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The talks that opened on January 23, 2017 in Astana, in Kazakhstan, reflect the current military and political power brokers in the Middle East. The lead role: Russia. They are the broker in the Syrian crisis. Moscow decided who would participate in the negotiations and who would not. Supporting roles: Turkey and Iran. Then come the other players, including the UN. The United Nations’ representative, Staffan de Mistura, is basically doing what he is told.

A number of other actors have been invited to attend: the United States, France, the UK and the EU. Being polite doesn’t mean they are meant to actually play any role in the talks. The other participants include the warring parties: a delegation from the Syrian government and members of about 50 armed groups. The official delegation is led by Bashar Jafari, Permanent Representative of Syria at the UN.

The oppositions

Opposition groups are headed by Mohammed Alloush, the leader of a Salafist group financed by Saudi Arabia, Jaysh al-Islam, who is opposed to ISIS and is very strong in the outskirts of Damascus. Beside him is a former Syrian General who defected, Assad al Zoubi, and George Sabra, a Greek-Orthodox Christian who heads the Syrian National Council (SNC), a Turkey-based coalition of opposition groups that was running a shadow government in exile. The SNC had refused to take part in the Geneva talks, while Alloush had walked out in 2016. Christians have been generally pro-Assad, while the SNC also feature the Turkish-supported Muslim Brotherhood, who has always been at odds with the Alawites. The fact that these people were not part of UN-led talks says a lot.

The only opposition groups that have been left out are the radical Islamic factions labeled as terrorist, i.e. ISIS and Fatah al Shan, the former Nusra Front linked to Al Qaeda. Despite the US support, the Syrian Kurdish factions were not invited because of Turkish opposition, as were the Lebanese Hezbollah. Unlike in the past, Syrian opposition doesn’t only include groups in exile, but also armed factions on the ground. This is a step in the pragmatic direction.

Bashar al Assad

Closed doors and indirect talks

Opposition groups refuse to sit at the same table with the Syrian government, whom they claim is responsible for violating the truce that began on December 30, 2016. The cessation of hostilities was decided and imposed by the Russians. While it is still unclear whether the Astana talks will produce any results, it is an achievement that any negotiations are taking place at all. At a time when the government in Damascus is at its best: Aleppo has fallen and the opposition is in shreds.

Six years of civil war, almost 1 million dead, 11 million refugees or IDPs make any peace initiative difficult to impose. And if we were to look for an actor strong enough to dictate the terms of peace, that would be Russia. The failure or success of the talks will depend on Moscow’s capabilities. There are no alternatives, since every round of negotiations in Astana is followed by another session in Geneva. The UN is basically left to play a supporting role.

Unsolved issues

One of the major outstanding issues is the survival of the Syrian State as we know it. The divide between the Alawites and the Sunni opposition is so deep that, at least in the short term, any peaceful reconciliation seems unattainable. Too much blood and violence has been spilled by both communities. Could we envisage a federalist government in Syria with internationally-protected regional entities? Potentially yes, if it wasn’t for Turkey’s hostility to any solution that includes self-rule for Syrian Kurds.

The problem lies in finding a solution that will appease both the warring factions and neighboring countries. After Turkey, Iran is another country trying to influence the balance of power in the region by supporting Shia-led regimes. Tehran’s hostility has prevented the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in the talks. But Riyadh will soon benefit from Russian and Turkish sponsorship and be part of the talks.

The survival of the Assad regime could be the price to pay for Syria’s stability. Russia has never clearly stated its intentions, one way or the other. All the Russians want is a favorable regime in Damascus, with or without the Assads.

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YPG Kurd fighter

An ongoing process

We’re currently at the third round of talks in Astana. The delegations continue to refuse direct meetings with the Syrian regime and no joint statement has been signed. The lack of any concrete progress comes after Russia has agreed to: suspend bombardments, release and exchange prisoners, send humanitarian aid and put a stop to sieges in several rebel-held areas.

Russia, Iran and Turkey have created a joint monitoring group to support the respect of a fragile truce between the parties and that does not include terrorist groups. The ceasefire has been violated by the Syrian army several times: they attack both the rebels participating in Astana and those who are not. This means Damascus is not yet willing to negotiate. In other words, the more time Russia will grant Assad to strengthen its position, the more unlikely a speedy success to the Astana talks.

Presently the regime controls from 45 to 50% of Syrian territory, the armed opposition groups 10%, the Kurds from the YPG 15-20% and ISIS the remaining 30%. The starting point of the negotiations has been the concept of preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. Assad has made it clear that he won’t accept any exceptions. With the 2014 “elections” Bashar al Assad’s mandate has been extended until 2021. By then he will be stronger that what he is now.

The December 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2254 asked for a multicultural Syria, with a new Constitution and free elections. All those propositions have never seen the light. Nor have the peace initiatives that followed: Arab League, French President Nicolas Sarkozy with his Friends of Syria, the so-called Vienna process, the Iranian attempt via the Non Aligned Movement, the Lausanne meetings and so forth. Astana is currently the only open option left.

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