Can Syria talks in Astana achieve peace?

The date has been set for the latest Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. But will it break new ground?

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

Updated Jan 10, 2017

Kazakhstan has not, to date, featured prominently in the Syrian conflict. But that is set to change as the Central Asian state will soon host peace talks that can affect its future.

The latest round of political negotiations on the Syrian crisis will begin in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana on January 23, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's spokesperson told TRT World. 

Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, is a "planned city" – designed and built with characteristically futuristic architecture after the country declared independence from the USSR in 1991.

Turkey and Russia have taken the lead in pushing for diplomatic efforts aimed at making progress in the Syrian stalemate, after negotiating a ceasefire that has for the most part held — with notable exceptions —  throughout most of the country.

“The effort of Turkey and Russia, and for that matter, Iran, is to achieve a truce in Syria,” spokesperson, Huseyin Muftuoglu told TRT World. “The idea is to bring the opposition and the government around the table in Astana. We are hoping it will be fruitful.”

Who will be there — and who won’t?

As part of the ceasefire agreement reached on December 29, Russia and Turkey agreed to act as guarantors of the ceasefire to ensure that regime and rebel factions, respectively, would abide by the agreement.

With the notable absence of the United States in the negotiation process, the agreement shows signs of a potential breakthrough, after a series of prior talks in Geneva, Vienna, and Munich failed to bring pause to the fighting for more than a few weeks.

There's nothing stopping the US from attending. “Russia and Turkey both have no objection to the presence of the US,” Muftuoglu said.

While their attendance isn’t certain yet, the Syrian opposition has been conspicuously absent from recent talks in Munich. Past conferences have been marred by disagreements over which groups can attend the talks, and whether or not they legitimately represent the Syrian people.

An agreement signed by the major rebel factions at a past sit-down in Riyadh in 2015 gave the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) a mandate to represent the Syrian opposition in subsequent political negotiations. Founded in 2012 after former Prime Minister Riad Hijab resigned from his post to defect to the opposition, the SNC claims to be the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” The US, EU, and the Arab League followed suit and recognised the opposition, saying Assad had “lost legitimacy to rule.”

But the opposition has since pushed back against what it called “Russia’s attempts to interfere in the issue of representation of the Syrian people in the upcoming peace negotiations” in a statement released on January 5.

Backing Assad, Russia has moved to nominate groups of what it calls the “internal opposition” to attend the peace talks as opposition representatives. These parties were legalised within Syria in 2012 to calm protesters’ demands for political reform. They remain officially affiliated with — and legally subordinate to— the Assad regime's Baath Party that has ruled Syria for over five decades.

“The million dollar question is which of the opposition groups will be at the table — and I believe nobody knows yet. It will have to be a negotiation between all the stakeholders,” Muftuoglu told TRT World.

Kazakhstan is home to a unique language – it descends from the same family as Turkish, and is written alternatively in the Cyrillic, Latin, and sometimes Arabic alphabets.

What’s on the table in Astana — and what’s at stake?

The last time a nationwide ceasefire was implemented across Syria, protests against the Assad regime returned to the streets in many rebel-held cities.

It’s unlikely that the opposition will accept Assad staying in power. Having won major battles in recent months, he is unlikely to concede much ground to the rebels.

In the short term, more practical matters need addressing. According to The Syria Institute, over one million Syrians live in areas that are partially or completely cut off from food or supplies necessary to for sustaining their daily lives given the fighting.

Areas around Damascus remain under siege as regime forces continue assaults to retake a valley that controls the capital’s water supply. (Map by The Syria Institute)

Recently in the UK, a citizens’ petition to the British parliament to airdrop of humanitarian aid to such besieged areas received an official response from the government saying that airdrops were impractical and impossible given the conditions on the ground. Because aid groups need tacit approval from all sides of the conflict in order to gain safe passage to deliver aid, negotiating humanitarian deliveries is at least as taxing and negotiating a ceasefire, if not more.

Rebel groups have also threatened to pull out of the ceasefire due to continued attacks by Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. Attacks on the Wadi Barada valley in rural Damascus have continued since the ceasefire was supposed to take effect, according to local reports.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has also warned that if the ceasefire is violated, it might put the peace talks in Astana in jeopardy.

Can this round actually offer prospects for change? 

The latest round of talks could provide a less contentious atmosphere for getting down to brass tacks. Past talks have been hampered by objections from all sides that talks were biased in favour of the other. However, as the location of Astana was a Russian suggestion, it could show a shift more toward Russia’s sphere of influence.

In order to attend, members of the opposition will need to be invited by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Although there is potential for progress in Astana, peace in Syria isn’t going to be resolved in one sitting. The talks are one step in a sequence towards peace.

Hosting peace talks aimed at ending one of the world's hugest conflicts could bring oft-ignored Kazakhstan extra attention for its budding technology sector, which has attracted investments from tech giants GE, Samsung and Microsoft.

The Astana talks are “complementary to the UN process" Muftuoglu said. And if they succeed, negotiations will continue in Geneva led by the UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

The logisticals of the Astana talks are set to be laid down in a meeting between Russian and Turkish diplomats starting January 9 in Ankara.