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Spinning wheels in Astana

The 13th round of the Astana Talks on Syria in the Kazakh capital of Nur Sultan saw few results apart from a weakly enforced ceasefire in Idlib in northern Syria

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 10 Aug 2019
Spinning wheels in Astana
Displaced Syrians take the Bab Al-Hawa highway on their way back home to southern Idlib after truce agreement (photo: AFP)

At the end of the 13th round of the Astana Talks on Syria in the Kazakh capital of Nur Sultan on 1-2 August, it was agreed that Idlib and the de-escalation zone around it would see a ceasefire starting on 2 August.

The opposition said that Russia “has failed to end the attacks by Al-Assad’s militias on civilians,” as well as stop the air strikes, however. Although the ceasefire was approved and perhaps ordered by Russia, a main ally of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the opposition called on all concerned to be cautious of “treachery by the enemy” and “prepare for treacherous attacks,” placing in doubt Russia’s true intentions.

Within hours, the opposition had documented several violations of the ceasefire by regime forces. Human-rights monitors had recorded the locations and times of the violations, but there was no clear mechanism to file complaints, it said. The violations continued for several days after the ceasefire announcement, although at a slower pace.

The outcome of the 13th Astana round of talks was thus modest, and since the guarantees given for the ceasefire are vague, so are the mechanisms by which violators can be held accountable. There were no other results of the talks, although other issues were on the agenda, including the constitutional committee proposed to write a new constitution, the release of detainees, and the transition process in Syria.

The talks concluded with the same rhetoric, namely the commitment of sponsor countries such as Russia, Iran and Turkey to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, and integrity and the principles of the UN Charter.

The rhetoric reiterated these countries’ “concern” about the presence of the militia the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) in the de-escalation zone that Russia announced at Astana one year ago. They insisted that the group must be eliminated.

The Astana sponsors said they were satisfied with the progress made on the formation of the constitutional committee, namely the names, formula, and ground rules of the committee. They restated their support for holding meetings, something which has been said over the past 13 rounds of the talks but without any action.

Before the talks, a member of the opposition negotiating team said that the UN envoy to Syria had said there was no agreement on the constitutional committee, its members, mechanisms, or principles of joint chairmanship. The Astana talks were thus unlikely to see real results, he said.

Most opposition voices were not optimistic, and commentators on social media criticised those opposition members who attended the meeting, insisting that the gathering should be boycotted, or the talks should clearly demand action on the issue of the detainees and end the bombing of Idlib in northwest Syria.

Many in the opposition demanded no compromise on the key demands of the revolution, including regime change; however, the opposition participants ignored these messages. They came back empty handed except for a fragile ceasefire agreement that was violated within hours.

The Syrian regime has rejected discussion of the constitutional committee, wanting to have the sole power to amend or draft a new constitution and claiming that interference in writing a new constitution from the outside would be interference in Syria’s domestic affairs.

However, for the opposition the regime is forgetting the state of war that exists in the country, the fact that it is not recognised on the global stage, and the fact that the majority of the Syrian people reject the regime.

The main goal of the Astana talks was the formation of the constitutional committee, but the regime has insisted on having a majority on this so it can shape the outcome as it pleases. Russia wants the committee to be based on the Astana Process, which the US rejects, arguing instead for a solution to the Syrian conflict based on the Geneva Conferences and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

At the end of the 13th round of the Astana Talks, the sponsors called on the international community to fund more aid for Syria and to focus on supporting the return of the refugees and the displaced. However, they did not urge the Syrian regime to stop the killing that has forced so many to flee and placed them in tragic conditions.

The participants agreed on holding the next Astana meeting in October.

According to statistics from response coordinators in northern Syria, the wave of violence in northwest Syria that began in February 2019 had until the ceasefire caused more than $1.45 billion in economic losses, the displacement of more than 728,000 people, the deaths of 1,184 people, including 328 children, and the destruction or damage of 288 facilities.

Over the past five months, the regime has carried out 12,000 air strikes and Russia 3,000, all targeting Idlib, Hamah, and Aleppo and surrounding areas. These are under the control of the rebels and constitute its last stronghold.

The losses in northwest Syria did nothing to change the reality at the Astana Talks, however, as Russia and the regime have continued their military campaign on the ground to force the opposition, its Turkish allies, and others to compromise and make Astana a success, though with negligible results.

It is unlikely that Moscow will change its tactics even though the Astana meetings have failed to move forward to a political solution. In October, there will be a 14th meeting, with this too being unlikely to succeed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Spinning wheels in Astana

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