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Astana talks: Mercy to the vanquished or foundation of peace in Syria?

Astana

The Syrian talks planned for January 23 are news as for the first time Bashar al-Assad’s enemies are represented there by real leaders of armed groups instead of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition whose members are emigrants and decide nothing. Nine of the militant groups expressed their willingness to participate in the talks in Astana: Jaish al-Islam, Jabhat al-Shamiya, Jaish al-Nasr, Faylaq al-Sham, a l-Islam Martyrs Brigade, Jaish al-Izzah, First Coastal Division, Fastaqim, and Sultan Murad Brigade.

The biggest of them is Jaish al-Islam, it has about 12,000 rebels, however, it is spread in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor provinces. The rest are much weaker. Evidently, such high level of readiness of the Syrian opposition forces for the talks is a result of the Syrian pro-governmental forces’ success supported by its faithful and trusted allies, Russia and Iran. After seizure of the stronghold of the Syrian opposition, Aleppo, there are no big settlements left under its control. Moreover, Turkey which has been a long-time supporter and sponsor of al-Assad’s enemies looks like having agreed with Russia and lowered the level of its support. It seems that the United States is about to do the same under its new president Donald Trump. By the way, the USA is also invited to the talks, but as an observer only, as Iran was against granting it more. The situation is not the easiest one for the Syrian opposition, so Russia suggested a saving loophole: to suspend military action and come to terms. First, they were talking about a truce since December 30. It was a kind of a test for the military groups, how adequate they are. Only after that, with the effort of Russia, Iran, and Turkey they were invited to the negotiation table.

An important thing here is that not all of them were invited. The ISIL and Jaish Fateh al-Sham that are in the lists of terrorist organizations received no invitation and no one is going to come to terms with them. Several other groups decided not participate on their own, including the Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Suqour al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen and some other groups. However, the biggest force of the relatively moderate Syrian opposition that is not going to Astana is certainly Ahrar al-Sham that has up to 16,000 rebels. The group is predominantly active in Idlib, where its units are fighting near Jaish Fateh al-Sham. Mostly due to the cooperation with the terrorists made Ahrar al-Sham reject the idea of talks, as it would mean “the moderate opposition” wages a war against the “radicals.” Being hurt by the government forces, Ahrar al-Sham cannot agree to it. However, indirectly it entrusted commanders of other groups to have talks in Astana saying it would accept outcomes be they positive.

According to all the participants one should not expect any serious breakthroughs. Some of the opposition forces’ leaders make no secret that they consider the negotiations as an opportunity to protract the truce and recuperate. Those who did not join the talks are even tougher. For instance, one of the leaders of Nour al-Din al-Zenki said that organizers of the negotiation process in Astana “will not succeed in pushing the Syrian people to the fourth frontline,” hinting that three ones – against al-Assad, Russia and Iran are already opened.

Evidently, the Russian initiative on the talks is breaking the back of the Syrian opposition into more than two weaker parts that will have unclear relations with each other. The interaction of those participating in the talks and those who are not will complicate seriously. Probably, the crisis and division among the Syrian opposition will escalate, that will help al-Assad’s forces ousting the rebels from Idlib and other territories.

The Kurdish issue is more vulnerable and ambiguous at the talks. It is worth mentioning that previously the three rounds of Syrian talks in Geneva went without Kurds. However, some of them were invited to Astana. They are members of the Kurdish National Council led by Abdul Hakim Bashar. As for the Syrian Democratic Forces and Democratic Union, they will not be let to the talks. The alliance is treated by Ankara as a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party that is called a terrorist organization in Turkey. Meanwhile, key successes of the Kurds in fighting the ISIL belong to the Democratic Union. This discrepancy has resulted in a statement made by the Kurdish autonomy saying that they would not support outcomes of the Astana talks and accused Russia in repeating mistakes of Western states.

The talks in Astana, if not providing a certain result will pave the way for a dialog of the Syrian opposition and its legitimate government. It would be a dialog of real actors and participants of the Syrian conflict instead of emigrants who had not visited the countries for years. This very dialog can result in a true ceasefire. One should not expect any certain and sounding outcomes right at the moment, as this is impossible.

The defeated opposition leaders who are forced to sit to the negotiation table cannot allow themselves giving ground in an open and declarative manner, but they have no choice. In this sense, Russia’s decision about the talks is a valuable diplomatic finding that is supposed to evade bloodshed, escalation of tension and hate. This is not generousness towards the defeated, but a strategic move to reconcile the sides, cease the military action and simultaneously it means taking the diplomatic levers from the West that were supposed to influence the situation in Syria.

Anton Yevstratov for EADaily

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