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Syria Negotiations in Astana and Moscow: the Old Prescriptions Written Differently?

February 1, 2017
<p>Syria Negotiations in Astana and Moscow: the Old Prescriptions Written Differently?</p>

Oleksiy Volovych

23-24 January in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana were held the first direct talks between the representatives of the official Damascus and a part of the armed opposition. In previous negotiations in Geneva the parties to the conflict did not communicate directly but through intermediaries, although this time they did not do without intermediaries either. The talks were held behind closed doors at the hotel “Rixos”. Representatives of the political opposition in exile did not participate in the talks in Astana, on 27 January they met in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov.

All in all seven delegations participated in the meeting in Astana, — of the official Damascus, of “pro-Turkish” Syrian armed opposition, the group of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary on Syria Staffan de Mistura, of the countries-guarantors of the agreement on a ceasefire of December 29 last year — Russia, Iran and Turkey — as well as the US Ambassador George Krol as an observer. The delegation of the Syrian government was headed by the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN, Ambassador Bashar Jaafari. The Russian delegation was headed by the Special Representative of the Russian President on the Syrian settlement Aleksandr Lavrentyev, the Iranian — by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Turkish — by Deputy Undersecretary for the Middle East and Africa at the Foreign Ministry of Turkey Sedat Onal.

The negotiations in Astana

The negotiations in Astana

The Syrian armed opposition was represented by twelve “pro-Turkish” groups in the ranks of which there are about 60 thousand militants operating in the north, center and south of the country. According to American experts who participated in the talks in Astana, the opposition's group was representing not more than one third of all the opposition forces. Only 5 out of 12 presented in Astana Syrian factions agreed to accept the terms of the ceasefire. The delegation of the Syrian armed opposition in the negotiations in Astana did not have a common platform and a common leader. Each group spoke from its positions. However, all these groups in the form of Turkey have their main sponsor and main leader. Therefore, the success or failure in the negotiations in Astana largely depended on the possibility of reaching a compromise with the Turkish side.

The negotiation process was observed by representatives of dozens of countries. The Turkish side was strongly against inviting Syrian Kurds to Astana. At the insistence of Tehran, Israel and Saudi Arabia did not receive an invitation either.


Preparation and Progress of the Negotiations

In preparation for the talks in Astana in November and December 2016 the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, with the mediation of Turkey, negotiated with the leaders of the Syrian armed opposition, which controls a large area in the central and northern parts of Syria. The latest round of talks of the Russian military with field commanders of several factions of the Syrian armed opposition was held 23-24 December 2016 in Ankara with the mediation of the Turkish secret services. The negotiations resulted in coordination of the positions of only seven opposition parties, signing two documents regulating the ceasefire throughout the territory of Syria, and the program of talks in Astana. In accordance with these document, the s truce began at 00 am on 30 December 2016. The ceasefire was supported by about 16 armed opposition groups, including those who did not sign the ceasefire agreement.

The largest “pro-Turkish” opposition faction “Ahrar al-Sham”, acting in northern Syria in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, refused to participate in the negotiations. According to some reports, representatives of this formation are in no mood for negotiating, as their rivals from the “pro-Saudi” grouping “Jabhat al-Nusra” are pushing them out from their positions on the border of the Syrian province of Idlib with Turkey, thereby establishing control over the crossing points, allowing them to maintain a monopoly over the channels of logistical support from Turkey. According to experts, with such a dynamics of the development of the situation, the grouping “Ahrar al-Sham” in the near future may either permanently join the “Jabhat al-Nusra”, or to get weakened and lose all influence on the military and political situation in the country.

Delegates from Syrian opposition

Delegates from Syrian opposition

According to The New York Times, the first face-to-face meeting of Syrian rebels with government officials after nearly six years of civil war very quickly grew into a tough hassle and recriminations. The leader of “Jaish al-Islam,” Muhammad al-Allyush in his opening statement labeled the Syrian government “a bloody despotic regime”. For his part, the head of the delegation of the Syrian government, Bashar Jaafari called the delegation of the opposition “armed terrorist groups” and accused them of “impertinent” and “provocative” behavior.

Once it became clear that “face-to-face” talks would not work, the delegations were resettled in different hotels and for each of them an individual meeting room was allocated. According to Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Roman Vasylenko, Special Envoy of UN Secretary General on Syria, Staffan de Mistura “would go from one room to another, to negotiate with the government or with the opposition”. So, the normal negotiation process without intermediaries actually did not happen in Astana. It seems that the irreconcilable opponents psychologically are not ready yet for direct talks, without intermediaries.

