Liberation Front opposition party, expects a commitment from the parties involved in the current ceasefire, despite breaches for which each side accuses the other. According to CCTV, Arafat pointed out that the recent deal was concluded between Russia and Turkey only, excluding the U.S. and other regional players such as the Gulf States—at least for now, which means two of the most influential powers from each party of the conflict are directly involved.

The absence of U.S. involvement in the deal will have a positive impact in part due to the fact that America and Europe were behind the failure of previous deals, either directly or indirectly.

Moreover, the current Turkish-Russian agreement seems more effective than the one struck between Russia and the United States late last year, Arafat said, noting that the U.S.-Russian deal was undermined by the U.S.-led strike on Syria’s army posts in Deir al-Zour in September, killing over 90 Syrian soldiers and enabling IS to benefit from the Syrian army’s losses.

Second, it’s also worth noting that Russia and Turkey named themselves as “guarantors” of the ceasefire, and stated that the next step will be the holding of talks in Astana. Both pledged to monitor the deal and prevent any potential breach, which translates into a strong guarantee for both the government and the opposition forces.

Third, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said last week that the ceasefire is a potential starting point for the political process, and spoke highly of the chances of success, because of what he called the “strong guarantees” from Moscow. The opposition rebels hold the same view, as they have unwavering trust in Ankara due to Turkey’s support of the rebels in Syria, which was crucial for their survival when facing the Russia-supported administration of President Bashar al-Assad.

Fourth, in the upcoming talks, armed factions are going to be present and they have agreed on political negotiations. The main obstacle was the representation of the opposition groups, particularly the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiations Committee, which played an “obstructionist role”—seen by many as an adamant stance—in demanding the departure of Assad as a prerequisite to any negotiations, which of course was the stance of their supporters.

Conclusion

Although Russia and Turkey seek different goals in the Syrian conflict, the sides were able to broker. Given the large-scale operation of evacuating militants from Aleppo, the successful cooperation between the two sides may hold. Moreover, on January 9, 2017, Turkey will host the start of consultations between Iranian, Russian and Turkish diplomats, convened to discuss the Astana meeting.

Thus, the Astana meeting is broadly supported, and its mission should be expanded. A road map for regulating the Syrian crisis in the short term could outline the steps for power transition and the date of the referendum on the Constitution, as well as amnesty for the opposition. Moreover, the ceasefire agreement is expected to be fully implemented during the meeting in Astana. The sides should also draft the further peace process and the issues to be discussed in Geneva.

The Astana talks are set to succeed, and offer an historic opportunity to end the crisis in Syria.

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