Hussam al-Mahmoud | Jana al-Issa
More than a month after the holding of the 20th and final round of the international meeting’s talks in the Astana process, the future of this track that is supposed to continue its meetings on a different land is unknown after Russian statements following the last meeting, that the next meeting will be held in the second half of the year at a location to be determined later.
The meeting, which is held in the presence of the leaders of three countries, including two allies of the Syrian regime politically, militarily, and economically (Russia and Iran), and Turkey that has tended since the end of 2022 to open the door for political rapprochement with it, and representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition and observers, stopped with an unexpected announcement by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Kazakhstan (the host country for the talks), Kanat Tumysh, said that the meeting that took place was the last in his country, justifying that by the fact that the situation in Syria is “changing radically.”
One of the features of this change, according to his opinion, is “the endeavor of Arab countries to restore relations with Damascus and the latter’s return to the Arab League.”
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with Syrian think tank’s fellows, analysts, and specialists the circumstances of stopping the Astana process, which seemed to be the main one, while blocking other political tracks of the Syrian file, its feasibility and the extent to which the political track may turn into a quadruple track.
What happened in Astana?
On June 20, the 20th round of Astana talks started, with a meeting that included the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, a delegation of the Syrian regime, and another of the Syrian opposition.
The UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, and representatives of observer countries, including Syria’s neighboring countries (Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan), also participated in the meeting.
This political meeting is the first of its kind after the Turkish presidential elections, which aborted the hopes of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, who linked any development in the relationship between Damascus and Ankara to the Turkish elections, according to statements he made last March, during an interview with Russia Today channel.
At the end of the Astana meeting, a statement was issued by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry on what was discussed in the two-day political meeting, without providing a breakthrough or tangible addition beyond being the last meeting.
The statement emphasizes the role of the Astana process in a sustainable solution in Syria and its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity.
Reference was also made to the constructive nature of the consultations of the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime (the quadruple track), during which a road map for restoring relations between Damascus and Ankara was prepared, in coordination with the ministries of defense of the four parties, pursuant to what was reached in the meeting of foreign ministers on May 10 and the meeting of defense ministers on April 25.
The statement emphasized the advancement of the political process on the basis of goodwill and good neighborliness, combating terrorism, and creating appropriate conditions for the safe and voluntary return of Syrians, with the participation of the UN refugees agency, UNHCR.
Representatives of the delegations expressed their determination to work together to combat terrorism, oppose separatist plans that aim to undermine Syria’s policy and territorial integrity, and threaten the national security of neighboring countries while condemning the activities of “terrorist groups” operating in different parts of Syria.
The status of the “de-escalation” zone in Idlib was also considered in detail, and it was agreed to make more efforts to ensure sustainable normalization of the situation, in addition to emphasizing the need to maintain calm “on the ground” through the full implementation of all the current Idlib agreements.
As for northeastern Syria, permanent security and stability in this region can only be achieved by preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while rejecting attempts to create new facts on the ground, according to the delegations’ representatives.
Participants also condemned the Israeli targets in Syria and stressed that the solution in Syria is not military, but rather through advancing the political process in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which is linked to the political process, addressing terrorism, implementing confidence-building measures, safe and voluntary refugee returns, and releasing arbitrarily detained persons.
The statement stressed the important role of the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC) and called for the early convening of the ninth session of the drafting committee of the SCC.
The meeting delegations referred to the humanitarian situation in Syria, the consequences of the earthquake, and the focus on the importance of continuing to provide and increasing the volume of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria, in addition to facilitating the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas, according to the statement.
They also affirmed their intention to continue the process of mutual release of detainees and abductees within the framework of the working group concerned with this process and its details.
Sensitive timing, “Jordanian Initiative” versus “Astana track”?
The announcement of the suspension of the path in Kazakhstan at this point coincided with Arab movements and the efforts of some countries to occupy the seat of the “search for a solution” in Syria, which produced new positions that took some officials of Syria’s neighboring countries and pivotal countries to Damascus, followed by the restoration of the Syrian regime to the Arab League, and Bashar al-Assad’s participation in the Jeddah summit, which was held on May 19.
In addition, Jordan presented an initiative with a more clear and frank proposal after the Feb.6 earthquake and talked about an Arab “agreement” on the need for the situation not to remain as it is in Syria.
The Jordanian Initiative obtained by Al Majalla magazine on June 25, reveals that “Amman, along with Arab capitals that directly support it, and Western capitals that tacitly endorse it, still consider the withdrawal of Iran from Syria as their ultimate goal in exchange for lifting sanctions, rebuilding Syria, and the withdrawal of the United States.”
