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The Astana track of Syrian “peace” negotiations began on 23 January 2017, under Russian guidance in the Kazakh capital, with Iran and Turkey also invited as “guarantor countries” of the various sides in Syria. The process, initiated in the shadow of the savage conquest of Aleppo city in December 2016 that signalled the total strategic defeat of the insurrection against the Bashar al-Asad regime, was an attempt by Moscow to convert the military gains it had enabled by Asad and Iran on the ground into political facts that could then be imported into the internationally-recognized Geneva process. This “Astana-isation of Geneva” was Russia’s bid to take control of the political process and redefine it: rather than having Asad’s removal as its end-goal, it would set the terms of reintegration into the Asad state. Abetted by a purblind Western campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and a strategic reorientation in Turkey, the pro-Asad coalition has more or less had its way for the last year. But there are now signs that this approach is beginning to unravel.
THE ASTANA PROCESS
The Astana track was always mostly military, focused primarily on de-escalating violence, which has meant in practice freezing and recognizing the gains made by the pro-Asad coalition’s aggression and allowing those forces to concentrate on certain fronts. After the seventh round of the Astana talks concluded on 31 October 2017, a “Congress of National Dialogue” was arranged, supposed to take place in Sochi, Russia, on 18 November.
Sochi would be a fourth track of talks over Syria, following the main Geneva process, Astana, and the on and off talks that Russia and Egypt have organised in Cairo. Sochi was intended to be a Russian-directed parallel Geneva, a forum where the primary movers on the ground in Syria arrive at a political settlement that can be presented as a fait accompli in Geneva.
The Syrian opposition protested the Sochi idea, seeing it (correctly) as part of Russia’s efforts to subvert Geneva on Asad’s behalf, and within a week the meeting was postponed when the Russians crossed a Turkish red line by extending an invitation to the Kurdish PYD/PKK.
Part of the Russian effort through Astana has been to reshape the opposition delegation by including the humbled “internal opposition” elements like the National Coordination Body and the associated Cairo opposition, and the outright fabricated “Moscow opposition” that consists of agents of the Asad despotism. This would allow a veneer of popular legitimacy for any political accord, while the regime got to write the terms. Sochi was clearly intended to further this.
This effort was somewhat complicated on 24 November when the “Riyadh Two” opposition conference produced a delegation that, while in compliant with the regime coalition’s aims in terms of composition, nonetheless adhered to a political statement that called for Asad’s removal. Responding to this, on 1 December, the regime delegation stormed out of the Astana talks.
To avoid the humiliation of its own client refusing to attend its talks, the Russians had to change their line to one that excluded all parties calling for Asad’s ouster. When the eighth round of Astana concluded on 22 December, the proposal for a Sochi dialogue congress was put forward a second time, to take place on 29 and 30 January 2018. Nearly the whole spectrum of the rebellion rejected the proposed Sochi meeting in a statement on 25 December.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
This intransigent, maximalist position of the pro-Asad coalition—insisting that the opposition cease to be an opposition before they can participate in peace talks—plus the declining trust in Russia as a broker is what motivated the Christmas Day statement from the rebels. It is now clear to all that Moscow will not, and on available evidence cannot, restrain its client regime and the Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadists that keep it alive to enforce ceasefires or “de-escalation zones”. This has been known for a while, however; something else appears to have changed, and that is the attitude of Turkey, the de facto owner of the armed opposition.
In mid-2016, Turkey underwent a great about-face in her Syria policy, ceasing efforts to unseat Asad and focusing on quarantining the PKK that the U.S.-led Coalition has bolstered as part of the war against IS. The PKK combined with the Russian air force and the Iranian-led pro-Asad troops to cut off the main supply line to the Turkey-supported rebels in Aleppo city in February 2016. When the Asadists and the PKK fastened the siege on the city in July 2016, it was concurrent with the U.S. assisting the PKK to displace IS in Minbij along the Turkish border. Seeing that she was already beaten in Aleppo and alarmed at the spread of a terrorist statelet along her border, Turkey traded Aleppo city for what is now the EUPHRATES SHIELD area in northern Aleppo, making a deal with the Russians and Iranians to avoid having to war directly with the regime and to induce the pro-Asad forces—all of whom have long-term relations with the PKK—not to instrumentalize the PKK against Turkey. After the pro-Asad coalition and the PKK rolled over the rebellion in Aleppo city in late 2016 and the U.S. refused all Turkish offers over Raqqa and went in with the PKK to clear out IS’s Syrian “capital” in early 2017, it seemed Turkey was tied to the Russian course.
The Russian attempts to smuggle the PKK into the Sochi conference have triggered a harsh reaction from the Turkish government. On 27 December, the old rhetoric returned. “Asad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism”, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told a news conference. “It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?” Erdogan added: “We can’t say [Asad] will handle [the PKK matter]. It is impossible for Turkey to accept this. Northern Syria has been handed over as a terror corridor. There is no peace in Syria and this peace won’t come with Asad.”
The idea is doing the rounds that the Syrian war is “winding down” and that Asad has won. In most of the ways that count, Asad has prevailed, but his own dominion and the other fragments are extremely fragile and contingent.
The American monomania about IS spared Asad an enormous amount of pressure—allowing him and his backers to focus a campaign of extermination and deportation against the mainstream opposition and the Syrian civilians who sympathised with them—and another side-effect of this myopic policy, the creation of a PKK statelet all along NATO’s eastern frontier, provoked Turkey’s reorientation into a cooperative stance with Russia.
The caliphate is now gone, allowing U.S. policy to finally deal in Syria’s broader realities, beginning with the fact that to counter-balance the Iran-Russia axis across the northern Middle East it needs Turkey. With Russia having overplayed its hand with the Turks at Sochi, a place to start in pulling Turkey out of Russia’s orbit has presented itself. Consolidating this opportunity requires more than rhetoric: the U.S. would have to rebalance its uncritical relations with the PKK in Syria, a policy that must change anyway if the progress against IS is to be anything but ephemeral.
The current “settlement” taking shape in Syria—between the Asad-Iran-Russia bloc, the insurgent pockets, the U.S.-backed PKK, and Turkey’s zone—is not stable and is likely to unravel in the coming years no matter what, all the quicker if the U.S. and Turkey cease to effectively cooperate with the pro-Asad coalition. To meet this, the key is for the U.S. to finally set out a desired end-state in Syria around which it can unite its allies, and to properly resource such a declared policy.