The peace conference, which is supposed to agree a settlement of the Syrian conflict, began today Monday in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
The conference began with the usual frosty exchanges between the representatives of the Syrian government and of the Jihadi groups who have been invited to attend the conference, and who have agreed to do so. Each side – equally predictably – has also refused to meet and engage with the other in direct talks.
As important as who is at the conference is who is absent and who has been excluded.
The two main Jihadi terrorist groups – ISIS and Al-Qaeda – have of course been excluded even though they account for most of the Jihadi fighters in Syria.
The biggest single Jihadi group invited to the conference, after bitter internal arguments refused to go, though in reality it is in close touch with the other Jihadi groups who have gone to the conference, and who are therefore in effect acting as its proxies.
The powerful Kurdish militia the YPG has been excluded at Turkey’s insistence.
The US, Jordan and the Arab Gulf States – all stalwart supporters of the Jihadi opposition – have been sidelined.
Notwithstanding the wholly predictable poses at the start of the conference, and the important absences from it, the Astana conference does have two things going for it which the previous UN sponsored negotiations in Geneva – which have led nowhere – did not.
Firstly the Astana conference brings together the Syrian government with Jihadi groups who have an actual presence on the ground in Syria, rather than out-of-touch exiled Syrian politicians, who have been representing the Syrian opposition in Geneva, and who may not have much actual influence on the Jihadi fighters on the ground.
Secondly – and far more importantly – the three key outside powers with a military presence on the ground in Syria – Russia, Turkey and Iran – are co-sponsoring the conference. Between them these three powers have immense leverage over the parties – probably enough to force an end to the conflict.
The success or failure of the Astana conference will depend on the extent to which these three powers are able to work together to bring the conflict to an end.