The delegation of the Syrian government

The delegation of the Syrian government

The negotiators in Astana also discussed political issues of the Syrian settlement. The Russian side gave the armed opposition a draft of Syria's new Constitution, which provides for the following innovations: the election of the president for seven years without the possibility of re-election for a second term; exemption of the provision according to which the Syrian president must be a Muslim only; formation of a bicameral parliament. The draft recommends to preserve the country as a unitary state with creation of a Kurdish autonomy. The document provides for the regions' right to choose the regional language and abolition of Shariah as the main source of law in the country. To remove the word “Arab” from the name of the country (the Syrian Arab Republic) which is very important for the Kurds. Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov said that the draft of the Syrian Constitution prepared by Russian experts was developed with taking into consideration the wishes of the official Damascus and of the opposition, but representatives of the Syrian opposition at the talks in Astana rejected the Russian draft constitution. Many oppositionists propose to turn Syria into a federation (by religious and ethnic peculiarities) consisting of autonomies or territories for the Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Armenians.

You will recall that in February 2012, the Syrian government submitted a draft of a new Constitution for the approval of which a referendum was held. The document was supported by 89 % of Syrians (of 57.4 % of the citizens of the country who took part in the referendum). The new Constitution abolished the political monopoly of the ruling party “Ba’ath” and established the rule of pluralism and civil rights. However, neither the opposition nor the representatives of the Western countries recognized the results of the referendum as legitimate.


Positions of the Parties

The Russian delegation

The Russian delegation

Russia's position. Commenting on the results of the talks in Astana, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov pointed out that “for the first time there was the Syrian government 's direct meeting with armed formations of the opposition, that is, at the same table there were representatives of the parties, which oppose each other on the ground with guns in their hands”. Besides, according to the Minister, the Russian delegation, which included representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, had several direct meetings with representatives of the armed opposition, and discussed with them the prospects of joint fight against terrorism in Syria, especially against ISIS. S. Lavrov also stressed Moscow's building up cooperation with Turkey and Iran on peaceful settling the Syrian crisis. According to him, it is through this cooperation, that they “managed to liberate Aleppo from the terrorists, and then introduce the mode of cessation of hostilities on the basis of the agreement of 29 December 2017”.

Deputy Undersecretary for the Middle East and Africa at the Foreign Ministry of Turkey Sedat Onal

Deputy Undersecretary for the Middle East and Africa at the Foreign Ministry of Turkey Sedat Onal

Turkey's Position. As for Turkey's position with respect to the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis, in recent months it has undergone significant changes. According to some reports, Ankara now no longer sees the urgent need for removal of B. Assad. Today, the Turkish authorities are more concerned about the need for resettlement of the “security zone” in northern Syria, ostensibly to accommodate the refugees, where Turkish troops are currently engaged in combat operations against the Islamists and Kurds. In this way, Turkey seeks to prevent creation of a solid Kurdish enclave along the Turkish-Syrian border. At this, the Turkish authorities are extremely dissatisfied with the partnership, established between Syrian Kurds and Washington. In particular, Ankara strongly opposes Washington's attempts to involve the Kurds from the Party of Democratic Union in the Syrian negotiations. Disappointment with the American partners makes Ankara more closely cooperate with Russia.

The representatives of the Syrian government, traditionally accusing Ankara of supporting opposition formations, believe that for this reason Turkey cannot play a full and impartial role in the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. Syria's Permanent Representative to the UN Bashar Jaafari said that Turkey was not going to stop supporting armed opposition groups (Free Syrian Army, “Jaish al-Islam” and other groups), and that Ankara stood behind most of the actions against the Syrian government army. Bashar Jaafari complained that Turkey played a negative role in the Syrian settlement, but the government of Syria “has to shut its eyes to it in order to save the country”. According to him, “sometimes in politics we have to do with our enemies in order to save our country”.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari

Iran's Position. The Iranian leadership believes that there is no reason to invite the United States to participate in the further settlement in Syria. In particular, Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out that his country felt “extremely negative about inviting the United States to participate in the talks in Astana”. However, the traditional antagonism between Washington and Tehran does not interfere with their cooperation, especially when it is beneficial to both parties. Thus, lately, Iranian and American soldiers have been cooperating in Iraq near Mosul in the fight against the ISIS' militants. On the other hand, not all members of the armed opposition agreed with Iran's participation in the talks in Astana. Thus, Muhammad al-Allyush said that the opposition would not agree to any mediating role of Iran, which supports the official Damascus.

Despite the fact that both Russia and Iran are supporters of Syrian President B. al-Assad, their views on the further future of Syria are quite different. Moreover, the Iranian-Russian differences over the peace process in Syria continue to deepen. While Russia is interested in a strong central government that could ensure preservation of Moscow's interests, Iran prefers the version with more powerful regional leaders that would make it possible to strengthen the pro-Iranian forces in Syria.

US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol

US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol

The USA's Position. According to US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, the new US administration is interested in joining the process of settlement of the Syrian crisis. The USA welcomed the decision to establish a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire in Syria reached at the talks in Astana. According to the head of the Press Service of the US State Department Mark Toner's statement (24 January 2017), “the American administration welcomed the actions of the guarantor countries, aimed at de-escalation of violence and reduction of the scale of suffering in Syria”. According to him, the USA is preparing for the resumption of inter-Syrian negotiations under UN auspices between the regime of B. al-Assad and opposition groups, in accordance with UN Security Council's Resolution 2254.

As early as November 11, 2016, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, US President-elect Donald Trump said that in Syria he was ready to struggle against the group of ISIS instead of overthrowing the country's leader, Bashar al-Assad. In the process of formation of D. Trump's administration's Middle-East policy, this idea finds more and more supporters. For example, a member of the US House of Representatives, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, who was among the candidates for the post of Secretary of State in the new American administration, recently during her trip to Syria met with the leader of the country B. Assad. After the meeting, she came to believe that “the USA's war for overthrowing the regime of B. al-Assad is counterproductive and does not serve America’s interest, and it certainly isn’t in the interest of the Syrian people”. According to her, “if President Assad is overthrown, the terrorists and Islamists will get control of the whole of Syria”. It seems that these statements by Tulsi Gabbard to some extent reflect the current moods in the new American administration with regard to B. Assad and his future role in the settlement of the Syrian crisis.


The Guarantor Countries' Joint Statement

After the official talks, Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan Kairat Abdurakhmanov read out a joint statement agreed on by Russia, Iran and Turkey which acted as guarantors of inter-Syrian negotiations in Astana.

The Summary of the Joint Statement:

”The delegations of Iran, Russia and Turkey in line with the joint statement of the Foreign Ministers of 20 December 2016 and the UN Security Council's Resolution 2336, support launching the talks between the Government of Syria and the armed opposition groups in Astana on January 23-24.

Staffan de Mistura

Staffan de Mistura

The guarantors appreciate the participation in these negotiations of the UN Secretary Generals' Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, and reaffirm their commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the SAR. The guarantors are confident that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process based on UN Security Council's Resolution 2254. Russia, Iran and Turkey have decided to establish a tripartite mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, to prevent any provocations, and decided to fight jointly against the extremist groups of “The Islamic State” and “Jabhat al-Nusra”. The guarantor countries emphasize the need for the armed opposition's separation from terrorists and find Astana an effective platform for direct dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition, as required by the UN Security Council's Resolution 2254. Guarantor countries stress their willingness to support the Syrian armed opposition's willingness to participate in the next round of peace talks, which will begin in Geneva on 8 February 2017”.

Representatives of the Syrian opposition prepared their own document on the monitoring of the cease-fire regime and handed it over to the representatives of Turkey, Russia and the UN. In their view, the document can be an addition to the truce agreement of December 29, 2016.


Negotiations in Moscow

The negotiations in Moscow, January 27

The negotiations in Moscow, January 27

January 27, Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov met with representatives of the Syrian political opposition to inform them about the talks in Astana. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) refused to meet with S. Lavrov. In Moscow also were present representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and a representative of the Kurdish National Council, whom the Turkish government considers terrorists and categorically refuses to negotiate with them. In this regard, the representative of the Kurdish self-government of Northern Syria, Ali Abdessalam said that “without the Kurds there will be no solution to the Syrian issue because the Kurds today are a real power that controls 20 % of the territory of Syria and really struggles against terrorists of the ISIS”.

At the briefing, S. Lavrov said that the United Nations had moved the beginning of talks on Syria in Geneva from February 8 to the end of February. At this, S. Lavrov stressed that “the passivity of the UN, which since April 2016 has not conducted any negotiations, is unacceptable”. Then S. Lavrov informed the participants on the contents of Russia's proposals to the draft of the Syrian Constitution, expressing the belief that it “will encourage practical debate, oriented to seeking mutual understanding”. The representative of the “Moscow group” of the Syrian opposition Qadri Jamil said that to make the Geneva Conference succeed, “it is necessary to establish a joint delegation of the Syrian opposition, which would include all, without the hegemony of anybody”.

After the meeting, S. Lavrov emphasized that the experience shows that if there is no specific document — the draft constitution, “the talks get bogged down and may continue indefinitely”. According to him, now all members of the Syrian opposition (political and military) have a chance to analyze the document and make suggestions on the eve of the meeting in Geneva.


