Abstract. This article observes staged attempts of the regional and international actors to affect a negotiation process in Syria.
The joint efforts have failed to provide a practical relevance despite the five years of negotiations. “Suggested formats” have not resulted in creating a mutually beneficial approach on Syria – to seek out a compromise.
However, an analysis of the Astana Talks Format results has demonstrated the feasibility of practical problems, managed not only to supplement the Geneva process, but also to open the way for negotiations on further transformations in Geneva.
Given that it was Astana platform allowed to create a security zones, which has significantly reduced the scope and level of violence in Syria, that speaks volumes. Stated differently the Astana Format objectively contributed to international detente, managed to engage the parties in constructive dialogue and to supplement the Geneva process.
Across the intersection of interests...
Currently the Middle East is one of the most unstable world regions. Regional confrontation is conducted at various levels: between small ethnic groups, terrorist groups, neighboring countries and major political leaders.
This region, which possesses a third of world’s oil and natural gas reserves, has become a hotbed of social, political, religious and cultural tensions since the “Arab spring”. It is a crossroads of major sea, air and land routes connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. The location makes the region certainly promising from the point of view of transit-capacity development and its impact on economic advancement.
However, the coexistence of Muslim and Christian civilizations, the juxtaposition of different cultures and ethnics represents in turn a huge potential for conflicts and creates additional difficulties for the solution of political problems.
Some Arab countries took individual elements of democratic systems, taking into account the democratization formation processes in the world, while maintaining the traditional way of social life. Others were involved in large- scale social conflicts, which are currently in different stages, rejecting the Western forms of democracy.
In this regard, the Syrian Arab Republic has become a country which broke one of the most acute and protracted conflicts. The question of how to resolve the entrenched conflict was key to reducing regional tension, something that could subsequently mean the creation of a favourable international situation. The Astana Talks in this context became the key to the settlement of the Syria conflict. It managed not only to increase the effectiveness of the Geneva negotiations, but to predetermine the agenda of the region’s future.
“Untouch points” or how did it get started...
Before the beginning of the Astana Talks Format, various attempts had been made to achieve effectiveness in settling the Syria conflict. In some cases, the proposed platforms are not effective because of inconsistencies of external parties; and in others, the problem was the search for agreements on cease fire and truce between official Damascus and the “moderate armed opposition”. In this context, it is worthwhile paying attention to a particularly important negotiation process that took place from 2011 to 2016, which managed to gather at the negotiating table involved participants but which did not bring productive results in providing practical solutions.
The Arab League Plan, developed in January 2012, envisaged the handover of power from Syrian President B. al-Assad to ex-VicePresident Farouk al-sharaa. Moreover, it was suggested that, in two months, a government of national unity should be formed under the leadership of a figure acceptable to all sides; and within six months to organize a Presidential election in Syria with the participation of Arab and foreign observers. However, the Arab League suspended its activities in Syria after the armed attacks on members of the League .
The Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria or “six-point peace plan for Syria”. A Plan for Syria developed in the spring of 2012 by Ko Annan, UN and the Arab League special envoy, in particular, called for the cessation of armed violence by all parties under effective control of the UN special arrangements. Moreover, it included the issue of ensuring humanitarian access to all parts of the country affected by armed clashes .
The important items in the Plan were compliance with a daily two-hour ceasefire, the right for peaceful demonstrations and freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists. However, the Plan did not include the question of the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on which the West was so insistent.
This initiative was not successful. None of the items have been implemented; and reports about new armed incidents and victims regularly came from Syria .
Group “Friends of Syria”. This format was initiated in February 2012 with the aim of regular discussions of the Syria situation outside the UN
Security Council. According to some estimates, there was a “new international diplomatic collective of countries” interested in shifting the current regime, intent on circumventing the veto of Russia and China on the Security Council resolution which condemned Syria.
In the framework of the conferences held from 2012 to 2014 the Group discussed the increase pressure on the Syrian government and support the moderate Syrian opposition, including armed groups, in the form of military stuff delivery and other assistance .
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) announced this “Alliance” by series of related circles of conspiracy against Syria. It should be noted that the format of the meetings did not provide meaningful process and failed to lead to finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict .
In general, the practice of resolutions in respect of Syria was used to accelerate the solution of the Syrian issue. Resolutions proposed by the West and some Arab States have condemned the grave violations of human rights and arms supplies for the Syrian army. Russia and China, in turn, insisted on the principles of non-interference in the Syria’s internal affairs, demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and a termination of the moderate opposition funding. Russia blocked West resolutions in the UN ten times over the entire period of the civil war, defending its position on Syria.
Thus, such initiatives have not ensured progress in developing a common approach on the Syrian issue because of vetoed resolutions of the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, it is appropriate to mention the first attempts of the Geneva negotiations on Syria or Platform “Geneva-1”. On 30 June 2012 at the initial stage the parties held a first international conference under the UN auspices within the framework of the “Action Group on Syria”. The process involved the permanent members of the UN Security Council, representatives of the European Union and the Foreign Policies of Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. However, this format does not include Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the immediate neighbors of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN and the Arab League special envoy on Syria, has called the talks “insufficient” according to the results of all consultations, intending to involve the UN Security Council. Russia is expected to make a statement which would have established a deadline for cease-fire and start peace talks between the parties involved in the Syrian conflict.
Thus, there were six preparatory meetings in the format of Russia – US – UN from that period until January 2014. However, the parties were unable to reach peace, in particular due to a delay in the response of the Syrian opposition regarding its participation in upcoming negotiations. In May 2013, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, made a proposal to hold a new conference on Syria, called “Geneva-2”. “Geneva-2”, which started on 22 January 2014, was a continuation of the “Geneva-1” negotiation process, previously proposed by Ko Annan, former UN and the Arab League Special Envoy on Syria.
In this context, it is worth saying that a new phase of negotiations to resolve the Syrian crisis has included both sides – a delegation of Syrian Government and the opposition fighting against the current regime.
If in the first round, held in January 2014, any results on the issue of providing humanitarian aid and prisoner exchange failed, in the second round of negotiations, held on 10-15 February, the parties were able to agree on the supply of humanitarian aid to Horn and civilian evacuation. Accordingly, this solution was the only result of “Geneva-2”.
As a result of the Second Geneva talks, it became clear that in the framework of “Geneva-2” the consultations have not brought significant progress for the Syrian people. As a rule, only a political settlement was the only way to end the conflict. In this case, the parties relied on the achievement of significant progress in the implementation of the third international conference on Syria, otherwise “Geneva-3”. Simultaneous with the preparatory stage to the negotiations, “Geneva-3” was held as part of the Vienna peace talks on Syria, carrying out the role of a bridge between the processes of “Geneva-2 and Geneva-3”. It is worth noting that a fairly successful military operation of the Russian armed forces in Syria starting against the ISIL terrorists in September 2015 was an important reason for the initiation of the Vienna negotiation process started in November 2015. Initially, a new peace plan for Syria was worked out jointly in the framework of the Vienna talks, which included agreement on the commitment to a cease-fire between the warring parties and achieving national reconciliation. Moreover, its provision for the elimination of ISIL, “Al-Nusra Front” and other terrorist groups has become an important condition. However, the dispute between Russia and the United States failed to find a common denominator regarding the political future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President.
The disputes between the various parties still exist within the Third Geneva Talks on Syria, held under the auspices of the United Nations from February to July 2016. Thus, Riyadh has opposed the participation of the Iranian side in the negotiations on Syria, amid worsening diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Munich Meetings were a long-term stage of the “Geneva-3” process in February 2016. Considering the results of the negotiations, it may be noted that their consultations were only given the prospects of establishing a cease-fire by the moderate armed opposition and does not spread to the main parts of the Syrian Islamic front, ISIS and “Jabhat al-Nusra”.