The Initiative does not specify an exact timeframe for implementation. But, “it concludes that Damascus is expected to implement steps such as “the withdrawal of all Iranian military and security assets from Syria and the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Shiite militias” in return for “the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from all Syrian territories they entered after 2011, including the areas in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf US base, the lifting of sanctions, and donors funding of the reconstruction of Syria,” according to Al-Majalla magazine.
These movements, meetings, and the state of political activation, which considers the visit of the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi, to Damascus, on July 3, as one of its results, opened the door to questions about the possibility of these tracks or political movements replacing each other, given that “the initiative stole the limelight during the past few months, specifically before the Astana 20th round was held.
Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher in international relations, told Enab Baladi that the Jordanian Initiative cannot be the only solution to the Syrian file, and it will not replace the Astana track, given that the players in the Jordanian Initiative are different from the players in Astana.
In addition, the extent of the Jordanian Initiative’s ability to influence the Syrian file, and its different goals and priorities, reduces the possibility of it being an alternative or a single gateway to a solution in Syria, according to Salaymeh.
The Jordanian Initiative, or any political initiative, are linked to the parties forming this initiative and their ability to influence and take political action.
The Jordanian Initiative is still confined to the Arab countries, and the ability of these countries to move in the Syrian file is limited, Salaymeh added, pointing to the presence of armies of several influential countries on the ground in Syria and the Arab countries together, do not have the ability to influence on the ground as much as any of these players on the ground, according to his opinion.
For his part, the Jordanian expert, Amer al-Sabaileh, considered that the Astana process was not originally auspicious of a solution to the Syrian file, as the track does not represent the international community and is not close to its corridors, but it is one of the maneuvers that could form at a certain moment a specific ground for moving to Geneva, within the framework of US-Russian understandings that are completely distant at the current stage, which turned the path into an understanding between the combined countries that does not change the reality in Syria.
Al-Sabaileh told Enab Baladi that the shift towards the Arab countries and the search for an arrangement of relations with the Arabs could lead to the second stage in which the regime seeks to push the Arabs towards finding an international solution.
He also pointed out that the Astana process has no value today, and the real test for the regime is how to build trust with the Arab countries so that the latter assumes the task of searching for an acceptable solution at the international level.
What is the importance of Astana track?
Dr. Hossam al-Hafez, head of the legal office in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) for the years 2016 and 2017 and a member of the Syrian opposition negotiation delegation for 2014, indicated that there is a link between the announcement of the conclusion of the Astana track, which is primarily a Russian wish, and Arab normalization.
According to al-Hafez, all the facts say that the Astana track was originally designed to try to impose a political track on the side of the military one, or in other words, it was an attempt to find an alternative to the political track in which the word “guarantors” politically would be supreme.
In addition to the military role of the track, which ended prematurely due to a common desire among the countries involved in it, and the existence of international concern as well to freeze the military arena of conflict.
As a result, all this was in the interest of the Syrian regime, which regained large areas, ending any hope of linking political negotiations with the military track.
As is well known, the political track without power on the ground creates influence within the negotiation corridors, emptying the negotiations of their content, which ended the balance and equality between the regime and the opposition, but the only benefit of the track is reducing the number of dead and injured, which was a horrific outcome on a daily basis as a result of the regime’s military operations with Russian support.
According to al-Hafez, what distinguishes this path theoretically is the presence of the opposition in it, but its delegation was not negotiating, and it did not have an effective presence in the 20th Astana rounds, so its limited role was drawn by the guarantors, and Turkey was seeking to confirm the presence of the opposition through the Turkish delegation, not through the Syrian opposition delegation itself.
In addition, the quadruple track “Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the regime” (a path of rapprochement between Turkey and the regime), which established a new dynamic for the Syrian issue, ended the existence of benefit even for the “guarantor countries” from the Astana process.
In addition, political tracks often replace one another, given that they are formed out of necessity, and their value ends when the role required of them ends, says the expert.
Is the quadruple track an alternative to the Astana process?
In an opinion article issued on July 24, the Syrian political researcher Hassan al-Naifi ruled out that changing the venue of the Astana meetings and moving them to another country would affect the results of the track, given that the quadruple meetings have become a “real extension” of the Astana track, with perhaps a single difference. This is the possible dispensation with the delegations of the Syrian opposition in the upcoming meetings after attending Astana meetings.
A study by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies on June 27 talked about ending the Astana process and turning it into a new format that excludes the opposition, which means neglecting its role and entrusting it to the supporting countries or some of them without real efforts from the opposition to bring itself back into the circle of attendance.
The study also referred to the meeting of the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) last June, in Geneva, not in Riyadh (its main headquarters), which means that Saudi Arabia, after its new approach and leadership of the normalization initiative with the regime, turned its back on the SNC.
