This week saw numerous meetings in the Kazakh capital Astana connected with the Syrian crisis.
Representatives of the armed Syrian opposition factions and of the Syrian regime who had taken part in the first round of talks on 23 January returned to the negotiating table with the Russians and Turks. Further talks were held between the three guarantors of the outputs of the Astana I Conference, Russia, Iran and Turkey, and the two sides on how to sustain and monitor the ceasefire.
According to a Russian defence ministry statement released last week, experts in a technical meeting met to discuss ways of separating the moderate Syrian opposition from the Al-Nusra Front, as well as the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement, developing measures aimed at monitoring the agreement and preventing violations, increasing the level of trust and solving issues related to delivering humanitarian aid.
The statement added that the agreement’s Joint Operational Group would hold regular meetings in Astana with representatives from the Syrian government and the armed opposition groups.
Preparatory to such meetings, armed opposition representatives met with Russian and Turkish officials in Ankara to discuss the ceasefire that Russia and Turkey have pledged to guarantee. The opposition delegation asked for concrete guarantees, a clear mechanism and immediate penalties against parties that breach or fail to comply.
They stressed that such measures should include regime forces and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah. They demanded the cessation of the population-transfer and demographic change operations being undertaken by the regime and the militias affiliated with Iran in parts of Syria, especially in Damascus province.
The meetings in Ankara and Astana are the prelude to a longer series of meetings on Syria to take place this month. The Syrian political opposition is shuttling back and forth between Ankara, Riyadh and Qatar for consultations on the composition of its delegation. UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has threatened that he will form the delegation if the opposition fails to agree.
The opposition’s efforts to form a delegation have been encumbered by the refusal of a number of opposition factions to include representatives of groups that Moscow insists should be represented. In their opinion, such groups are too close to Moscow and too soft on the regime.
Instead of wanting to topple the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the groups are merely interested in reform and improvements in political life in Syria, the opposition says. In the opinion of the majority, the appropriate place for such groups is on the side of the regime rather than in the opposition delegation.
Preparations are also underway for a conference of Syrian opposition forces in Cairo. The Cairo III Meeting, expected to yield two platforms, one negotiating and one logistical, will likely take place at the end of this month. The preparatory committee is contacting as many members of the Syrian opposition and independent forces and movements as possible in order to invite them.
According to the opposition, the Cairo Conference will produce a platform representing a broad spectrum of opposition forces. It will have a presidential office responsible for discussing sensitive issues regarding the framework of the political process and it will have an office responsible for negotiations and the political transition.
De Mistura has started to send out invitations to the opposition without waiting for the results of meetings of the Syrian National Coalition and the Higher Negotiations Committee. Ten members of the latter have been invited in a personal capacity to the Geneva talks scheduled for the end of this month.
The armed opposition holds that the committee is the real representative of the opposition and not a mere platform on the level of the Cairo or Moscow groups which it maintains are actually affiliated with the regime and Moscow.
New UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the political transition in Syria would be discussed at negotiations in Geneva this month. He backed de Mistura’s ultimatum to the opposition and held that the UN envoy had not departed from UN Security Council Resolution 2254 when he said that he would “form the opposition delegation himself” if the opposition factions were unable to do so.
“What we want is the success of the Geneva Conference… [and this] implies that there is a meaningful representation of the Syrian opposition in Geneva,” Guterres said.
After presenting his report to the Security Council recently, de Mistura met with the Arab Group at the UN to confirm that the Syrian transition process would take place in three phases that would include the formation of an interim government and the drafting of a new constitution.
He stressed the importance of the participation of the Arab League in the Geneva talks, adding that he had discussed this with the Security Council. The Syrian opposition factions have been working to counter de Mistura’s ultimatum, accusing him of exceeding his powers, provoking the opposition and harming its relations with the UN.
The Syrians know that they are at a crossroads and that the choices they face will be numerous and complex. At the moment, they are watching as the Geneva 4 Conference is postponed. It had been reset from 8 to 20 February, and it could be deferred again to March.
Few international powers involved in the Syrian crisis treat the subject of Syria as a revolution. At best they refer to it as the “Syrian question.” Yet, the Syrian Revolution is a global concern and the object of a tug-of-war between world powers. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this is to be found in the Russian project for Syria, followed by the Iranian “Persian Crescent” project and the Turkish project to safeguard its borders against the Islamic State (IS) group and the Kurds.
Moscow has used every opportunity to further its long-term goal, which is to ensure Russia’s return to the world stage as a key global decision-maker. Some suspect that Putin may even aspire to a revival of Czarist Russia.
In the run-up to Geneva 4, the Russians have been doing all they can to establish de facto realities. They achieved a military “victory” in Aleppo, the opposition’s largest stronghold, though this would have been all but impossible had it not been for arrangements with the Turks regarding ground and military operations.
At the same time, the Russians are aware that their shallow victory in Aleppo could be jeopardised by the pro-Iranian militias that dominate the ground operations. Another purpose of Moscow’s agreement with the Turks has been to counter Iranian militia expansion and address the economic question of natural gas flows through Turkey.
Russia used its veto power twice in October and December 2016 to block a UN Security Council resolution for a ceasefire in Syria. It did not object to Resolution 2336 since by then it had fulfilled its victory in eastern Aleppo, which it then depopulated.
It then moved to convene the Syrian armed opposition factions in Astana in January to agree to a cessation of hostilities with the regime in order to strengthen the ceasefire. It brought Turkey and Iran on board in the Tartus Agreement which provides for full civil and administrative immunity for Russian personnel at the Tartus Base in Syria.
It is no easy task to forecast Syria’s political future, given the many stakeholders with their vying projects involved and so many changes in roles and conditions already having taken place in accordance with personal, factional, political and ideological exigencies.
Some parties favour a federal system, others hope the Russians win on the grounds that communism still emanates from Moscow, and yet others pray for the victory of the regime. Others harbour hopes for partition, in order to entrench a narrow Islamism or a shallow Alevi or Druze sectarianism.
For those who have been uprooted from their homes and who have lost their families and loved ones, while never abandoning their Syrian identity and their dreams of a civic state for all, they now need to build a single ship capable of navigating between the political designs inimical to their dreams.