Talks on Syria started in Astana on January 23 involving both conflicting sides – the government and opposition of Syria, guarantor-states - Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as representatives of UN and U.S. Expectations are high. Powerbrokers hope for a breakthrough, but experts are skeptical about the ongoing talks in Astana.
Talks are held behind closed doors and may last until Tuesday evening. Journalists witnessed only the beginning of the talks. Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan Kairat Abdrakhmanov delivered a welcoming speech on behalf of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. “Dialogue and mutual understanding must be the only right way to settle the situation in Syria. Kazakhstan seeks to establish and maintain security and stability in the Middle East,” he said.
According to the president’s address, Kazakhstan was chosen as a host country for a reason. In 2015, Astana hosted two rounds of talks between separate Syrian opposition groups. Besides, the country allocated more than $700,000 “to relief sufferings of Syrian refugees” and has recently dispatched 500 tons of foodstuffs as humanitarian aid. “I am sure the meeting in Astana will provide all the necessary conditions for the parties concerned to find a mutually-admissible solution to the Syrian crisis within Geneva process and under aegis of the UN,” the foreign minister read out the president’s address wishing the sides fruitful talks.
Head of the Syrian Government Delegation, permanent representative of Syria at UN Bashar al-Jaafari was the first to deliver a speech at the talks, though a day ago he refused to sit at the negotiating table with the Syrian opposition representatives. He admitted that the meeting was a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts and thanked the other sides to the talks, “especially Iran for its efforts to help cease fire in Syria.” Iran, Russia and Turkey initiated the talks. Iran was against participation of the United States in the talks. Yet, Washington refused to send a delegation to Astana. It just sent a special envoy – U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol. “Given our presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition, a delegation from Washington will not be attending the Astana conference,” U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Despite pre-talks tension, there are still chances for a success, according to Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria. Moscow too hopes for a progress. Russian Foreign Ministry Official Representative Maria Zakharova said at a pre-talk press briefing: “We hope that the international meeting on a Syria settlement in Astana on January 23 will help consolidate the ceasefire regime in Syria and create a favorable atmosphere for launching an inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue in Geneva under the auspices of the UN.”
Orientalist Alexander Knyazev anticipates no major breakthrough in the talks calling them information propaganda. “Judging from a series of reports, the countries that initiated these talks did not hope for a breakthrough. The Russian side expects confirmation of the ceasefire agreements made in Syria on December 29 2016 at best. If that goal – confirmation of the agreement – is achieved at least by part of the Syrian opposition, I think it will be a solid success. All the rest is just propaganda mess. Each country seeks favorable perspectives in that information picture, nothing else,” Knyazev said on air of Eastern Review TV show.
In response to EADaily’s question about his pessimism, Alexander Knyazev said that before the conference in Syria, the Syrian groups involved in the conditional delegation of the opposition lacked mutual understanding and there was a risk that the conference would be opened without their presence. The governmental delegation of Syria refused to sit at the negotiating table with representatives of some of those groups. “Can you imagine a situation when the conference on Syria peace process is opened by Russia, Iran, Turkey and Kazakhstan without participation of Syrians? This shows the acuteness of the conflict and talks are not enough to settle it,” the expert says. According to him, the initiators of the talks have quite difference attitude to the status of talks.
While Iran and Russia consider these talks a start of a new process, Turkey consider the event as part of the Geneva process that faced a stalemate yet long ago. Besides, Iran confirmed its stance opposing U.S. as a negotiator. Meantime, Turkey and Russia invited U.S., but only Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol has attended the talks as a negotiator. “There are too many internal discrepancies to anticipate anything positive,” the expert says.
The expert points out a fact that many ignore. “Altogether, 91 groups are fighting against the government in Syria. All they have their own management centers outside the country, many of them lack support inside Syria and rely on foreign sponsors only. A number of groups supported by Qatar refused to attend the talks…As a result, only 12 group out of total 91 are attending the talks in Astana. These are neither the largest nor the most radical groups, but they are quite reconcilable. For instance, a representative of one of those groups said the major task of the talks in Astana is to impose a punishment on al-Assad’s government for violation of the ceasefire by the government troops. This does not meet the goals of other participants,” Knyazev says.
There is lack of agreement among European countries too. For instance, Germany’s representatives said the talks in Astana could be acceptable if they touch upon fate of Bashar al-Assad. This does not meet the stances of Russia and Iran that were accepted by Turkey too – now Ankara is sure that Assad has an important part in what is happening in Syria.
“The format is ill-conceived and many issues remain unresolved. However, it is a needed format, at least, to settle such issues as observation of ceasefire in separate areas and with separate groups. Since lives of civilians are in question here, the talks will be useful anyway,” the orientalist says for conclusion.