The study considered that the Astana track had come to an end after achieving a number of goals that it was launched to achieve. However, it did not constitute a reliable guarantor of the “settlements” that followed the “de-escalation” agreements, nor did it bring a political solution closer.
In addition, the conclusion of the Astana track or the transfer of its place, Moscow’s desire to replace the Quadruple track with it, and Moscow’s efforts to move the headquarters of the Constitutional Committee negotiations outside of Geneva, marked the beginning of a new phase in Russian policy towards the Syrian file, driven by a race with the Jordanian Initiative that does not correspond to the interests of Russia and Iran, and it may be in the interest of Turkey if it is achieved.
The main goal of the Astana track, according to Charles Thépaut, a French diplomat and fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy, was to link the various military fronts of the war under a broader umbrella in an attempt to protect Moscow’s comprehensive political goal, which is to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.
Astana track birth, driven by Guarantors’ interests
The Astana track, which began in early 2017, is one of the factors that affected the change in the areas of deployment and control in Syria during the past six years.
According to an analytical paper by Dr. Ali Bakir, research assistant professor and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Turkey found itself in the second half of 2016 confronting Russia and Iran, coinciding with the intensification of military campaigns against opposition areas, and at a time when the position of the US administration shifted, and the Arab role in the Syrian scene was absent.
Amid these facts, Ankara headed towards Moscow to build a “ceasefire” agreement that would protect the remaining unarmed civilians at the time, save what was left of the “armed opposition,” and allow Ankara to remain on the Syrian chessboard.
In turn, Russia seized the initiative immediately because it was also looking for a way to reduce dependence on its military machine and turn its “military victories” into political gains, Bakir said.
The agreement on a ceasefire between Turkey and Russia took place as the former is a sponsor and supporter of the armed opposition.
As the second is a sponsor and supporter of the regime, the equation completely and deliberately ignored the most powerful player on the Syrian scene at the time, Iran, which in turn tried to disrupt the Turkish-Russian agreement.
This prompted the two parties to include it in the equation, and at that time, it was decided to establish the Astana platform, or the Astana track, for the first round of it to start in January 2017.
The main objectives of the track at that time were to stabilize the ceasefire and achieve progress in the political process towards the desired political solution between the opposition and the regime, amid the existence of special motives for each of the three countries at the time, according to the researcher.
Ankara was seeking to stop its bleeding in the Syrian crisis, limit its losses, prevent the collapse of what remains of the Syrian opposition, and position itself to face new priorities and dangers, on top of which is the project of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) ’s militias, which aims to carve out northern Syria, Dr. Bakir said.
While Russia was seeking to strengthen the regime’s control and extend its influence in Syria by highlighting the military progress it had achieved and turning it into a political achievement.
This necessarily required effective communication with Turkey as the player capable of influencing the Syrian opposition and as the key to launching the political track.
In this context, Iran had other calculations, as it was afraid of being marginalized and excluded from the political agreements between the two parties.
It also wanted to preserve its influence, prevent the advancement of others at its expense, and strengthen its position in Syria in preparation for any possible clash with Israel and the United States in the post-Islamic State era.
20 rounds are the same
Although most of the results of the 20 rounds of the Astana track were very similar, the military scene on the ground was completely different after the fourth round.
The round that led to the establishment of four areas of “de-escalation” are Eastern Ghouta, Idlib, southern Syria, and the northern countryside of Homs, which were considered the most prominent areas under the opposition’s control at the time.
Despite being subjected to numerous violations, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, managed, on March 5, 2020, to sign the Moscow Agreement, which stipulated the following:
1- A ceasefire starting at 00:01 local time on March 6, 2020 (22:01 GMT) along the front line between the regime and the opposition.
2- Establishing a security corridor six kilometers north and six kilometers south of the main international highway in Idlib (M4), which connects the cities controlled by the Syrian regime in Aleppo and Latakia.
3- Deployment of joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the “M4” international highway, starting from March 15 of the same year.
This was preceded by another agreement signed by Russia and Turkey within the Astana agreement in 2017 to “de-escalate,” followed by the Sochi agreement in September 2018, which provided for a ceasefire in the Idlib region, but these agreements are repeatedly violated.
Abdulwahhab Assi, a senior research fellow at the Jusoor for Studies Center, told Enab Baladi that the Astana process has actually succeeded in establishing a long-term calm and building a ceasefire mechanism, which is what all previous international understandings have previously faltered in.
Assi stressed that this truce did not succeed until after the signing of the Moscow agreement, that is, after more than one attempt to strengthen the ceasefire mechanism with bilateral understandings between Turkey and Russia without Iran and then appending these understandings to the “de-escalation” memorandum that is considered as one of the main outputs of the track.
