At the latest round of Syrian peace talks, both the government and the opposition rebels pledged to uphold a shaky month-long ceasefire. But how much longer will it last?
Pictured: A Syrian soldier in Aleppo. Photo: RIA Novosti
On Jan. 23-24, Kazakhstan hosted another round of Syria peace talks sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran in an attempt to re-launch the political process and start moving towards the final political settlement of the six-year civil war. What was unique about this round of peace talks in Astana was who they involved - the Syrian government and various rebel factions - and who they did not involve - the United States.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the goal of the talks as “first, the consolidation of the ceasefire regime, and second, an agreement on the field commanders’ full involvement in the political process, which includes drafting a constitution and holding a referendum and elections.”
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Taking into account numerous failed attempts to launch meaningful negotiations and effectively implement the ceasefires made possible by the involvement of Russia and the U.S., one can fairly ask whether this new round of Syria talks in Astana, Kazakhstan is going to lead to anything different.
By all accounts, the first day of talks were contentious. But by the end of the second and final day of talks on Jan. 24, it appeared that both the Syrian government and the rebels had agreed to honor a month-long ceasefire.
Moreover, Russia, Turkey and Iran - the three sponsors of the peace talks - pledged to set up a three-way monitoring of the ceasefire. The statement signed by the three sponsors also said the agreement paves the way for political talks to be held in Geneva on Feb. 8, and welcomed the rebel groups' participation in the UN-sponsored talks.
It is crucial to remember that the Syrian peace talks in Astana are tightly connected to the recent ceasefire agreement reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran on Dec. 29, 2016. Basically, the new ceasefire, which came into force on Dec. 30, made the talks in Astana possible. Judging by the previous cessations of hostilities and attempts to launch Syrian peace talks, it is fair to say that the political process is tightly connected to the situation on the ground.
In other words, if the ceasefire is effectively observed, it gives the political process a chance. If it fails, the negotiations fail as well and everything starts all over again. This is why observation of the ceasefire is the most essential challenge and it leads to the question: What are the chances for the recent ceasefire to hold?
This time the ceasefire has more chances to be successful than the previous ones. The agreement came as a result of the initiative launched by Russia, Turkey and Iran. All previous ceasefire deals were struck between Russia and the U.S. and ultimately did not bring any observable progress. Both parties (although Russia to a lesser degree) have limited influence on their proxies: Russia on Iran and the pro-Assad militia, and the U.S. on any rebel group.
This is why, looking at the previous failures while dealing with the U.S., Moscow turned its head towards deeper cooperation with the regional actors who have real presence and influence on the ground. This, in general, gives more hope for the ceasefire to hold and, therefore, for the political process. Both Ankara and Tehran have more influence on their proxy militants operating in Syria, and have more capacity to make them stick to the agreement negotiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Another important detail that gives hope for successful Syria talks in Astana is that this time around, the Syrian opposition was represented by the forces that fight in Syria, not only by political figures who mainly reside abroad and are detached from the reality on the ground. It gives the talks more chances for success.
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Lavrov noted in his annual press conference that, “All previous Syrian talks were not attended by those who really determine the situation on the ground, that is, armed groups or the armed opposition.” Now the situation is different and it gives additional hope for success.
The timing of the talks is also important. Over the last six months, ties between Moscow and Ankara have started to recover while, at the same time, U.S.-Turkey relations have been deteriorating as they discover more points of disagreement (the Syrian Kurds problem, support of various rebel groups in Syria, the failed coup attempt and Ankara’s response to it). On top of that, the Obama administration did not have either the desire or capacity to come up with any effective actions or strategy in Syria.
In November 2016, with the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president, it became clear that the outgoing U.S. Administration wouldn’t make any decisive moves in Syria. Thus, Russia and others were waiting until the Trump administration would officially formulate its Syria policy. On top of that, all previous U.S.-Russia agreements on Syria didn’t deliver any constructive results, which made Moscow switch its attention to the regional actors who were ready to take a more active and responsible role.
Moreover, Russia (together with Turkey and Iran) did not want to lose any time and put together the Dec. 30 ceasefire in order to have a stronger hand by the time the Trump administration would be sworn into office on Jan. 20. This is why all three will benefit from the successful ceasefire implementation and successful Astana talks.
In addition, if this format and approach ultimately work out, it will become a major success for Moscow, Ankara and Tehran as they will be able to introduce a working formula for dealing with crises like in Syria.
There is one other detail that has to be mentioned as it provides international endorsement for the talks and the ceasefire: They were approved by the UN Security Council and UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura participated in the Astana talks.
Thus, the recent Syria peace talks in Astana might well pave the way for the re-launching of the political process in Syria. At the very least, they might demonstrate the results of successful cooperation of those actors who have influence on the ground. In addition, if it proves to be successful, the format might become bigger and include other important regional actors such as Saudi Arabia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.