Astana Talks Change the Rules on Syria Negotiations

Sami Moubayed.

Russian-sponsored Syrian peace talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana were declared a success by all parties involved, except perhaps the Syrian opposition.
The January 23-24 gathering was the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wanted to draw up new terms of reference for any future negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents.
The benchmark for previous talks had been the Geneva communiqué of 2012, better known as Geneva I. That called for regime change in Damascus and the creation of a Transitional Government Body (TGB) to rule Syria instead of President Bashar Assad during a transition period.
The Russians agreed to that terminology five years ago but, since their game-changing intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015, they have been working to hammer out a very different endgame for the conflict.
The talks in Kazakhstan torpedoed Geneva I and made no mention of the TGB, which was music to Putin’s ears. “Transition government” was crossed off by the Russians and replaced with the vague phrase “political process”.
Moscow also created a legal document that Syrian negotiators can take with them to Switzerland when they meet there in late February. The new terms for any negotiations will be the Astana Communiqué, Putin’s endgame.
The talks succeeded in excluding all major regional and international stakeholders from the Syrian conflict, except Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Saudi Arabia, a key rebel supporter that has long sought Assad’s overthrow, was very visibly cut out as a participant in the negotiating process, along with Qatar, France and the United States, which was only symbolically represented by its ambassador to Astana.
There is seemingly an unspoken agreement between the three big patrons of the Astana talks to gradually sideline the foreign-based Syrian opposition from the process, transforming its members from negotiators and decision-makers into advisers to the armed opposition.
The Astana conference is now seen as the benchmark for the next stage of UN-mandated talks in Geneva.
In their final communiqué at Astana, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to mention the Vienna process of late 2015 and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
These positions, engineered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, called for the creation of a national unity cabinet in Damascus that would supervise a new constitution and elections in Syria, without specifying whether these would be parliamentary or presidential polls or both.
At the end of the conference, the Russians distributed a draft of a new Syrian constitution to the opposition delegation, asking for its comments.
Turkey made no mention of what Assad’s future might be or even whether it might be necessary for him to depart before the transition period could start.
The Turks have long demanded that Assad must go but of late they have sidestepped the issue amid speculation they were bowing to Russian and Iranian insistence the Syrian president must stay, if only for a time to get the process under way.
The Turks promised to guarantee that their proxies in Syria would respect the nationwide December 30 ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey and help with the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) while similar guarantees were made by the Russians on behalf of their proxies, the Syrian Army and Iran on behalf of Hezbollah.
To the disparate Syrian opposition, Astana was a flop. Its members argued it showed just how far Turkey had gone with its rapprochement with Russia, clearly at the rebels’ expense.
From this standpoint, the Turks are no longer interested in bringing down the regime in Damascus, certainly not after the sweeping Russian-backed military victory in Aleppo in December, which deprived the rebels of their last major urban stronghold.
The rebels’ Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, led by former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab, was not invited to Astana. That was a clear message that the rebels, with their militias, were more important in the endgame than foreign-based opposition figures who have not been in Syria for years and do not have the same influence with rebel fighters.
Hijab and other politicians were invited to Moscow on January 27 to discuss the outcome of the Astana talks in what appeared to be an effort to create a united delegation to represent the opposition in Geneva. However, Hijab and the others, including the former and current presidents of the Syrian National Coalition, were invited only as individuals, not as leaders of opposition party organisations.
This underlined how the Russians are steadily dismantling the Saudi monopoly over the opposition and that, from now on, the opposition delegation will only include figures who are either Moscow-backed or considered regime-friendly.
Finally, Astana was intended to prove that talk of major differences between Tehran and Moscow is not true. Although their strategic objectives diverge, Moscow appears to have agreed to divide their roles in Syria and is coordinating closely on an endgame in which the regime stays on in one form or another. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and frequent contributor to The Arab Weekly, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
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