The first one began on Monday — the seventh round of the Astana talks in Kazakhstan, attended by representatives of the Syrian government and opposition factions, and the sponsor states, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The two-day conference will discuss expanding the existing ceasefire to other areas of Syria to continue the process of de-escalation, and to ease tensions in the areas agreed upon in previous rounds of talks.
The Astana talks will be followed by a meeting of the “Riyadh platform,” which has already succeeded in uniting the Syrian opposition and making it relatively homogeneous. The talks, from November 10-20, are aimed at forming a unified delegation of the Syrian opposition, as well as expanding the Supreme Commission. Given the current rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the expressed desire of Moscow and Riyadh to cooperate to bring the Syrian war to an end, the Riyadh platform will now work in tandem with Astana to level the path toward the Geneva talks.
These rounds of talks are interconnected, and the sequence is not coincidental; they are supposed to lay more solid ground for the new round of Geneva talks on November 28. The UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistoura, has told the UN Security Council that the next Geneva talks should focus on drafting a new constitution and on preparations for UN-verified elections. These two issues demonstrate that the parties are closer than ever to the start of the political peace process. A political solution is becoming not only desirable, but a real possibility. The formats created alongside the Geneva process have succeeded in not only unifying opposition, but also in training it to negotiate.
The main problem with political talks and whatever achievements they come up with is that they do not mean Syrian national reconciliation — which is really indispensable to achieving peace on the ground and launching full-scale postwar restoration. Russia is therefore actively discussing an initiative announced this month by President Vladimir Putin in a meeting with international scholars at the Valdai Conference. The idea is to convene a congress of all Syria’s ethnic groups. This would be important for national reconciliation and would provide a solid ground for the political process. Russia admits that it is premature to discuss when such a congress might be held, but it is already viewed as an important mechanism in Syria’s postwar development. Preparatory work for the congress has begun, and Russia will host a consultative conference early in November at the Hmeimim air base in Latakia, where Russia’s forces in Syria are based.
These are significant shifts. First, the global players in the Syrian conflict seem united, overcoming their discord to bring conflict to an end. This is important, especially since foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict has played mostly a negative role and plunged the country deeper in bloodshed. Second, initiatives such as the Astana process and the Riyadh platform have been effective in laying the groundwork for the Geneva talks, which remain the only instrument for resolution of the Syrian conflict and the launch of a political process.
As parallel peace strands bear fruit, Vladimir Putin’s plan for a reconciliation congress is an important step forward.
Furthermore, all sides in the Syrian talks have become more politically and diplomatically mature during these years of attempts to bring the conflict to an end. They have given up on their illusions and excessive ambitions, and adapted themselves and their positions to regional and global realities.
In the current circumstances, the issue of national reconciliation should be on the agenda of talks. The Syrian nation is fractured. Since 2011, this fratricidal war has been producing widows, widowers and orphans, and parents have lost their children. People are divided, and not only ethnically or ideologically. Society is divided by hatred and mutual distrust. Much work must be done to overcome this. This has to be done in parallel with the political negotiations. It would therefore be a good idea if global players paid attention to the Russian idea of a reconciliation congress, and supported it.
Reconciliation and the political process would be far easier now if global players had put aside their geopolitical ambitions from the very beginning of the conflict, and used politics to stop the bloodshed escalating, but there are no “what ifs” in history. For now, the international community should not lose these opportunities to bring peace on the ground in Syria.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme