By Seyyed Reza Emadi
P.hD. in International Relations via IranReview.Org
Image Attribute: Participants in a meeting on Syria in Astana. © Bolat Shaykhinov / Sputnik
Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, hosted an international meeting on the ongoing crisis in Syria for the first time. The Astana meeting was held on January 23-24, 2017. This meeting was very different from previous talks held on the same subject in the Swiss city of Geneva in April 2016. These differences were related to four major issues, including the situation on the ground in Syria, the subject of the negotiations, actors taking part in the Astana talks, and the way Syrian government and opposition interacted.
The Astana meeting on Syria was held under conditions when the situation on the ground in the Arab country was not comparable to what it was during the meeting held in Geneva last April. Liberation of the strategic city of Aleppo from grips of militant groups in December 2016 has been considered as the most important strategic win for the Syrian government over the past six years. The liberation of Aleppo not only shattered the might of such terrorist and opposition groups as al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army in the public opinion of the country but also gave the upper hand to the Syrian government in the country’s developments. At the same time, the liberation of Aleppo caused the negotiations in Kazakhstan’s Astana to be different from all other meetings, which had been held on the situation in Syria so far.
The subject of any negotiations is considered as one of the most important factors determining the success of failure of those negotiations. While in previous Syria meetings, which were held before the recent round of talks in Astana, the issue of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future role was a major topic of discussion, the main topic of negotiations in Astana was not the fate of Assad, but was the issue of stabilizing the ceasefire in the Arab country. This issue was also clearly announced by the opposition groups as well. For example, Osama Abu Zeid, the spokesman of the Free Syrian Army, which is considered as one of the most important actors opposing the Syrian government and has many supporters in the country, was quoted by Aljazeera reporter as saying that the main reason behind participation of opposition groups in the Astana talks on Syria was to focus on stabilizing the ceasefire in the Arab country.
The third important difference between the Astana meeting and previous negotiations on Syria was related to actors taking part in Kazakhstan meeting. During the Astana meeting and for the first time ever, no Arab countries, nor any member states of the European Union were present and the United States, whose ambassador in Kazakhstan had taken part in the meeting as an observer, played no decisive role in the event. Russia, Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran were three countries, which sponsored the Astana meeting. On the other hand, for the first time, Turkey appeared in Astana quite different from what it had looked over the past six years. For the first time, Ankara did not emphasize on its main demand of the past, which was deposing Bashar Assad from power, and just called for the stabilization of ceasefire in Syria, as did Iran and Russia. As for domestic actors in Syria, only those actors were present in the Astana meeting that their position was close to the position of Turkey, including the Free Syrian Army.
The fourth difference between the Astana meeting and other meetings and negotiations, which had been already held in Syria and can even be considered as the most important difference, is the quality of interaction and dialog between opposition groups and the Syrian government. For the first time during this meeting, direct talks were held between opposition groups and the Syrian government under the supervision of the United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, and the three guarantor countries, that is, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Two important reasons can be given for this issue. Firstly, the liberation of the city of Aleppo from the grips of terrorist groups has practically weakened the standing of those groups, which oppose the Syrian government. Secondly, according to the United Nations, so far, about 400,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the crisis in Syria, including about 16,000 children. This issue has led to conditions under which in addition to the Syrian government, those opposition groups that enjoy popular support, have decided to find a solution in order to put an end to or at least lessen the intensity of the crisis.
In view of all these facts, the most important outcomes of the Astana meeting can be considered as two instances. The first outcome is reaching consensus on stabilization of ceasefire all across the country, which will, of course, exclude those regions, which are controlled by such Takfiri terrorist groups as Daesh and al-Nusra Front. The second outcome is laying necessary grounds in order to help really constructive negotiations be held in the Swiss city of Geneva on February 8. For this reason, the final statement of the Astana meeting put emphasis on three major issues, which included continuation of negotiations between opposition groups and the Syrian government in accordance with the UN Resolution 2336, putting an end to ongoing conflicts according to UN Resolution 2254, and also providing Syrian people with relief aid within framework of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2165.
Last but not least, the crisis in Syria is still characterized with special complexities. Of course, all parties expect that during forthcoming negotiations in Geneva on February 8, stress will be put on such important issues as a sustainable ceasefire and humanitarian aid. However, evidence on the ground in Syria shows that termination or reduction of conflicts in this country depends on severance of foreign assistance to foreign-backed terrorist groups. In other words, the end of conflict and war in Syria is not determined by domestic actors in the country, but the serious resolve of foreign actors plays the most decisive role in this regard.
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