Security Zones or Zones of Occupation?

According to Reuters, on the sidelines of the talks in Astana, Russia, Iran and Turkey continued consultations on dividing Syria into zones of influence, or rather on consolidating the already occupied areas. Russia and Turkey succeeded most of all in this regard, with the difference that the Russian Federation deployed its military contingent on the territory of Syria, at B. Assad's request, while Turkey — against his will.

The zone of the Russian military presence in the West of Syria is outlined by Damascus, Aleppo and maritime ports of Latakia and Tartous. The center of this area is Hmeymim airbase, where the Russian Federation's VKS air group in Syria is deployed. Recently, Moscow and Damascus have agreed on turning the logistics point for Russian warships in Tartous into a full naval base with the possibility of deployment of heavy ships, including cruisers and aircraft carriers.

Turkish “security zone” in SyriaTurkish “security zone” in Syria

During the Turkish military operation “Shield of the Euphrates”, launched August 24, 2016, Turkish troops occupied a “security zone” 90 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide along the Syrian-Turkish border, on the pretext of ousting the ISIS formations and Syrian Kurdish forces from this zone. Later, Ankara announced its readiness to expand the “security zone” of up to 45 kilometers into Syrian territory. The main goal of this Turkish operation is to thwart the Syrian Kurds' plans for creation of their autonomous enclave in the north of Syria. In Damascus, the Turkish military operation was called “invasion and violation of Syria's sovereignty”.

Iran also seeks to get new guarantees of its presence in Syria. Thus, during the visit of Prime Minister of the SAR Imad al-Khamis to Tehran on January 19, 2017, agreements were reached on the transfer to Iran of 5,000 hectares of agricultural land in one of the most fertile areas of Syria and about one thousand acres to accommodate the oil and gas terminals. Liberation of Aleppo opened up the possibility of creating a land corridor linking Iran to the south of Lebanon, which will allow Tehran to directly send arms and ammunition to the Lebanese movement “Hizbullah”, which is fighting in Syria on the side of B. al-Assad's regime.

US President D. Trump has also announced his intention to create a security zone for the civilian population of Syria under American control. Some Moscow analysts immediately saw this as a step against Moscow and Ankara. However, it is difficult so far to judge what D. Trump was referring to — where, for whom, when and by what means that security zone is supposed to be created. Possibly under the “American umbrella” there will be the territory controlled by the coalition of “Democratic Forces of Syria” (an alliance of Kurdish People's Self-Defence Units with various Arab, Assyrian, Armenian and Turkmen forces), where there are US military facilities.

According to the American Analytical Center “Stratfor”, at the beginning of 2016 the United States began to expand runway of the airfield in the city of Rumaylan, El-Hasaka province in northeastern Syria, controlled by Kurds. At the moment, this base hosts several American helicopters and about 100 special forces military. The new US air base is being created in the city Kobanî near the Turkish border. The official Damascus has repeatedly characterized the presence of US military forces in the territory of Syria as violation of the country's sovereignty.


Conclusions and Forecasts

Using the time of the transfer of power in Washington, Moscow decided to play a leading role in the settlement of the Syrian conflict. At the talks in Astana, the Russian delegation was trying to demonstrate that Russia could do much more in the settlement of the Syrian crisis against the background of “the US and UN's inefficient peacekeeping efforts in recent years”. Besides, Moscow tried to present talks in Astana as an alternative to the Geneva format of the talks. In other words, the organized by Russia and Turkey inter-Syrian talks in Astana were intended to demonstrate Moscow's growing role in the settlement of the Syrian crisis and its mutual understanding with Ankara.

To achieve positive results in the negotiations in Astana was very difficult for several reasons. The first — the disunity of the opposition and its dependence on different sponsors. Second — different motives for the three guarantor countries' participation in the peace process and quite complex relationships between them. The third — B. Assad's regime's desire to achieve settlement of the conflict mainly by force, which greatly reduces the chances of reaching an agreement with the opposition. Besides, such terrorist organizations as the ISIS or “Jabhat al-Nusra”, excluded from the armistice agreement, will do their best to thwart the shaky truce.

The ceasefire in Syria from December 29, 2016, is not much different from all the previous ones. As before, the parties to the conflict agree to the truce only to “build up muscles” and then to continue to fight. As before, the rebels sit down at the negotiating table when losing the opportunity to win on the battlefield. In our opinion, the ultimate fatigue of six years of war, a state of “balance of weakness” and the inability to win a landslide victory over the enemy, shown in Syria by both, the government and the opposition, contributes greatly to seeking mutually acceptable compromises within the framework of the peace process.

