THE best New Year present put under the fir-tree was the unanimously voted resolution of the UN Security Council in support of the efforts made by Turkey and Russia to end violence and finally launch long awaited and vitally needed political process. Before the remarkable December 31 vote the long awaited ceasefire agreement was reached as a result of Russia-Turkey talks with the belligerent sides of the Syrian conflict including major fighter groups.
The sides agreed to meet in Kazakh capital, Astana and discuss further steps of the crisis settlement. The talks are scheduled on January 23. That initiative and efforts were supported by the resolution 2336 UN mentioned earlier. The talks to be held on a neutral territory, in Kazakhstan, in case ceasefire stay in force, have enough chances to be a success. At least more fruitful than Geneva format. In case of success Syrians will finally get a chance for a peaceful life and possibility to unite forces in the fight with the common threat – terrorism.
But such a positive perspective remains unlikely. Even the way to the conference remains thorny. Ongoing serious violations in the north and east of Damascus threaten the talks, if the rebels withdraw from the agreement because the violations of the official Damascus and Shiite-backed militias side continue. Russia and Turkey are working on sanctions to impose on those who violate the ceasefire, undermining the efforts of the two countries to bring the bloodshed to its long-awaited end. The two countries’ governments do not appear to be under the illusion of a predetermined success of the Astana meeting. First, until now there are no guarantees that the talks will be held, considering the violations. Second, there is no guarantees that it will be a success. It is clear that the Gulf states will use their influence on the rebel groups with which they have contacts to project their will through them
From a geopolitical perspective, there are very few parties interested in the success of the meeting in Kazakhstan. Firstly, because the success of the talks will cement success of Russian and Turkish diplomacy, and thus their geopolitics positions, as well as Iranian ones. Secondly, successful outcome of the talks will leave behind the West, and primarily Washington.
Such an outcome of the situation would be convenient to the newly elected president who is set to make America great again. However, his personality and his agenda remain under question. Furthermore Trump has an absolute anti-Iranian agenda and a significant role of Tehran in the ongoing process most likely will not please him. But what is worse is that these negotiations leave behind the Gulf states. Iran has already rejected including of Saudi Arabia in the Astana talks – this rejection is risky and destructive. Iran’s agenda The meeting’s potential success will strengthen Iran’s position that reference is harmful for the regional geopolitical balance and can lead to the strengthening of sectarian conflicts inflaming the regional societies. It is dangerous and geopolitically undesirable for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Rejecting the participation of Saudi Arabia, the negotiations undermine the result of the talks and their chances for success.
It is clear that the Gulf states will use their influence on the rebel groups with which they have contacts to project their will through them. In case anything goes in an undesirable direction it is clear that the negotiations will be sabotaged. While in the presence of Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries there would be far more space for negotiations, position-statement and regulation of the arising contradictions during the negotiation process. But Iran has its own agenda in the Syrian civil war conflict. And it breaks the Saudi game.
One of the key problems of the protracted Syrian conflict is that there were too many players involved with absolutely different agenda. The international players were playing geopolitical goals using the Syrians as pawns. And all the players are ready to play this game until the last Syrian.
But assuming the talks in Astana take place and result in success, the true challenges will remain in front of the mediators and the Syrians themselves. Firstly, there will be attempts to bring chaos back to the country and there is no guarantees that these won’t succeed. Furthermore, not only the country needs to be rebuilt, but the whole nation. During the inevitable and long process of political transition and construction of the new Syrian contours, there should be a long and painful process of national reconciliation. And to make people who were killing each other for five years love each other is much more difficult than just to build a political system.
Moreover, none can speak about the end of transitional process until most of the Syrians who fled the country come back. It will be a long process while ISIS and Al Qaeda sympathizers and affiliated groups are still on the ground and it will be even longer one, while people have nowhere to return as their homes were destroyed. Before the moment when most of the Syrian refugees return to Syria no elections and any kind of democratic process can be considered legitimate. Syrians should build their own country and each voice should be properly counted. But these are matters of the not so close future.
But the success of Astana – if balanced and satisfactory for the majority of those involved – then a new future can become that little bit closer. We still have a very difficult way to go before the 23rd to make these talks start.
[Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme]