The recent trilateral talks on Syria in Astana -- overseen by Turkey, Russia, and Iran--- concluded in what can be best described as a “maintaining the status quo ante stalemate”, as the Iranian regime's obstruction continues to pose a major roadblock to a final negotiated settlement.
At the core of the impasse is Iran's decision to maintain a significant number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighters and associated Shia militias on the ground in Syria. Since the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted in 2012 to implement the Geneva Communique, a six point plan whose objective was to end the horrific slaughter and establish a process for a political transition, the Iranian regime has steadfastly opposed any international settlement that would hold its proxies in Syria accountable.
While the final communique coming out of Astana pledged to establish a process “to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire”, Assad regime representatives have signalled that they will continue ongoing military offensives in the Damascus suburbs. Recent reports detail a systemic plan by Iran and the Assad regime to expand the ‘Shiafication’ of areas purged of their Sunni Arab inhabitants via forced displacement and siege tactics.
The joint statement in Astana also reaffirmed a commitment to "the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity" of Syria.
The outcome of Astana was commendable in calling for sustained ceasefires, commitment to unity, opposition to terrorism, and support for follow-on peace negotiations in Geneva. But how can the international community adequately deal with the elephant in the room — Iran’s unwillingness to remove its foreign militias and the Assad regime’s obstinate refusal to halt its ethnic cleansing?
One interesting outcome seems to be the evolution of the Russian position. Opposition officials I spoke to have noted what they view to be a growing rift between Moscow and Tehran on the way forward in Syria. Indeed, recent statements from Moscow calling upon the regime to end ceasefire violations in Damascus were unprecedented.
Opposition representatives were vocal in Astana that continued peace negotiations and ceasefires were being repeatedly undermined by Iran. They argue that failing to call out Iranian activity in Syria only serves to normalise the illegal Iranian presence in Syria and the continued human rights abuses being committed by its sponsored Shia militias.
And if history is any indicator, they are right to worry. In every instance in which Iran has established a beachhead of auxiliary networks from Iraq to Lebanon, they have never given up territory voluntarily.
The good news is that the establishment of guarantors behind the peace process is a major step forward from the moribund Geneva negotiations which failed to produce any real progress in 2014 and 2016. Under an Obama administration that was shackled to its then secret negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the prior Geneva discussions lacked any real enforcement mechanisms. It was a recipe for disaster. And a disaster is exactly what took place as the Assad regime and Iran leveraged the Geneva process to expand the presence of foreign Shia militias and accelerate the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
The Russians have the potential to serve as effective guarantors if they so choose to do so. With a long-term basing agreement signed with the Assad regime, Moscow now has unfettered power throughout the areas that the regime controls. This may spell bad news for Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, the head of Iranian forces and its Shia militia network in Syria. Soleimani is in no mood to negotiate his forces’ withdrawal as they have taken the brunt of casualties in battle, as Assad’s Alawite forces stand on the sidelines while Iranian and Hezbollah forces take the lead in the fight.
The Russians will inevitably find themselves having to deal with General Powell's timeless maxim, "you break it, you fix it".
Occupation of a country is no easy task, and the Russians have summoned Assad to Moscow at least once in the past to give him stern instructions from their Minister of Defence. As the US military eventually realised in dealing with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, who ultimately turned against the US, the Russian occupation in Syria does not necessarily entail a compliant Assad.
One positive, yet underreported, outcome of Astana was the ability of the Syrian opposition to project an international image of unity and moderation. Though the Syrian regime’s representative at the talks Bashar Jaafari attempted to portray the opposition as "terrorists", the contrast was clear as opposition leaders unequivocally declared their commitment to fighting Daesh and al Qaeda.
Muhammad Alloush, head of the opposition delegation, was a leading member of a rebel force that actively fought Daesh in the Damascus suburbs, while Assad forces were simultaneously attempting to starve rebel held suburbs of the capital into submission. Another notable contrast to Jaafari’s "terrorist" aspersion was Yahya Aridi, the chief spokesman of the opposition delegation, who is a notable secular academic and at one time was the Syrian state media’s most prolific star before he defected to the opposition.
No sooner had the talks in Astana concluded when al Qaeda-linked fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham launched a new offensive against rebel forces in the liberated northern province of Idlib. In short, the regime’s continued assault against rebel forces is hampering the effort to fight and defeat Daesh and al Qaeda affiliates. Russia seems to be increasingly recognising this fact. Iran on the other hand, remains unmoved as it pursues what can only be termed as unchecked hegemony over what remains of the fractured Syrian state.
The next round of negotiations is set to be held under UN auspices in Geneva in early February. Will the international community be able to prevent Iran from playing the role of spoiler as it has in all prior iterations of Geneva discussions?
For the sake of peace in Syria, let us certainly hope so.