“Astana 21:” Regime remains obstinate, Opposition satisfied with outcomes

The Syrian regime's delegation held a bilateral meeting with the Iranian delegation at the Astana talks - January 24, 2024 (SANA)

The Syrian regime's delegation held a bilateral meeting with the Iranian delegation at the Astana talks - January 24, 2024 (SANA)


Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

After the announcement by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry on June 21, 2023, about Kazakhstan’s pause in hosting further discussions for the international meeting on Syria in the “Astana” format, the following day it confirmed its readiness to resume negotiations as a goodwill gesture, should a collective request be made by the concerned parties.

Indeed, the only currently active political track for the Syrian file was brought back to life at the same meeting place, following a gathering that took place on the sidelines of the participating parties’ concurrent presence in New York for the United Nations meetings on September 22, 2023, without any public deviation from the previous encounters, at least, not openly.

After the announcement on January 19 of the current year of a new round of Astana talks, the meeting was held on January 24 and 25, with the first day limited to bilateral meetings that brought together the Syrian regime’s delegation with the Russian president’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, in addition to the regime’s delegation meeting with the Iranian delegation, and with the Deputy Special Envoy of the UN to Syria, Najat Rochdi.

The Turkish delegation also met with the Russian and UN delegations, and the Iranian delegation also met with the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen.

The second day of this round of negotiations brought nothing unexpected in comparison to the previous 20 rounds, with the participating parties agreeing to hold the 22nd round in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the second half of the current year.

The Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Alibek Bakayev, issued a joint closing statement, announcing a meeting of the leaders of the “guarantor states” (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) in the Astana format during the current year, stating, “We note the agreement outlined in the closing statement of the trilateral summit on July 19, 2022, to organize a summit meeting in the Russian Federation, and we agreed on holding the 22nd international meeting on Syria, in Astana, in the second half of 2024,” as reported by the Russian Sputnik agency.

The Russian TASS agency mentioned that Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed to hold a summit in the Astana format in Russia, without specifying the date.

Core issues, Regime obstinacy

Although the 20th round of the political track witnessed a meeting between the quartet (Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime) regarding the Turkish rapprochement with Damascus, this round did not follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, amidst a coolness in this track which had its meetings cease at this point, and the Turkish delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmet Yıldız did not meet with the regime’s delegation, contenting itself with a meeting with the Syrian opposition delegation.

The head of the opposition delegation participating in the Astana talks, Dr. Ahmad Toma, explained to Enab Baladi that minor disagreements led Kazakhstan to announce its reluctance to host new rounds of talks after the 20th session, before these obstacles were overcome, and the resumption of negotiations at the previous venue.

Regarding the opposition’s assessment of this round of talks, Toma said that the opposition’s impressions are reasonable, despite not differing much from the previous one, and the proposals were no less serious than their predecessors, dealing with extremely important topics. The most important are consolidating the calm in Idlib and stopping egregious violations. There was a decent understanding of de-escalation and the prevention of the regime’s invasion of northwest Syria.

Among the seriously discussed topics was the return to the resumption of the work of the constitutional committee. There are still some hindrances in this context, but the intensity of the fundamental disputes on this subject has become less, and it is expected in the coming period that Pedersen will visit to resolve this issue with the concerned parties.

An issue that did not witness a breakthrough due to the regime’s obstinacy, according to Toma, is the file of detainees and forcibly disappeared persons, which naturally is one of the thorny files.

Regarding the novelty of this round, the head of the opposition delegation pointed out that the mere discussion of the major substantive issues is an “achievement,” as the file is complex, and the path keeps the issue alive and the discussion on the table, and it reaffirms the binary frame between the regime and the opposition, despite the regime’s attempts to present itself as the sole “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people.

As for the meeting of the Syrian opposition delegation with the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, it discussed ways to resume the work of the constitutional committee, calming the north, and resolving the detainee file, according to Toma.

The head of the Syrian opposition delegation considered the holding of two meetings per year, and the spacing of these meetings in the Astana track at the present time, to be normal given the complex reality and current conditions, as the goal of the track is to cool down the military situation and to continue the ceasefire, and to address the violations as a prerequisite for a political solution.

And with no results being reached and no political solution found in Syria, the Astana track will continue, according to Toma.

Closing statement

During the 21st round, the guarantor states renewed their commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the goals and principles of the UN Charter, emphasizing continuing joint efforts to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations, and opposing separatist agendas that aim to undermine the sovereignty, integrity, and unity of Syrian territory, and threaten the regional security of neighboring states, according to the closing statement.

They also reaffirmed their opposition to the illegal seizure and transfer of oil revenues, which should be returned to Syria.

For her part, the Deputy Special Envoy of the UN to Syria, Najat Rochdi, expressed her appreciation for holding more bilateral meetings in Astana, with the governments of Iraq and Iran and the Syrian opposition, as well as meeting with the guarantor states to move forward in Syria, stressing that the current situation in the region and Syria is very worrying and requires advancing the political track.

Rochdi set the shared priorities of de-escalation, civilian protection, resumption of work of the Constitutional Committee, enhancing confidence-building measures, supporting the Syrian people everywhere, and implementing UN Resolution “2254”, while the UN will continue to work with Syrian parties and international actors to achieve tangible progress.

The Syrian regime continued to exploit the issue of refugees for political gain. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Bashar Jaafari, said their return is a “primary goal” for Syria, and coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is ongoing to provide the appropriate conditions and necessary facilitations to secure a “dignified return” for refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas, as reported by the official Syrian news agency (SANA).

Modest hopes

Dr. Hussam al-Hafiz, head of the legal office of the High Negotiations Committee for 2016 and 2017 and a member of the Syrian opposition’s negotiation delegation for 2014, explained to Enab Baladi that the timing of the current round of the international meeting in the Astana format on Syria is related to several factors that reflect a kind of need for this meeting, including regional tensions, the ongoing Israeli aggression on Gaza, Israeli movements in the region, and a relative change in the Israeli rules of engagement in Syria.

The three countries also need a shared platform to reaffirm their presence and interests and some of the understandings that confirm their leading role if they come together; hence, the three countries condemned the “Israeli breaches” in Syria and addressed the war in Gaza.

Al-Hafiz considered that a large part of the Astana track, especially in this round, carries messages to the United States, and therefore the closing statement emphasized the leadership role of the path and the three countries see the need to continue “Astana”.

Moreover, the escalation in Idlib concerns Turkey and the opposition. This concern requires understandings. The three countries do not want new escalations if regional tensions increase as a whole. The essence is for these countries to show their concerns through an international platform, according to al-Hafiz.

Regarding the nature of the Astana track, he said that “this path is military and began with hopes of limited outputs, many of which were obtained, such as the de-escalation in Syria. However, the de-escalation zones have become a burden on the settlement within them if there is no complete governance transferred to the forces of the revolution and the opposition”.

Furthermore, the Astana track turned the factions into human blocks with no influence in future political settlements. The presence of the opposition at the Astana talks is minimal and ineffective. The regime is present by virtue of the Russians and Iranians’ presence and its original one, but the opposition is present through the “Turkish guarantor”, with differing agendas between the Syrian opposition and the “guarantor states”, according to al-Hafiz.

The Astana process began in January 2017 and across the previous 20 rounds, the meetings were held with the attendance of leaders from three countries, two of which are political, military, and economic allies of the Syrian regime (Russia and Iran), and Turkey, with representatives from the Syrian regime and opposition, and bodies from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon as observers.


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