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What to Expect from Astana Talks on Syria?

The Astana meeting on Syria began today. All key players have been working hard to finalize the agenda for the negotiations.

The meeting highlights the dramatic changes that occurred since the last talks in Geneva broke down a year.

On Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek acknowledged that his country has to be “realistic” and can no longer insist on any settlement for Syria’s long-running war without Bashar al-Assad.

The Russians present the talks as the first opportunity to bring opposition military leaders to the table of negotiations. According to the official sources, the first round of the talks is supposed to focus on strengthening the truce in Syria, which Russia brokered together with Turkey and Iran, and would help pave way for prospective talks in Geneva.

The negotiations will undoubtedly set the tone and agenda for future talks.

Jamil al-Saleh, commander of the U.S.-backed Alezzah Army, praised Turkey for hosting nearly 3 million Syrian refugees and keeping the only remaining route for civilians and fighters to the outside world. “They are the biggest ally,” he said.

His group is sending two representatives to Astana. But al-Saleh said the delegates would pull out if there is no serious effort to form a transitional government and end Assad’s rule.

What we can expect from these talks?

Since March 2011, when Syria crisis started, till Decemeber 2016, when the Syrian forces recaptured the city Aleppo, rebel groups were never united. Now, after having suffered heavy territorial and military losses in Aleppo, which has an utmost geopolitical importance, and other parts of Syria there is no hope that these groups can be united. So Bashar al-Assad will have upper hand to set the terms and conditions.

Rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din az-Zenki groups are not participating in Astana meeting, so there it less likely that these groups will united due to their differences with Fatah al-Sham (former Al-Nusra Front).

Al-Qaeda affiliated Fatah al-Sham is the only power which has been fighting against the Syrian army with the backing of Middle Eastern countries, but now due to Turkey alliance with Russia and hesitant U.S. and Arab countries, the group as well as ISIS and other terrorists finds it difficult to re-group and receive the economic and military support which they were getting before in huge amounts from there sponsors.

Al-Saleh said the ceiling for talks is to reinforce the cease-fire, open humanitarian corridors for besieged areas and create a mechanism to hold violators to account. “Meanwhile, we are waiting for the U.S. to change its position,” he added.

Earlier, militants from Fatah al-Sham assaulted Ahrar al-Sham-controlled checkpoints and positions in Idlib’s western countryside and arrested fighters from the Islamist group. The Fatah al-Sham Front, which has been advertising its suicide attacks in parts of Syria despite the cease-fire, also seized a crossing on the Syria-Turkey border.

Ahrar al-Sham supporters have criticized the group’s decision to boycott the talks, allegedly under pressure from the more powerful Fatah al-Sham. The divisions came despite efforts by the opposition to coalesce.

“The Russians have dealt us a military defeat in Aleppo,” said Yasser al-Youssef, a member of the political branch of the Noureddin el-Zinki armed group, a major rebel group in northern Syria. “Now they are trying to defeat us once again, this time politically,” he said, referring to the conference in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

Saudi Arabia and his allies which were supporting ISIS and other terrorist groups now are making all efforts to damage the Astana dialogues. Daesh is also using all channels to make the negotiations useless. Although, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says that they have no choice. “With Trump’s win, any lingering hope to push the West into increasing its rebel support is lost,” he stated. On the contrary, Russia, Iran and Turkey are doing their best to make these dialogues more fruitful.

An Arab diplomat said Turkey has pressed the opposition to attend the Astana meeting because it has a long-term interest in keeping a stake in Syria. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.

In an interview to a Japanese channel TBS, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said the conference offers armed groups a chance to join reconciliation initiatives through which the government has negotiated local surrenders, allowing fighters to either lay down arms or relocate.

“We have no expectations from the Astana talks, but we have hopes that it becomes a forum for talks between all Syrian parties,” Assad said.

Keeping in view the above mentioned circumstances, it seems obvious that, if no serious misshape occurs during the talks and both parties in conflict remain strict to their truce agreement, these negotiations will set the tone for strengthening the ceasefire and settling the issues by political means.

Considering the sensitivity of Syria, all the parties can reach some agreement according to which Syria`s future political scenario will be decided via a transparent and fair referendum.

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