What can Syrians expect from the Astana peace talks?
On 22 November, the 19th round of Syrian peace talks commenced in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. UN special envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen is present at the negotiations along with delegations from the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Other countries include observers such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.
The talks come at a time of complex international tensions and shifting regional dynamics. Russia, the leading power backing the Assad regime, is now perceived to have its influence related to Syria diminished.
Iran, another supporter of Damascus, is also dealing with difficulties at home as Tehran struggles to suppress protests.
An envoy's negotiation strategy for peace
Pedersen, in a briefing to the UN Security Council on 29 November, touched on the lack of engagement regarding the constitutional committee and said, “The longer it lies dormant, the harder it will be to resume. And the absence of a credible political process can only promote further conflict and instability”.
Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst with International Crisis Group, told The New Arab, “It’s now overdue for the special envoy to basically stop beating around the bush and call a spade a spade and just pull the plug on the constitutional committee”.
"When authoritarian regimes like Assad's partake in such negotiations, it is not as much about undermining their own system as it is about controlling their own political evolution to survive"
“A lot of investment has gone into this process but at this point it’s an opportunity sunk. At best, it will produce an inconsequential constitution, at worst it will continue to divert resources and attention from more substantive issues,” she added.
The talks have previously signalled some modest signs of hope, only to be later dashed. In October 2021, Pedersen shared that the Syrian Constitutional Committee had failed to make progress on a previously announced breakthrough on drafting a new constitution.
“When authoritarian regimes like Assad’s partake in such negotiations, it is not as much about undermining their own system as it is about controlling their own political evolution to survive in political office,” Hager Ali, a researcher at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Hamburg, told The New Arab.
“A pacted peace process, and the controlled top-down reform that would result from this process within the Syrian political system, can endow Assad with the reputational credit for liberalisation without the loss of power monopoly that would normally come with it,” she explained.
A critical stage for the Assad regime
“Among the four survivors of the Syrian conflict, the government in Damascus is the least willing to offer concessions and they’ve been quite consistent on that throughout the war. The way they perceive themselves [they] are the winners of the war. They’ve been playing the waiting game and it’s kind of working in their favour,” said Khalifa.
Turkey, with newfound influence in the West due to its role in assisting Ukraine, is also tasked with managing the power struggles between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) factions in the northwest.
“The problem, from [the regime’s] standpoint, is that the military victories seem to have hit a brick wall,” explained Khalifa, noting Turkey and the United States’ prominent roles in the country.
She believes that the regime “has to pursue or advance more negotiations rather than previous tactics that they’ve deployed throughout the war. That has not resonated effectively in Damascus.”
However, President Assad is unlikely to adhere to any concessions that would undermine his hold on power. “We have seen zero signs of a willingness to either negotiate or concede on anything substantive. Neither for economic reasons nor political ones,” Khalifa added.
In addition, Turkey is once again carrying out a wave of airstrikes on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the United States in the northeast. The prospect of Turkish-backed forces taking additional territory along the Syrian-Turkish border is a development that Assad wishes to avoid.
Russia’s envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said that a Turkish assault in northern Syria should be avoided in order to prevent an escalation in violence.
“Regarding the Astana format…there is a justified concern about these meetings, because in the past, the three parties have decided on things that often went against Western interests, against opposition interests,” Khalifa said.
"The multilateral negotiations have the possibility of someday ending Syria's violence, but the peace process will likely preserve the makeup of Syria's authoritarian system"
“However, it’s been a while since major decisions have been taken. When it comes to bigger issues, including ceasefire arrangements, you’ll see smaller meetings, bilateral meetings between Russia and Turkey, and it happens at the top level between Presidents Putin and Erdogan.”
“The last of these meetings in which major issues were discussed was back in 2019 when a ceasefire was negotiated in Sochi that stopped a Turkish offensive in the northeast,” she explained.
Lavrentyev also said that, without the US military presence in the northeast, “the Kurdish issue could have been resolved very quickly”.
Russian military officials met with SDF leader General Mazloum Abdi and urged them to withdraw from the border and turn control of the area over to the regime, a notion that was rejected by the Kurds.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey are all adamantly against the indefinite US military presence and Washington’s protection of the SDF. The three sides also issued a joint statement vowing to resist “separatist plans aimed at undermining Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
The SDF is not included in the Astana talks.
“When diplomacy is effective, it manages to buy time, that’s what happened during the last meeting over the summer in Tehran and they managed to put a halt on the Turkish offensive for a few months. But as we’ve seen with the recent escalation, it’s very difficult to put an effective red light perpetually on the Turkish military offensive,” said Khalifa.
“That’s based on Turkey’s last three offensives on Syria that pretty much went against what the Russians and Iranians had asked them to do but Turkey did it nevertheless,” she noted.
“Likewise, when Russia pursued offensives in the past, it went against what Turkey wanted,” said Khalifa, “it doesn’t seem like these meetings are a make or break for these parties, but it remains a vehicle by which the top three leaders of these countries meet and often, through diplomacy, maintain a stalemate in the conflict and kick the can down the road on the major disagreements amongst them.”
Securing peace and strengthening Syria's authoritarianism
The Astana talks are set to continue into 2023. Along with separate bilateral deals, the multilateral negotiations have the possibility of someday ending Syria’s violence, but the peace process will likely preserve the makeup of Syria’s authoritarian system.
“Appropriating seemingly democratic causes like the inclusion of some ethno-religious minorities or superficial reforms to the domestic political system is also a common strategy to virtue signal to Western observers,” said Ali.
Some factions of the Syrian opposition could ultimately be granted some non-security-related ministries or allocated seats in the country’s parliament.
"Over the past year, the likelihood that Ankara and Damascus could eventually reach a rapprochement has increased significantly"
“The point of including the opposition in the political process is indeed co-optation into the existing political system. Repression, especially if autocrats have to sustain it over an extended period, is costly for all involved parties,” Ali explained.
“Strategic concessions to the opposition’s demands and power-sharing deals demobilise the internal political resistance, can increase Assad’s political approval for implementing selected demands, and pre-empt bigger crises,” she added.
As rebel infighting continues sporadically in the northwest, Turkey will simultaneously need to manage its influence between HTS and the SNA as it looks to put pressure on the SDF in the east. HTS’ leader, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, is likely aiming to eventually consolidate his control over all of the anti-Assad factions in Syria’s north.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly indicated a desire to meet with Assad. Over the past year, the likelihood that Ankara and Damascus could eventually reach a rapprochement has increased significantly.
Whether this reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara will unfold within the Astana talks is uncertain at this stage. However, if and when it does occur, it will be a significant blow to the exiled political opposition.
“It is also stifling future political mobilisation because endorsing only specific factions in the opposition reinforces the disenfranchisement of ethno-religious minorities in northern and eastern Syria. A divided opposition is always easier to control than a united one,” said Ali.
Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris