The Astana talks on Syria: Truce or surrender?
An extensive, accelerated diplomatic move toward a solution to Syria’s crisis has been noticeable since the fall of Aleppo. Several agreements have been signed, the political process has been divided into three phases, and dates and venues have been confirmed for negotiations.
On Jan. 23, talks on bolstering the truce in Aleppo and extending it to all parts of Syria will be launched in the Kazakh capital Astana, to be followed by negotiations in Geneva on a peaceful solution on Feb. 27.
Iran, Turkey and Russia have agreed to serve as guarantors for the cease-fire. While Iran rejected including Saudi Arabia in the Astana talks, as revealed by its defense minister, Russia regarded the Kingdom’s participation as critical, without specifying when.
However, the upcoming gathering in Astana does not have international consensus or legitimacy, as some concerned countries such as Germany and France are doubtful about it. Plus, the UN’s role in the talks seems to be limited.
Iran, Turkey and Russia decided to bring militants from the Syrian regime and armed opposition to the negotiating table to discuss preliminary arrangements in a country that is allied to Moscow. Five weeks later, the organizers say, the issue will be handed over to the UN to address holding talks on a political solution in Geneva.
Are the Astana talks aimed at making Turkey and the Syrian opposition sign a surrender, like what happened when Saddam Hussein signed the defeat agreement in Safwan tent after the 1991 Gulf War? Or is it a conference for preliminary arrangements and reconciliation that pave the way for negotiations?
The matter looks suspicious as the curtains have been brought down and others have been barred from taking part or even attending. In addition, Turkey’s situation is weak, so it may be unable to face Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime when they dictate truce arrangements. It is also difficult for Ankara to be a guarantor for the various Syrian armed factions.
This could explain why Iran and Russia opted to exclude all countries but Turkey, which stipulated keeping out of the meeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units — a Western-backed Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey suspects is planning to establish a separate Kurdish zone in Syria along the Turkish border. The three countries also agreed to exclude Daesh and Al-Nusra Front. Other factions have been ignored for the time being.
The Astana conference is mainly geared toward stabilizing a comprehensive cease-fire in Syria, a goal that the regime is eager to attain so as to re-deploy its troops and regain administrative control of the country after losing its grip over it in the last several years of war.
However, the cease-fire will generate zero benefit for the opposition because most of the corridors have been closed and are being targeted by the regime’s allies, including Iranian and Russian troops, Hezbollah and other sectarian Shiite militias led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC).
Russia and Iran are apparently plotting to induce the Syrian armed opposition into a slow negotiation process that enables the regime and its allies to move freely, violate the truce wherever they wish, pressure armed groups and force them to accept their conditions.
Thus, they would be able to re-deploy on the ground, as Russian troops are now commissioned to be stationed in areas near the Turkish border, including Aleppo. In parallel, Iran and its militias are stationed in the southern city of Daraa, near the Jordanian border, and in areas bordering Iraq, as well as around Syria’s capital Damascus.
We are nearly 20 days away from the Astana talks, which are important because they will more vividly show whether Russia’s role will be identical to Iran’s, or if it will adopt a moderate policy to reach a solution that is accepted by all.
The conference will also unveil Turkey’s real stance, which has apparently changed recently, so we know whether it has decided to dissociate itself from the Syrian revolution and recognize the regime, or if it still leads the Syrian process alongside the majority of the Syrian people.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of the Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.