The 12th round of the Astana Talks on Syria concluded in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan on 26 April. However, their only real outcome was that the sponsoring countries agreed to hold a next meeting in Nur-Sultan in July, adding to the sense of the futility of the Astana Talks.
The final communique of the 12th round of the talks added nothing new to previous meetings, and Russia, Iran and Turkey, their main sponsors, failed to make progress on the formation of a Constituent Assembly in Syria and the situation in the city of Idlib in the north of the country. Instead, the two-page communique was packed with hollow rhetoric.
Bilateral and three-way meetings were held as part of the talks among delegates from the sponsor countries, representatives of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and the opposition, as well as UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen.
Other countries attended as observers. The opposition delegation was made up of 14 individuals led by Ahmed Teema. The regime delegation was led by Bashar Al-Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN.
The agenda of the talks included two key issues: the formation of a Constituent Assembly and an agreement on Idlib, currently the object of a de-escalation zone like others earlier agreed at the Sochi Conference also sponsored by Russia.
However, despite the existence of the de-escalation zones, Russian forces in Syria have violated the ceasefires hundreds of times. Opposition members at the Astana Talks also wanted to discuss the approximately 200,000 detainees currently being kept in regime prisons. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an NGO, gave a figure of 128,000 detainees in March.
Agreement on a Constituent Assembly was a key goal for Russia at the Astana Talks, as it has been since the 9th round of the talks in May 2018 when it was agreed to hold the Sochi Conference to decide on a political track to ending the conflict in Syria and consult with former UN envoy Stefan de Mistura on forming a Constituent Assembly as required by the Geneva Declaration of 4 February 2016.
Russia has tried to use the issue to serve its interests, and the regime has tried to obstruct the formation of the assembly. Both have worked to press for a two-thirds majority for the regime on the assembly, contrary to de Mistura’s proposal that two-thirds should comprise the regime, opposition and civil society representatives.
The opposition has wanted equal representation to the regime, since the positions of civil society groups is unknown. Neither de Mistura nor the opposition has been able to decide on the composition or mechanisms of the proposed assembly.
The assembly has thus become the victim of contradictory demands, with the regime declaring that it will not accept external interference in Syrian affairs.
The appointment of Pedersen as UN envoy led to a new push to compel the opposition to move forward, promising that the issue of the assembly would be dealt with in parallel with the formation of a transitional authority, the holding of elections, counter-terrorism efforts and confidence-building measures, including on prisoners.
Pedersen has met with the opposition and visited Damascus twice since he took office earlier this year, but he has since said that Damascus is obstructing his efforts. Pedersen, like the UN, cannot do much to pressure those responsible for the Syrian crisis, and his activities are largely devoted to buying time.
The opposition expected little at the most recent round of the Astana Talks, especially on the Constituent Assembly. Those involved have not changed their positions, and it will be difficult for the opposition to agree to the conditions set by Russia and the regime.
The US will not allow Russia to monopolise discussion on Syria, however, and US representative to Syria James Jeffrey met Pedersen on Wednesday this week to discuss reviving the political process, the need to amend the Syrian constitution and the holding of free and fair elections.
Jeffrey reiterated US support for the Geneva track and subsequent UN Resolutions, and he voiced reservations over the Astana Talks, evident in the US attendance as an observer at the meetings.
In Idlib, Russia and the regime have continued to threaten to violate the ceasefires reached in May 2017 in the fourth round of negotiations on four de-escalation zones that began with a six-month trial phase. The fifth round in July 2017 outlined the borders of the zones, and the sixth in September 2017 decided that the guarantor countries would monitor the ceasefire.
Neither Moscow nor Damascus seem to be concerned that their threats and bombings of Idlib violate the Sochi agreements.
Although Russia is unlikely to invade Idlib, where more than three million civilians reside, because it is committed to a deal with Turkey, Moscow has continued to pressure Ankara on the pretext that there are “terrorist groups” in the city.
Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Germany and China attended the last round of the Astana Talks, though their participation was “symbolic,” according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in comments on a flight back from Moscow on 10 April.
The focus then was to discuss opening the borders between Syria and Iraq and Jordan and securing international highways. These countries have played no role in guaranteeing the ceasefires or the formation of the Constituent Assembly, meaning their participation has been limited to marginal issues as observers.
After 12 rounds of the Astana Talks and the Sochi Conference, Russia has failed to impose a political solution in Syria. It has had some success with the de-escalation zones, though these are barely credible. Russia’s efforts have been met with US rigidity and a refusal to see the Astana Talks replace the Geneva Process.
Until Russia adopts the Geneva Process as the solution to the Syrian crisis, the Syrian people are likely to be further victimised by bickering among the regional and world powers.
*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.