Syria peace talks in Astana : A new period starts

In this photo released Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with French journalists in Damascus, Syria. Assad said in remarks published on Monday that he was prepared "to negotiate everything" at talks set to begin in later this month in Kazakhstan, seeking to cast himself as a peacemaker after his forces' recapture of Aleppo last month. Assad also defended his troops' deadly bombardment of eastern Aleppo. (SANA via AP))

In this photo released Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with French journalists in Damascus, Syria. Assad said in remarks published on Monday that he was prepared “to negotiate everything” at talks set to begin in later this month in Kazakhstan, seeking to cast himself as a peacemaker after his forces’ recapture of Aleppo last month. Assad also defended his troops’ deadly bombardment of eastern Aleppo. (SANA via AP))

In summer, 2016 Kazakhstan competently mediated in ending political crisis related to Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane. The diplomatic efforts, intuitively made by Astana to reconcile Russia and Turkey, were made for avoiding the undesirable repercussions of the diplomatic strains between major strategic partners of Kazakhstan. Few people knew that time that Kazakhstan discreetly raised its international profile in a bid to become a regional power.

Kazakhstan, close political, economic and security partner of Russia, is a Turkic-speaking Muslim country, with strong cultural ties with Turkey as well.  The country joined the UN Security Council on January 1, 2017, as a non-permanent member for coming two years.

In August 2016, Moscow and Ankara had done a deal on Syria in Sankt-Petersburg, what lead to reshape geopolitics and security landscape of the Middle East. Several sources revealed bilateral efforts by Russia and Turkey to reach a compromise that facilitated some rebels leaving Aleppo to help take al-Bab. Despite backing opposite sides in Syria, both powers have worked closely in recent months to evacuate civilians and surrendering rebels from Aleppo before Assad forces recaptured the Eastern city in full.

On December 20, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have agreed to be guarantors for settlement of the Syrian crisis. Later, Putin and Erdogan offered Kazakh President Nazarbayev to hold talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Astana. Kazakhstan expressed its readiness to provide necessary conditions for the negotiations only if the ceasefire regime holds.  Kazakhstan, a neutral state to the Syria’s conflict, hosted two limited Syria talks in May and October 2015 following the similar meeting planned to be held in Moscow had failed. In 2013, Kazakhstan hosted two rounds of nuclear talks between the P5+and Iran as Astana pays a special attention to relations with Tehran as well.

On December 29, the Assad regime and Syrian rebels signed a cease-fire agreement brokered by Moscow and Ankara, excluding Tehran. Two days later the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution supporting a Russia-Turkey brokered truce in Syria and jump-starting a political process. The document views the talks in Kazakhstan, as an important part of the political settlement ahead of the resumption of negotiations under the auspices of the UN in Geneva, scheduled to February 9.

Upcoming peace talks, scheduled for January 23 in Astana, if held, could be a platform that is supposed to supplement, not replace Geneva talks.

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However, on January 3 Syria’s main rebel groups announced they have frozen their participation in peace talks in Astana due to violations by the regime of a truce. Experts said the resumed clashes threaten fragile ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. The exchanges of firepower and using of specific weapons in Damascus region, aimed at taking control of drinking water resources. Both sides accused each other of violations of a truce and sporadic clashes, questioning the Astana talks.

On January 5, the US Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged Syria peace talks in Astana hoping they will produce a step toward peace. However, he doubts about the possibility of the talks given the situation on the ground, preferring to get later to Geneva talks.

Expectations of observers on Syria prospects might not seem optimistic. For Fabrice Balanche, that brokered cease-fire is more tactical than strategic as new Westphalia order emerges in the Middle East. Hasan Abu Hanya supports the idea that after victory in Aleppo, Assad regime will not be in haste in its actions. Lina Khatib argues ceasefire have become a way to pursue military gains and play power games. Charles Lister says the conflict is far from over as rebels seek to redefine themselves. Erlan Karin emphasized that no high expectations on Syrian talks must be in Astana, adding that fragmented opposition of Syria has no united position at the moment. Basheer Nafi writes no quick and easy way to resolve the Syrian crisis.

But there is a cautious optimism in the Arab world. Arab social media expresses hope and doubt in Astana talks, seeing them as a new opportunity to try again to start from a new page. Asharq Al-Awsat writes freeze of truce by rebels is more about pressure on Assad or even on Moscow. If Russia fails to urge the Syrian regime to respect the cease-fire, then it would face a real dilemma of losing credibility as a guarantor. Raialyoum wrote that for the fragmented opposition there is no other way than to go to Astana for peace talks as this time the chances of success are higher than was before. Prospects for holding of the cease-fire still persist despite the violations. Arabi21 claims freeze of talks is a challenge to Russia’s sponsorship as a guarantor for the cease-fire and a power.

Russia could be kept in the quagmire in the Middle East, as was the case for the United States in Iraq, which prompted Russia to search for a way out (Stratfor). Recently Russia has begun to draw down its military forces in Syria under the ceasefire agreement (PressTV). For Al-Jadeed Online, by that Moscow says to its allies and rebels it may leave Syria militarily if the ceasefire holds.

On January 6, Syrian Foreign Ministry expressed the Damascus government’s readiness to attend an upcoming round of talks with the opposition in Astana (Tasnim). Then, ten rebel groups decided to hold the ceasefire regime again (Russia Today). Two days later, Bashar Assad said he is positive about the Syria peace talks in Astana (Sputnik).

kazakhstan_640Reuters reports Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence. The trilateral mechanism was an attempt by Moscow to mediate between Tehran and Ankara and move them closer to each other, says Al-Monitor.  Tehran is cautious about the rapid expansion of Turkey in Northern Syria as Russia and Turkey being guarantors of the last ceasefire deal (Tabnak). For Metin Gürcan, plans of Russia to initiate Astana talks goes beyond promoting Kazakhstan as a neutral venue, by using it to manage the sensitive Iran-Turkey balances. Basel Al-Haj Jasem focuses on contradictions between Russia and Iran in Aleppo and energy policies (Al-Hayat). Middle East Monitor reports Syria regime and the Iranian allies influence Russia’s efforts in the Kazakhstan talks. For Krzysztof Strachota talks in Astana will be an important test of the effectiveness of the measures undertaken by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Despite contradictory and divergences, a growing convergence of the strategies of the three powers can be observed.

Russia and Turkey’s initiative to introduce a ceasefire in Syria could lead to a fundamental revision of the context of the Syrian civil war. Philip Giraldi says the trilateral agreement was a blow to Washington’s sense of self-importance (Aydınlık). Now US policy remains one of the largest uncertainties, which may bear an impact on the situation in Syria. Fabrice Balanche hinted at Assad and its allies are seemingly awaiting a wider confrontation between the Kurds and Turkey if will Raqqa falls in future.  Assad may try to take control of Useful Syria, and then «useless» too. Syrian Kurds are not included in a ceasefire.

Daniyar Kosnazarov notes the necessity of including Arab countries in the peace process. Since Turkey has an impact only on some main rebel groups, supposed to take part in Astana talks. In fact, the upcoming meeting may pave the way to larger talks with the participation of Arab states. On January 8, eight rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham decided to create a political-military council, which unites under a new name so-called moderate rebels apart from radical groups like Al-Nusra.           
As for the image of Saudi Arabia, from the early Geneva talks, Moscow was not satisfied with uncompromising stand of foreign-based opposition, which hindered the process. Probably some hardline rebel groups are waiting for new supplies from their sponsors or good news following the nearing inauguration of Trump. It is also probable that in the near future Saudi Arabia may be pressed upon from Syrian periphery as a new security umbrella being created in the region (Daily Mail).

China welcomes the talks and will be present in Astana, as Special Envoy of China on Syria said in Geneva, leaving it to visit the EU, Turkey, and Russia (Xinhua).

Kazakhstan hopes the agreement on a ceasefire in Syria will help to resume an inclusive political process in Syria in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The fact that Astana is considered as a venue for possible Syria negotiations indicates the increasing role diplomatic of Kazakhstan. It also demonstrates how the close Middle East and Eurasia are in fact. Instability and terrorism in the Middle East have potential threats to Central Asia (Egemen). Therefore, Kazakhstan, having experience of chairmanship in the OSCE, OIC, and currently in the SCO, and as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, sincerely tries to contribute to ending the bloodshed and brutality in the Muslim world, to which Central Asia culturally belongs.

Sure, regardless of the results of the talks, they would serve to boost Kazakhstan’s diplomatic clout, as a neutral mediator and reliable peacekeeper in regional conflicts.

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