ASTANA PROCESS ADDITION TO UN-SPONSORED GENEVA TALKS
As the trilateral format of cooperation between Iran, Russia and Turkey proved to be effective in the evacuation of people from the recently liberated Aleppo, the sides decided to take their joint work further, with Moscow and Ankara discussing a possible meeting between the Syrian conflicting parties in Astana.
"The discussions between Russia, Iran and Turkey seem to reflect the existing balance of forces in Syria and therefore were always likely to be more successful in reaching an agreement than other talks," Stephen Smellie, one of the patrons of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign "dedicated to advancing the rights of the Kurdish people," said.
The initiative, in which Ankara, Moscow and Tehran would act as guarantor countries, while the Syrian government and opposition would directly negotiate, is seen by the mediators not as an alternative but as an addition to the UN-backed intra-Syria talks, which have not been convened since April.
"As format to work outside the UN, it [the Astana process] might work. So far we have seen a total failure of the UN and other formats can be tried," Johannes de Jong, a member of the Christian Coalition for Syria NGO that seeks to protect the religious minority's rights, argued.
Nevertheless, if held in January, Astana talks could become the preparatory meeting for the next round of Geneva talks set for February 8 and focus on sticking points such as the continuous fighting in Syria and the lack of progress on humanitarian issues.
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS CRUCIAL FOR SUCCESS OF ASTANA TALKS
Another issue, which is yet to be solved, is the participation of the delegation of Syrian Kurds in the Astana talks, who have so far been excluded from the Geneva negotiations. Although Moscow and Washington, co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), have consistently supported their full-fledged participation, Ankara’s anti-Kurdish stance remains unchanged.
"Russia has since the start been clear that it is necessary to include the Kurds and their allies. It is a bit hard to imagine that peace talks over Syria without the Syrians involved directly will indeed succeed but it is imaginable that it can be helpful to prepare the ground for an agreement in Syria," de Jong, who is also the director at the Christian Political Foundation for Europe, said.
As for the United States, the country together with other states comprising its international coalition has been actively assisting and training the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been an essential force on the Syrian ground operating against the IS terrorists.
"Kurdish forces and those allied within the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be ignored. They are a force on the ground and they will not simply accept any deal that compromises the freedoms and rights they have achieved through their struggle in both the military and the social fields," Smellie, who is also the deputy convener for the UNISON Scotland trade union, argued.
Although the date and the list of participants for the Astana talks have not been determined yet and are currently being worked on, it is crucial to include all conflicting parties in Syria in the negotiating process in order to reach a deal on the conflict settlement, experts agreed.
The Riyadh-formed HNC is one of the three Syria's opposition groups, which participated in the latest round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva on April 13-27. The HNC walked out of the negotiations, citing the continuous fighting in Syria and the lack of progress on humanitarian issues.
US EFFORTS IN SYRIA SHOULD BE BOLSTERED
In addition, the Syrian political settlement should also see an increase in Washington’s efforts to mediate peace between the conflicting parties, which has so far been limited to its anti-Daesh airstrikes within the coalition and short-lived initiatives, such as cessation of hostilities, within the ISSG.
Recent recapture of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by the Daesh militants has been blamed on the lack of fruitful coordination on Syria between Moscow and Washington, which is further complicated by restrictions of military contacts with Russia imposed by Pentagon.
"This trio-effort is welcomed but I sure like to see the current US and the upcoming administration to weigh in on this tenuous situation too," Joseph Kassab, the president of the US-based Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, stressed.
Moscow and Washington, as the ISSG co-chairs, brokered two ceasefire agreements between the main parties to the Syrian war in 2016, but the mediators have been going back and forth on finding a common approach to the political settlement of the Syrian civil war.
Although their mid-December expert level meeting on Syria in Geneva has not yielded any agreements, officials from both countries state there is slow progress in joint efforts to end violence in war-torn Syria.