The closing statement of the Astana conference issued jointly by Russia, Turkey and Iran and read out by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said that participants had agreed on two basic points. One was to “establish a trilateral support for the Syrian ceasefire”, and the second was to “jointly fight terrorists from Islamic State [IS] and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham [formerly Al-Nusra Front] and to separate the terrorists from Syrian armed opposition groups.”
The statement reaffirmed principles established in the various international resolutions on the Syrian crisis that Russia and Iran had always agreed on in principle but obstructed in practice. “There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” which “can only be solved through a political process” in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254, the statement said. It also stressed the need “to guarantee the arrival of humanitarian assistance and to protect the freedom of movement of civilians in Syria”, and it upheld the principle of “Syria’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty.”
It also included a point to entice the armed opposition. Russia, Turkey and Iran “support the willingness of the armed opposition groups to take part in the next round of talks, which are scheduled for 8 February in Geneva”. Some Syrian and European observers read this as a bribe to soften the militant opposition groups.
The Syrian opposition does not have much confidence in the two chief points of the statement. The parties that will be monitoring and supporting the ceasefire are Russia and Iran. According to the opposition, these “guarantors” of the ceasefire that went into effect on 30 December had breached it dozens of times.
The Syrian opposition wants to fight “all foreign militias” present in the country, referring to the Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani militias that are fighting on the side of the regime in Damascus.
Following the release of the final statement, the leader of the opposition delegation at the Astana talks, Mohamed Alloush, leader of the Jaysh Al-Islam militants, said the opposition did not approve the statement which he claimed contained many “pitfalls and snares”.
A Syrian opposition member who was present at the conference told Al-Ahram Weekly, “the guarantees that Russia offered the opposition are virtually non-existent. They exclude the participation of the UN or any other influential power in the monitoring of the ceasefire.”
On the whole, the outputs of the Astana conference appear fragile and ambiguous. In fact, the sponsors declared that they supported the resumption of the UN-sponsored process in Geneva which can be read as an admission that the solution cannot be created in Astana and that it is unachievable without the US, Europe and Arab powers.
Turkey, throughout the Astana conference, made no effort to assert pressure on behalf of the Syrian opposition. Rather, the reverse tended to be the case. It sometimes pressured the opposition to agree to details that the opposition disapproved of.
On the other hand, Iran did not succeed in persuading Russia to give it a more active role in the conference. Russia agreed not to allow the Iranians to act as the mediator between the opposition and the regime. Nevertheless, in rejecting a strict and serious mechanism for monitoring the ceasefire and penalising breaches, Moscow effectively contributed to results that were perfectly consistent with Iran’s wishes.
Syrian opposition leaders also complain that Russia did not pressure Iran into forcing its militias to abide by the ceasefire conditions. Iranian-affiliated militias operate in large stretches of Syrian territory over which not even Syrian regime forces have control.
Ayad Barakat, a commander of the Southern Front faction of the Syrian militant opposition, told the Weekly, “the Astana conference did not hand Russia the command in the Middle East. Russia, through Astana and other mechanisms, needs to put an end to Iran’s power in Syria.”
The Syrian crisis “is too much for Astana to handle.”
It also became clear that Astana is not a venue for a political solution. The political track will remain the preserve of the UN and other world powers, most notably the US. Astana is ultimately a small stop in the international process that began with the first Geneva conference in 2012 and that will soon move to Geneva 4 next month.
However, in light of the past failures of all conferences to produce a feasible solution to the Syrian crisis, some Syrians fear that the Geneva 4 solution will also be “military not political”. If this proves the case, then the military forces will determine the fate of the Syrian people and jeopardise the democracy and rights demanded by the Syrian revolution.
Syrian writer Mohamed Deeb told the Weekly, “Clearly Russia is trying to ‘customise’ the opposition to suit its agenda, which is to say a delegation that accepts a Russian mandate over Syria. It is working on the political and military components simultaneously. Specifically, it regards the Syrian army as one of its mainstays in Syria. One of the indispensable components of any solution is the creation of a unified Syrian national army. The Russians will continue to work to produce a pragmatic solution to that question so as to retain its grip on the sources of strength. At the same time, Moscow is working to create a justification for attacking any faction that rejects the internationally agreed on solution at any future point.”
In other words, according to Deeb, the Russian scenario is to produce the forthcoming generation of generals with which Moscow will have established close relations.
Astana may seem as a turning point in Moscow, an attempt to promote a peaceful solution to a conflict that has been inflamed by siding with the Syrian regime. However, many question the seriousness of this Russian change. After all, Moscow could have included the Security Council or it could have at least agreed to the last UN Security council resolutions regarding a ceasefire and the introduction of humanitarian and medical relief, instead of using its veto.
The Syrian political opposition realises that there can be no winner in this war which is why it made great concessions. It also calls for an 18-month political transition phase, in accordance with the last resolution in the Vienna conference which had been ratified by the Security Council. Unfortunately, Iran and the regime have yet to grasp that they cannot emerge as winners from this war. They refuse to concede any of the gains they had accomplished through warfare, forgetting that those gains would never have been possible had it not been for the Russian military intervention and Moscow’s international influence and veto power in the Security Council.
Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil added that, “we should recall that Iran has a very inflated ego that drove it to expand the areas it controls in Syria at the expense of the Russia. What is strange, however, is that Moscow agreed to the Iranian conditions. It is certainly aware that everything that Iran is doing in Syria has nothing to do with the ‘secular non-sectarian democracy’ that is called for in all international resolutions.” In Muqbil’s opinion, this confirms that Russia “is incapable of realising a just political settlement to the Syrian war whether in Astana or any other venue.”
To the Syrian opposition, it is not Astana 1 or Astana 2 — if the Russians pursue this game — that hold the theoretical keys to a just solution. Rather, the crux of the issue and the source of ongoing concern reside in the many international and regional powers that are meddling militarily and politically in the Syrian crisis.