Still, a minor progress under the same process could ensure the Lausanne peace talks on Syria, as it was attended by the heads of Russia, USA, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran Foreign Policies, as well as Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria. Thus, a wide range of participants in this process for the first time included in the agenda the issue of withdrawal of support for extremists and the possibility of developing a “road map” for a political settlement.
Summarizing the above-mentioned negotiation processes, the parties have not come to a compromise solution which could ensure a cease- fire, a truce and, as a consequence, to consolidate efforts in the fight against the main terrorist organizations. The approach on dividing the “moderate armed opposition” from the armed “jihadists” have become consistent.
The search for the best site for negotiations
The talks site always had certain importance. In this context, the Astana site was chosen for a reason. The issue of balancing political and economic interests in relation to their partners has played a key role for Astana.
On the one hand, Astana Format was proposed, primarily due to Kazakhstan’s earned image. On the other hand, the constructive communication of Astana with Western partners would help promote a new format of negotiations for Russia and Iran to a certain extent.
In addition, close economic and trade relations and investment agreements of Kazakhstan with a number of Middle East countries in this case simplified the opportunity not only to involve the Arab countries in the process, but also to develop a “balanced approach”. Initially, the idea of such tactics was not to spoil the “Nazarbayev mediation style” and the image of Astana as a successful negotiation bridge.
Constructive negotiations on Syria are the result, primarily, of the “Astana” platform, not “Geneva”
Initially, a question of major importance, during the resolution of a long civil war, has always been connected with cease re and willingness to start negotiations. Only then the political aspect of the settlement was made in the drafting of a future government and the adoption of new Constitution, etc.
A similar scenario is in the Syrian case. It wasn’t impossible to debate on the Geneva agenda, including development of the future state specifications, the adoption of a new Constitution for Syria and the holding of elections supervised by the United Nations, while practical questions of “Astana” would not be solved. To ensure the inclusive nature of the process was the main task: a consolidation of the entire spectrum of the opposition and the search for a constructive dialogue with the official Damascus government delegation.
A number of countries have made efforts in this direction. For example, Saudi Arabia has made great efforts to unite the opposition with which it cooperated. So the “Riyadh group” was created. On the Egyptian side the “Cairo group” opposition appeared, which was in close Alliance with the most combat worthy Kurdish people’s self-defence militias. On the Russian side – the “Moscow group” led by the Front for change and liberation of Syria.
Subsequently, Kazakhstan’s diplomacy has contributed to the development of these initiatives; and thus “Astana group” was formed. Leaders and representatives of various opposition forces in Syria, as well as representatives of civil society and independent opposition, who was ready to meet under the “Astana umbrella”, were included in it.
Focusing on the total productivity of “Astana and Geneva” processes, it should be noted that Astana is a new process, and the current Geneva inter-Syrian negotiations are a continuation of the previous inconclusive “Geneva-3” talks.
From the time of activation of the Kazakstany platform, two of the dialogue platforms, “Astana” and “Geneva”, complement each other. In this case the Geneva process is working on one agenda, and “Astana” on the other. It is worth to say that without the Astana process the representatives of the warring parties could not sit at the same negotiating table in Geneva, because the Geneva process prevented ultimatums from the representatives of the various oppositions and preconditions being imposed on the negotiations.
It is noteworthy that the obstacle to the political process in the framework of “Geneva” has always been that the Syrian leadership has not provided any vision of the transition period. Thus, the Assad regime prevented the implementation of the Geneva process.
The first three rounds of talks held in January, February and March 2017, at once determined the fate of the Astana process. The integration of the armed opposition into Syrian negotiation process was effective.
“Astana” has created a more favorable atmosphere for further negotiations, prior to the Geneva peace talks. Moreover, the agreement between the guarantors of the truce – Russia, Iran and Turkey on the establishment of a tripartite mechanism to monitor the cease-fire in Syria, has become one of the main outcomes of these negotiations, what was not achieved early on the Geneva talks.