Since the beginning of 2023, the ceasefire agreement has witnessed a gradual decline and erosion in its importance and perhaps its effectiveness in the future, due to the increase in violations and military escalations in the region and Turkey’s reliance on itself more in counter-terrorism operations, following the continued refusal of Russia, Iran, and the United States to launch a new military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The path of normalization of relations between the regime and Turkey, sponsored by Russia and Iran, conflicted with the ceasefire mechanism of the Astana track in terms of combating terrorism and in terms of Turkey’s relationship with the Syrian armed opposition.
Abdulwahhab Assi, a senior research fellow at the Jusoor for Studies Center
Dr. Yahya al-Aridi, a former spokesman of the Syrian Negotiation Commission, told Enab Baladi that the Turkish sponsor and the military factions imagined that they would protect civilians from “the continuation of the Assad regime and Iranian and Russian militias from targeting civilian areas, but these parties gnawed away those areas, according to his opinion.
While the Russians wanted, through this track, to disrupt the political track in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations and launched campaigns against it, claiming that it was “useless,” with the aim of considering the Astana track as the real actor.
After the 20th round, changing location or blowing up a path?
Many analyzes indicate that Kazakhstan’s announcement of the conclusion of the rounds of the Astana track is in Russia’s interest, in terms of moving the location of the track, without announcing the new location until the date of preparing this file.
After the sudden announcement, the Russian President’s Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said that the next meeting will be held in the second half of this year, at a place to be determined later, considering that the track “has proven its effectiveness.”
A report by the Jusoor Center for Studies on June 22 said that the announcement of a new round of the Astana format appears to have come in response to Turkey’s position, which did not accept the end of the track.
However, due to not specifying the location, the possibility that a new round will not be held in another place during the second half of this year remains in light of the insistence of Russia, Iran, and the regime to prioritize the “quartet” meetings and resolve contentious issues with Turkey through them, in addition to focusing on the path of Arab normalization and bilateral relations with Arab countries.
The Syrian think tank considered that the announcement of the end of the Astana track, despite the possibility that its formula will continue later, albeit in a different form, appears as an attempt by the regime and its allies to empty the discussions of their content and put pressure on Turkey to address the issues that the track included through the quadripartite meetings.
These include issues of terrorism, the exit of foreign forces, the return of refugees, and others, in addition to the clear desire to exclude the Syrian opposition from the military and security scene, in parallel with the efforts of the regime and its allies to reduce its role in the political scene to a mere party in a national reconciliation process away from UN Resolution 2254.
An issue that would explain the relative position of Turkey, which seems to be still sticking to the path as a tool contributing to preserving the presence of the opposition, despite the regime’s efforts to undermine its influence militarily.
Jusoor’s fellow, Assi, considered that announcing a next round without specifying its place and time may burden the possibility of resuming negotiations, especially in the event that Russia or Iran insists on choosing a place that Turkey does not want or the proposed country is not welcome to host.
All of this may affect the commitment of the conflict parties to the ceasefire mechanism and their work to test the possibility of violating it, which enhances the chances of its gradual erosion, according to Assi.
The researcher believes that the less commitment of the parties to the ceasefire, the more this will affect the chances of resuming the political process, as the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, has always linked achieving progress in the process of building confidence between the parties to the conflict, which he personally focuses on, with what he calls the strategic stalemate, which is the long-term lull in cooperation between the guarantors of Astana.
In his turn, Dr. al-Aridi believes that the absence of the path is better than its continuation for reasons related to not deceiving more.
The absence of the (Astana) track is better than its continuation, as its absence may end the achievement of its negative goals by harming the Syrian cause. The issue will not freeze further in the track absence; it will only stop the state of deception carried out by the regime and Russia by pretending to engage in a political negotiation process while it does not want to and is still in the state of “Assad or No One.”
Dr. Yahya al-Aridi, Former spokesman of the Syrian opposition
What did the “Guarantors” benefit from “Astana”?
Turkey was able to carry out military operations inside the Syrian territories and deployed its forces in military points, thus achieving a number of goals, the most important of which were controlling an area of land to ensure the return of refugees, blocking the way for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party to establish an entity for it in the north, and preventing it from establishing a military foothold that would allow it to strengthen its negotiating position in the Syrian file.
While Russia strengthened its influence within the institutions and agencies of the Syrian regime and succeeded in increasing its influence on Assad at the expense of the Iranian side, and obtained many political and economic concessions in Syria.
While the Astana track did not allow Iran to increase its influence in the way it allowed Russia and Turkey for several reasons related to the previous Russian-Israeli, Russian-American, and American-Israeli intersections, all of which are related to limiting Iranian influence in Syria.
Dr. Ali Bakir, Assistant professor and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council
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