The armed Syrian opposition did not take long to agree to take part in the Russian-Turkish sponsored Astana Conference set for 23 January in the Kazakh capital. Its delegation will consist of representatives of the 13 factions that signed the Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire agreement that went into effect in December 2016.
Whatever the prospects of the forthcoming conference, the participation of the opposition is largely limited to the armed factions. The political opposition forces have been marginalised, including the High Negotiations Committee which has been internationally recognised as the negotiator for the Syrian opposition and which took part in the last UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva.
Also sidelined was the Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which consists of a broad array of Syrian political movements, parties and opposition associations.
The Russians have attached great importance to the Astana Conference, and they are determined for it to succeed, putting considerable pressure on the militant opposition factions to participate. Russia’s Turkish partners threatened the factions that Ankara would cease its military and financial support and seal its borders if the militias refused to participate.
It has also convinced them that they will be able to place their conditions on the table at Astana, weaken the allegedly Kurdish Workers Party (PKK)-linked Syrian Kurds, and undermine Iranian influence in Syria by cooperating with the Russians.
Russia has been working to mend the gap in the representation of the opposition by including members of the political opposition. However, for the most part these have been invited to attend in an individual capacity rather than as members of movements or organisations.
Not only will the political opposition be sidelined at the Astana Conference, but so too will a number of the opposition combatant forces. The delegation that will attend the conference does not include the Southern Front, for example, which has been active in the south of Syria.
Nor does it include factions that have refused to take part because of suspicions concerning the conference’s aims, including Ahrar Al-Sham, the Ahl Al-Sham Revolutionaries, the Free Idlib Army, the Army of Mujahideen, the Levant Eagles and the Rahman Brigade.
Whatever the Russian intentions, it appears that the conference will discuss no more than the ceasefire plan and arrangements for humanitarian relief. Questions regarding the political process will most likely be deferred until the Geneva Conference the UN has announced will take place on 8 February.
Syrian opposition member Said Mokbel is sceptical about the aims of the conference. Making the ceasefire hold “does not require an Astana Conference, but only a Russian and international decision,” he said.
“The Syrian opposition has been asking for years for a binding UN ceasefire resolution that invokes Article 7 of the UN Charter. Russia has always obstructed this, while the regime and Iran have breached every temporary truce. How can the Astana Conference produce a guarantee for a ceasefire when Russia is the arbitrator,” he asked.
Other opposition figures see the conference as a step forward, but not a solution to the crisis. They have urged the High Negotiations Committee to support it on the grounds that this will preempt the regime’s and Iran’s designs to dismiss them as rogue forces opposed to peace. But this does not alter their suspicions concerning the purpose of the conference.
Some opposition parties are asking the armed factions that will take part to avoid discussing the political process. “The Astana Conference is filled with dangers, because the Russians control it,” said opposition member Nader Jabali.
The conference will probably deal with the military situation and not the political track. However, the Iranians and Syrian regime will likely exploit it to the utmost in order to derail this approach after having failed to preempt it by constant breaches of the ceasefire in various parts of Syria.
This may be why Russia has sought to exclude Iran from direct involvement in the conference, even though it would not have been possible without the tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish Agreement reached in Moscow on 20 December.
It is also clear that the Russian drive to negotiate directly with the militant factions is intended to sweep the rug out from under the High Negotiations Committee. However, any decision that emerges will not be representative of the Syrian political opposition, which is likely to reject it as long as it suspects that it will fail to realise these factions’ political aspirations.
There are many doubts regarding the armed opposition factions’ professional capacities and their skills in handling tough political negotiations.
“Converting the military factions into political negotiating partners is potentially very dangerous because these factions presumably have no relationship with the negotiating process and lack know-how and expertise with regard to the negotiations, the UN Resolutions on Syria and the obstacles to the first and second Geneva Conferences,” commented Oqab Yahya of the Syrian political opposition.
“This suggests that the intention is to undermine the political opposition and give the military opposition precedence.”
The Russians are keen to turn the Astana Conference into an alternative to the Geneva process. They have ruled out UN sponsorship of the Astana Conference and did not invite the US or other Middle Eastern stakeholders in the Syrian crisis, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It appears that not even UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will be invited.
If this is indeed the Russian plan, it is one that is bound to fail. Neither Russia nor any other power can circumvent the Geneva Declaration or the outputs of the Geneva Conferences without an international consensus that embraces the Western powers and the major regional ones. Geneva remains the sole frame-of-reference for international legitimacy, while Astana lacks international recognition as a venue for the search to a solution to the Syrian crisis.
UN Security Council Resolution 2336 states only that the 15-member council “takes note” of the conference, meaning that the EU countries and the US in fact disapprove of it.
Nevertheless, some Syrian opposition members think the conference could produce some positive results because of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, the shift in the Russian stance on the Syrian conflict, and the international exposure of Iran’s true intentions.
Syrian opposition member Jaber Al-Shoufi told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the majority of Syrians hope the Astana Conference will bring an end to the fighting and usher in peace and security. This is very important, and it should be supported by the international and regional parties.”
“However, the Syrians should also rally around their chosen negotiators, promote coordination between the military and political factions, agree on a set of demands and priorities, and ramp up the pressure for the maximum they can attain, especially with regard to the interim government,” he added.
Since the Syrian armed factions that agreed to go to Astana, whether on the side of the regime or the opposition, did so under compulsion, it is difficult to envision them agreeing to anything apart from fighting the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS) group.
They could do this on their own without cooperation, though some of the opposition factions do not regard these extremist militias as their chief adversaries. To them, the adversary is the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which some suspect of having connections with IS in certain areas.
Syrian commentator Gad Al-Kareem Al-Jabaei said that “military men will be drawing up policy directly in Astana and perhaps indirectly in Geneva.” Whether from the side of the opposition or of the regime, these men have “committed, ordered or colluded in acts internationally classed as war crimes that have been documented and perpetrated in full view of the international community,” he said.
“This means the war establishment will be formulating policy, defining institutions and how they work, and setting the course of the future of the country in the name of the people and the revolution.”
If the Astana Conference succeeds in handling the military it will have scored a breakthrough, with the mere ability to secure the ceasefire being regarded as a success. However, if it plunges into the political track, it will probably destroy what it has built as the Russians proceed on the premise that Al-Assad and his regime must stay in the framework of an interim solution and have ruled out discussion to the contrary.
This remains unacceptable to the opposition and to the millions of Syrians who have endured the brunt of the violence.
Even if the Astana Conference scores a partial success, this will be fragile unless it is backed by a UN resolution that binds all the parties under the provisions of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. It also brings another danger, which is that the already fragmented Syrian opposition will break down further, with one camp agreeing to a process that the opposing camps reject.
This could be further aggravated by the conflict between the political and the armed opposition, which could have massively detrimental consequences for the Syrian people’s dreams of establishing a democratic and pluralistic political system in their country.