What difference did the Astana meeting make in Syria?
Five years of war have changed Syria a lot. What remains largely unchanged, however, is Bashar al-Assad’s position as the country’s president. Supported as he is by Russia and Iran — and now Turkey too — his continued standing as the president of the country has started to cause a lot of frustration among the hypothetical ‘Syrian opposition’, leading some of the groups to shift their focus from toppling Assad to sustaining the Russia-Iran-Turkey brokered ceasefire.
In another sense, the Astana meeting has marked a crucial shift from focusing on one individual i.e. Assad to the country that continues to suffer a major crisis and its people remain trapped in a war that they might not have started in the first place.
This shift is pretty much evident from the statements issued by one of the leading ‘opposition’ group, Free Syrian Army, from Astana.
Osama Abu Zeid, the spokesman of the Free Syrian Army was reported to have said that the main reason behind participation of opposition groups in the Astana talks on Syria was to ‘focus on stabilizing the ceasefire in the country.’ In saying so, he was clearly endorsing Turkey’s own newly crafted official position vis-à-vis both Syria and Assad.
Does this indicate a possible end of the war in Syria? While it seems too early to make a categorical prediction, an analysis of the various aspects of the Astana meeting and some post-Astana reactions in Syria do indicate that the meeting has achieved a major success.
First of all, the most important outcome of meeting is the establishment of direct contact between (foreign funded) Syrian opposition and the Syrian government. Its importance cannot be understated given that Syria has arrived at such a juncture when thousands of people have already died and millions displaced.
The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar Jaafari, even said that it wasn’t easy to sit in the same room with the opposition due to the passage of so much war violence, but it was very useful for finding a political solution to the conflict.
This optimism and the shift in the focus of attention away from Assad owes its existence primarily to the successful recovery of Aleppo by the Syrian forces. The liberation of Aleppo has not only shattered-to-the ground the might of both terrorist and opposition groups such as al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army in the public opinion of the country, but also gave upper hand to the Syrian government in influencing the country’s developments.
The liberation of Aleppo has caused other things too, most important of which is the loss of a leading role that the West, particularly the US, and (Sunni) Arab states were playing until then.
During the Astana meeting, no Arab countries, nor any member states of the European Union were present, for the first time ever. The United States, whose ambassador in Kazakhstan had taken part in the meeting as observer, played no decisive role in the event either.
This potential ‘exit’ of the erstwhile opposition-supporting countries from the peace process has left a number of groups in a state of confusion and uncertainty, leading to increasing fragmentation and infighting.
For instance, in the north of Idlib an armed skirmish broke out between the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups, in particular the militants of Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jabhat al-Shamiyah. The representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra were reported by the Arab media to have said that these hostilities were due to the fact that representatives of the latter two groups took part in the meeting in Astana.
The al-Nusra front is now attacking indiscriminately those who hold negotiations on behalf of the Syrian people. It has also attacked the militants of the Syrian Free Army in northwest Syria.
At the same time, according to some other Arab media reports, five armed groups after the bloody clashes between them and the Jabhat al-Nusra radical group in the north of Syria, decided to join Ahrar al-Sham. It was announced that the group is taking the protection of the assaulted units into its own hands. This has resulted in a number of smaller militant groups pledging their allegiance to the al-Nusra Front.
What this infighting and rapidly shifting alliances or merger of smaller groups into the bigger groups show is the increasing inability of so many of them to play the role they have been playing for last four years or so.
According to a report carried by Al-Waqt news, the main reason behind these clashes in the fact that these groups were used to pursue the interests of the foreign sponsors of the Syrian conflict. And that they are now abandoned to their fate, and have thus begun fighting each other. The bitter rivalry between such groups is producing a devastating effect on the population of Syria who often fall victim to such clashes.
What these clashes are, therefore, further going to do is erode whatever popular support they until now (may) have.
For Russia, Iran and Turkey, this promises a golden opportunity to strike at the terrorist groups. As a matter of fact, they are very much aware of it and the upcoming meeting in Astana on Syria is going to focus on separating the moderate groups i.e., those participating in the peace talks, from al-Nusra and other terror groups.
According to Russian defense ministry, the upcoming Astana meeting “will pay special attention to issues related to the separation of the moderate Syrian opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra which is considered to be a priority task by all the countries guaranteeing the ceasefire in Syria,”
The Astana process is setting the stage for the upcoming rounds of talks to take place in Geneva, where both the Arab and Western countries will be present.
While the West and its Arab allies have so far maintained a meaningful “silence” on these rounds of talks being held in Astana, in Geneva we might see Russia, Iran and Turkey putting combined emphasis on severing, once and for all, supply of weapons to (terror) groups.
At Geneva, we will see both groups i.e., groups led by Russia and the US, test their respective strengths with regard to what they have achieved and lost in last few months. For Russia, it will be test of the work it has done through Astana meeting; for the US, it will be the test of its ability to undo it, or were Trump to introduce a new policy, to insert itself into the process and reshape it from within.