Key players in the war in Syria are meeting Monday in Kazakhstan’s capital for talks aimed at consolidating a countrywide ceasefire and potentially paving the way for a political settlement after nearly six years of war.
The negotiations between the Syrian government delegation and rebel fighters, sponsored by Russia and Turkey – who have been backing different sides of the conflict – are expected to last three days.
The new US administration said it won’t be sending a delegation to the talks because of “the immediate demands of the transition,” but instead will be represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan.
The negotiations are bringing together delegates from the government of President Bashar al-Assad and representatives from Syrian rebel groups. Delegates from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Nations are also there.
The Astana talks are expected to be followed by a UN-mediated meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 8. This diplomatic push comes after three rounds of high-level UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva (in 2012, 2014 and 2016).
What’s different about these talks?
These talks are testing a newfound partnership between Moscow and Ankara, who for about six years have been staunchly backing different sides of the conflict.
Turkey has been actively supporting rebel forces near its border, while Moscow remained an Assad ally whose military involvement was instrumental in the government’s recent gains in Aleppo. Also helping organize the talks is Iran, whose fighters have been battling on the side of the government troops.
The United States, meanwhile, has moved to the sidelines in the past few months and was not involved in the latest ceasefire efforts.
“So now for the first time the actors who have big stakes, who are on the ground, who have significant leverage on fighting components, are together working on this,” Mehmet Simsek, Turkish deputy prime minister, told Russian TASS news agency.
“Yes, there’s been a lot of efforts in the past in Geneva and elsewhere but there was a broad sort of effort and people just literally shouted at each other,” he said.
Last week, during an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Simsek said the “facts on the ground have changed dramatically” in Syria.
And in what appeared to be a softening in Ankara’s stance on the removal of Assad, he added that it was no longer realistic to seek an end to the conflict without the embattled Syrian President.
Moscow and Ankara used their leverage on the ground last month to secure a fragile ceasefire that entered into force on December 30 after rebel fighters lost their pocket of territories in Aleppo.
The hope is Turkey and Russia can use their influence to consolidate a truce and, more ambitiously, a resolution for a conflict that killed more than 300,000 people and displaced over half the country’s population.
Who will form the Syrian delegations?
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari will head the 10-member government delegation, which includes “figures representing the military and the Syrian judiciary so that the delegation will represent the whole Syrian state,” Al-Watan, Syrian state-affiliated daily, reported.
The rebel coalition will be headed by Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure in the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction. He arrived along with around a dozen rebel figures. This is the first time a delegation was composed exclusively of rebel groups. In last year’s Geneva talks, the opposition has been mainly made up of Syrian opposition figures living in exile with little influence on the course of the battles on the ground.
A number of legal and political advisers are accompanying the rebel delegation in Astana.
Who is not coming?
Moscow said it invited to the talks all the opposition fighting groups except ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Council, dominated by Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in northeastern Syria, said it did not receive an invitation to attend.
Meanwhile, the powerful Ahrar Al-Sham group, which counts thousands of fighters in central and northern Syria, said it would not attend the Astana talks due to what it said was the regime’s infringement of the ceasefire and its fierce ongoing offensive in Wadi Barada area near Damascus.
The group, however, in a statement, said it was still giving its support to other rebel groups represented at the talks.
What will be the outcome of the talks?
While the talks have been welcomed by the different parties to the conflict, there seems to be divergence among the two Syrian delegations on what the aim of these negotiations is.
Assad has said he hopes rebels attending peace talks will agree to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal. He told Japanese TBS TV that he hoped for reconciliation deals after the Astana talks.
But the head of the rebel delegation, Alloush, said the opposition in Astana is only interested in a ceasefire. “Astana is a course of to finish the bloodletting by the regime and its allies. We wish to finish this sequence of crimes,” he told AFP.