The 12th round of the Astana meetings on the Syrian crisis is in the news this month, and the Turkish authorities have said that five more countries, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Germany and China, can participate in the talks scheduled for 25-26 April in order to give the meetings more weight on the global stage.
The UN envoy to Syria may also attend, but it is unlikely the US will do so as it refuses to withdraw its support for the Geneva process in favour of the Astana and Sochi meetings.
Expanding the number of participants in the meetings, done largely at Russian behest, echoes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement at the end of February that Moscow is planning to unveil a new international group on Syria that included representatives of the countries involved, the Syrian leadership, and “perhaps” the opposition in order to achieve “stability after stamping out any remaining pockets of terrorism”.
Putin said the plan would require all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria, the reinforcement of state institutions, and the integrity of Syrian territory. He said that the elimination of any remaining pockets of terrorism in Syria “will happen soon”.
After the recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Moscow, a senior Israeli official said that Russia and Israel would form a working group that would also include other countries to look into evacuating foreign troops from Syria. He did not say if this group would be part of the new international group proposed by Putin.
Russia may now start to put its plans into effect at Astana and gradually increase the number of countries participating. However, the plans may not be successful as one prerequisite involves eliminating terrorism in Syria, meaning not only the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Nusra Front, but also the armed Syrian opposition, which Putin has defined as terrorist despite its diverse and moderate nature.
Putin has also demanded that all foreign troops withdraw from Syria, but Russia will not be able to force them to leave, since the troops include forces from Iran, the US, Turkey, the Arab countries, and various militias operating outside the law. There are many conflicting interests at work among them.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also asked the UN to honour its commitment to form a constituent assembly in Syria and to convince the opposition to participate through the Geneva Process.
However, Russia has long sought to deflect attention from the Geneva track and has manufactured meetings in Astana and Sochi to undermine and replace it. The Geneva track wants to see the formation of a transitional ruling body in Syria with a full mandate and the end of the present regime, something that would not serve Russia’s interests.
The Syrian opposition is dubious of Russia’s intentions, saying that Moscow does not follow words with actions and that it has double standards. Since the launch of the Astana meetings, the opposition has said it wants to implement the article of the 2012 Geneva Declaration regarding the release of the Syrian detainees by the regime.
Although Russia has said it will address the issue of the detainees, few believe it has seriously looked into the matter.
Previous Astana meetings imposed cease-fire zones in Syria that the regime, Russia and Iran then breached almost on a daily basis. Their forces have targeted civilians, expelled the armed opposition, or forced it to sign surrender pacts.
Head of foreign relations for the Syrian Opposition Coalition Abdel-Ahad Astifo said that Russia was “trying to convince the international community that Astana is effective despite the fact that after 12 rounds of meetings, none of the plans Russia has suggested has gained global credibility or been implemented.”
“The Russians have not been able to transform what they call a military victory on the ground into political achievements, and they are now trying to direct the Syrian issue politically in a way that serves their interests by drowning it in detail,” Astifo said.
The US and European countries are stumbling blocks for Russia’s plans, since they reject a political solution through the Astana meetings, believing it should take place under the UN umbrella and the Geneva Process.
They have threatened that the reconstruction of Syria will not take place unless there is a political solution based on the Geneva Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2245. This means that the West in general insists on fundamental and comprehensive political change in Syria that would begin with the formation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and pave the way for presidential elections.
The UN envoy to Syria, along with Russia and Turkey, is working on forming a constituent assembly with the mission of rewriting or amending the constitution. However, the regime and Russia are obstructing the formation of this assembly and are demanding that the regime should supply one third of its members.
For now, the process is stalled, and the prospects of the next Astana meetings are dim. Even before they take place, they look fruitless unless Russia changes its policies and wakes up from the delusion that it can rehabilitate the Syrian regime.
It must realise that by digging in its heels and giving its unwavering support to the regime it is standing against the will of the Syrian people as well as the international community. This will hurt Russia since its allies in the Syrian regime and Iran cannot be relied upon, and it may eventually have to abandon them despite its desire to create a Middle Eastern counter-balance against the West.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fruitless meetings in Astana