Many experts and journalists focused their attention on the negotiations held in Astana, the purpose of which is the settlement of the Syrian conflict. There are different views to that end, in this regard, we turned to Russian political scientist, Ph. D. in History, an expert on the Caucasus and the Middle East Anar Sadykhov to comment on this issue.
Do you think the Astana talks will bear fruit? What are the prospects for the process?
The third round of the negotiations on Syria in Astana was not at full strength. In addition to traditional participants, representing primarily the guarantor countries and the Syrian government, there were also delegations from Jordan and the United States as observers, whereas the latter was represented, together with the ambassador in Kazakhstan, by an official from the State Department, which was already an innovation. At the same time, there were no representatives of the moderate armed opposition, indicating several reasons for their decision, the main of which was the violation of the ceasefire. Nevertheless, it was possible to work out the main agenda, including the strengthening of the ceasefire, the release of prisoners, having reached a preliminary agreement on the establishment of a working group.
The process of further disengagement of the moderate opposition and terrorists was continued. Having consulted during the previous rounds with representatives of armed groups, at this stage, Russian experts discussed existing maps with Iranian and Turkish counterparts, by reviewing and combining the location of the opposing parties, together with experts from the Jordanian delegation.
The discussion on the creation of a constitutional commission, which is a key to a future political settlement and one of the main issues on the agenda of the recent Geneva meeting, was also started, but didn’t lead to any result. Thus, the Astana process starts to acquire greater significance and will force the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to intensify the actions, otherwise the main emphasis of resolving the Syrian crisis will shift towards Astana.
Returning to the absence of a delegation of the moderate armed opposition at the talks, it should be noted that the number of violations during Astana-1 (5-10 per day) remains as it was earlier. This is not much, there are no negative dynamics, so the main reason lies elsewhere, most likely in the pressure of Turkey, which has a big influence on the opposition groups and this is what helped them join the negotiation process in the capital of Kazakhstan.
Ankara is unhappy with the development of events surrounding the city of Manbij, located tens of kilometers away from El-Baba, recently occupied by the Free Syrian Army, with the support of the Turkish armed forces. Back in June of last year, Kurds, having freed Manbij from the terrorists of ISIL, were supposed to leave and hand it over to the pro-Turkish forces, but they did not intend to do so, and Washington revised its position by sending its forces to the north of the city, which became a natural barrier to Turkish army, and from the west the Kurds handed the villages to Syrian government forces. Moreover, an agreement has been reached to restore the State Administration by the central government in Manbij, which is a signal to Turkey about the undesirability of expanding its zone of influence in the north of Syria.
And Recep Tayyip Erdogan, knowing all this full well, acted in his usual manner, notwithstanding the aggravation, blocking the presence of the armed opposition in Astana-3.
However, the latter, thus, creates potential difficulties for itself and loses its initiative, as today the official Damascus already controls one third of the territory of the country. A powerful group was formed in the North-West of Syria, about 30,000 fighters, whose goal is Idlib, which is the mainstay of the Jebhat an Nusra. The offensive is actively advancing in the Northeast, where the government forces for the first time in many years reached the bank of the Euphrates River and control the coastal zone in the area of 15 km, heading towards Rakki from the south. The Americans are planning to storm this city, betting on the Democratic forces of Syria, consisting of at least 30,000 people, mainly Kurds, who will be confronted by no more than 4 thousand ISIL fighters and the operation will probably pass according to the Mosul scenario.
Another direction is the Deir ez Zor province, in which the terrorists have blocked for several years the army units receiving air support. The government forces are determined to free this territory and regain control over the border with Iraq. The oil fields are concentrated in the east of Syria and the government of the SAR seeks to regain control over them.
The groups involved in the so-called “Southern Front”, influenced by Jordan, are involved in the negotiation process, and if they join the fight against the terrorists in the south of Syria in the Jordanian and Israeli borders, official Damascus, in aggregate, will significantly expand the territories under control, and that will allow it to set conditions for further negotiations, including Geneva in the process of political settlement.
Thus, if the established dynamics of the offensive continue, then the authorities of Syria will dictate their demands in the future, and the opinion of the armed opposition will be less important and it may be on the sidelines of the negotiation process.