The list of significant achievements might also include the creation of a mechanism of prisoner exchange, as well as consistency in the dead-bodies exchange. So, the gradual promotion of the Astana process began. However, at later stages, certain difficulties arose. The boycott of the talks third round by the armed opposition’s delegation did not stop the discussion of the truce regime.
On 7 April 2017 a missile strike by US on Syria that negatively affected the political efforts of the guarantor-countries of the Astana negotiation process exacerbated the split lines of the different parties on the Syrian case. However, it did not disrupt further negotiations in May.
In subsequent rounds, significant success has been achieved in the creation of zones of de- escalation, which stopped the fighting in agreed areas and provide quick and safe access to humanitarian help. Accordingly, guarantor countries, which bear the obligation to monitor the settlement process, have appeared.
Another diplomatic achievement was the separation of “armed moderate opposition” from the terrorist groups ISIL, “Al-Nusra Front” , related to the al-Qaeda terrorist groups “Ahrar al-sham” and “Jaish al-Islam”, which constitute united Syrian Islamic.
The seventh round marked positive developments in the Syrian conflict: the process moved from a military solution to a political, so the Astana process has been successful in solving practical problems and intensifying efforts to promote the political process in Geneva.
Now the resolution of the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly can have a negative impact. Thus, according to the Russian party, a resolution adopted in November on human-rights violations in Syria undermines the international efforts that that have been made in Astana. The Syrian side defines this “project” as a part of a campaign on behalf of Saudi Arabia and its allies aimed at destroying Syrian statehood. Objectively, this approach is characterized as counterproductive, since the “politicized” resolution adopted creates obstacles to this process.
In this context, a potential escalation of the conflict and the hardening of the positions of the parties can only threaten previous agreements. In other words, the practice of such “moves” will only postpone the prospect of reaching a comprehensive peace.
At this stage, unsatisfactory comments on the performance of the Astana format appear. For example, James Mattis, the Minister of Defence of the USA, characterizes the Astana inter-Syrian negotiations as unproductive, giving priority to the Geneva process .
There are some positive reviews among the official points of view. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly noted the effectiveness of negotiations. The Russian President Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly stressed the proven effectiveness of the Astana format in his speeches .
“Astana” is a successful addition to “Geneva”
Currently, almost ninety-eight percent of the state’s territory is under the control of the Syrian army, including one of the main points - Deir-ez-Zor city. A phased systematic retreat of the armed gangs should be noted. Moreover, the plans on joint demining efforts of world heritage sites in Syria can be perceived as approaching the end of the civil war.
Overall, the Astana process in seven rounds of negotiations have significantly reduced the scope and level of violence on Syrian territory. It has disproved the scepticism, demonstrated their productivity through the implementation of practical questions and given further impetus to the Geneva negotiations.
As a result, today steps for activation of inclusive inter-Syrian dialogue is undertaken on the basis of UN Security Council 2254 resolution. On new sites, it is possible to provide for the participation of representatives of wide segments of Syrian society, with gradual promotion. There are plans to gather delegates from various political parties, internal and external opposition and ethnically religious groups at the negotiating table. However, first of all, the main objective is to develop a national agenda for Syria, including the reconstruction of the infrastructure, the revival of industry, agriculture, trade and the opening of social sites.
Progress in resolving the crisis on the basis of the “Astana-Geneva” format opens a new stage in the Syrian conflict settlement. Their complementarity is actually reducing the risks of new conflicts.
Today, the parties, interested in a process of stabilization, agree to take the maximum steps to stimulate the engagement of other countries, including regional and international organizations. So, all the planned objectives in the long term, should really speed up the peace process and, as a consequence, to have a positive impact on the situation in the middle East.
Now the question is whether the agreements are crucial for Syria’s future? And what will be the future Syria’s policy? These questions remain in the Geneva agenda. Still, thanks to the Astana inter-Syrian process, the specific tasks stipulated in the document, are being being carried out; and there are hopes for improvement of the situation in Syria.
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