A certain success of the Astana meeting can be considered the fact that the Syrian government delegation and the leaders of the “pro-Turkish” part of the armed opposition were sat down at the negotiating table, albeit briefly. One of the main results of the talks in Astana — is the decision of the mediating countries — Russia, Iran and Turkey — to create a tripartite mechanism to monitor the ceasefire through the establishment of a joint operational group that will monitor compliance with a ceasefire in Syria. How effective the work of this group will be — time will tell.

The negotiations in Astana and the reached compromise with the “pro-Turkish” armed opposition forces bear also the likelihood of a split of the situational Ankara, Riyadh and Doha's alliance. And the talks in Astana show that this process is already underway. Turkey is trying to independently and separately solve its problems without consultations with Riyadh and Doha.

Today, Turkey's main partners in Syria are Russia and to some extant — Iran. However, the strength of this new situational association remains very vulnerable, since all its members mind, first of all, their own goals and interests which are quite contradictory and multi-vector. At this, today it is difficult to predict — what will be the US President D. Trump's administration's policy towards Syria and how it will agree with the policy of the guarantor countries. If the US interference with the Syrian conflict is large-scale, the role of Russia, Turkey and Iran, as guarantors of the Syrian settlement will be less significant. Will this interference be large scale or not — time will tell, but today it is evident that the United States will not just leave Syria and won't give the countries-guarantors a “gift”.

While the presence of Russian and Iranian troops in Syria has been agreed with the Syrian government, the same cannot be said about the deployment of Turkey's and USA's military units and objects on the Syrian territory, which is essentially an act of occupation, as the Syrian authorities have repeatedly stated in their official appeals to the UN. Turkey and the United States justify their unauthorized military actions in Syria by the concepts of “soft law”, “responsibility to protect”, “responsibility while protecting”. In any case, legalizing the American security zone in Syria will greatly hamper the actions of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran, and will influence the plans of settlement of the Syrian crisis. So the guarantor cannot do without cooperation with the United States. However, the supposed cooperation will be not very easy, on the verge of possible.

As you know, in his election campaign speeches and in his inaugural address, US President D. Trump has repeatedly stated that he is ready to fight the ISIS, cooperating in this with any country, including Russia. In our opinion, the entry into a coalition with the United States for a joint struggle against ISIS and other terrorist groups is Moscow's super-important task, first of all, as an opportunity to normalize relations with the USA, which automatically would lead to the lifting of sanctions and getting out of international isolation, as well as “settling the Ukrainian issue” on terms favorable for the Kremlin. To achieve this goal, Moscow is ready to push the issue of the peaceful settlement in Syria by the wayside, and even to withdraw from the situational alliance with Turkey and Iran.

Why “the old prescriptions written differently”? The matter is that in Syria there are: pro-Turkish, pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, pro-Saudi, pro-Qatari, pro-Egyptian and other puppet opposition groups and virtually no pro-Syrian opposition. In fact, what is going on in Syria is not a civil war, but so-called proxy wars, that is, the wars of countries-sponsors with puppet hands on Syrian territory. Therefore, in this situation, when at the negotiation table is the puppet opposition, it first of all is trying to implement the will of its sponsors and not the will of the Syrian people. Besides, we cannot artificially divide the Syrian opposition into the political and military ones. And in any case, we should give preference to the political opposition, in particular, to the created in 2012, “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces”, the representatives of which were not in Astana at all.

So, before the puppet opposition groups' agreeing between themselves on something, countries-sponsors should agree first on a common position based on the UN Security Council's Resolutions, which, unfortunately, are not implemented. Therefore, the task of countries-sponsors or of the guarantors should be to first of all ensure the implementation of these Resolutions, rather than pushing solutions that meet only the multi-vector interests of these countries. In our opinion, the establishment of security zones (zones of influence) of countries-sponsors on Syrian territory — is a wrong tendency, which leads the settlement of the Syrian crisis into the deadlock. Instead, the Syrian zone should be expanded and strengthened, i.e. the area of influence and jurisdiction of the legitimate government of Syria.

It is impossible to extinguish the fire of war, if you keep putting “wood” on it in the form of financial resources, weapons and ammunition. Countries-sponsors of the Syrian opposition should stop supplying their puppets with arms and money. Before negotiating on the settlement of the Syrian crisis through political agreements, the opposition must lay down their arms, and the Syrian authorities should stop using weapons against the Syrian opposition. If this is not done, then no “prescriptions” to settle the Syrian crisis will work.


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