Negotiations concerning Syria will become successful only after the next phase of hostilities and a series of defeats of one of the parties. After that, the defeated party may make concessions. Neither party recognizes defeats and is not ready for full-fledged negotiations for now. Along with this, only the great countries such as Russia and the United States must rise above the fight and exert mutual pressure on the participants and sponsors of the conflict.
What is the result of the numerous negotiations? What were the purposes of parties? Which impact diplomacy has exerted on conflict? And what is the main difference between «Astana» and «Geneva»? And the most important: what will happen to Syria?
The Syrian conflict has overstepped five-year boundary and smoothly enters the sixth year of its existence. The efforts of the international community to organize negotiations concerning Syria have not less rich history. Diplomats have already managed to hold three rounds of negotiations in Geneva and three in Astana for the five years. It is currently planned Geneva-IV, which has already been announced by special envoys of the UN on Syria. It is not excluded that organizers of Astana will also meet for the fourth time. Syrian negotiations have already become a separate page in the history of diplomacy. They can get confused even those who follow the conflict from the first days.
They are constantly postponed, transferred and prolonged, but so far without specific successes. Here are the main results of this epic. The start of the fourth negotiations in Geneva is planned for March 20. The history of Geneva has begun on June 30, 2012. Then the representatives of the United States, Russia, China, the League of Arab States and the EU met for the first time under the auspices of the United Nations in order to discuss the possibilities of resolving the conflict, which was only gaining momentum. At that time, the UN Special Representative for Syria was the ex-secretary general of the organization — Kofi Annan, and the war has not claimed the lives of almost half a million Syrians yet. The «Action Group» adopted the final communiqué, which consisted of many items.
It is very important to remember that the document was supported by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and hence by Russia. The document explicitly stated the need to create a «transitional board of governors», and the mention of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, was absent. Both representatives of the opposition and representatives of the Syrian government had to join the new Institute. Despite the solidity and pithiness of the document, the fighting in Syria only gained momentum. External, mainly regional, players strengthened the support of the parties, and the war funnel sucked in more and more people. The conflict assumed an «eternal» character, and the contradictions and hostility of the parties intensified.
The geopolitical interests of Turkey, Qatar, and later Russia, France and the US were added to the permanent conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran supporting different sides. Geneva-II was held two years later, in January-February 2014. This was preceded by the replacement of the UN special envoy to the well-known Arab diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The list of conferees was expanded, but there were no negotiators from the key country for the Syrian conflict — Iran. The Syrian opposition and forces standing behind it delivered the ultimatum, and the invitation to Tehran was withdrawn. The Syrian Kurds, who control most of the north-east of the country, were also not invited to the negotiations. Geneva-II did not lead to tangible results.
The intensification of hostility and revitalization of fighting have only exacerbated the intransigent positions of the parties. Thus, if Geneva-I can be regarded as the beginning of the negotiation process even before the intensification of hostilities, then the theater of warfare obviously determined the nature of subsequent conferences. Geneva-III was held in February 2016, when the balance of power was shaken in favor of Damascus. This was preceded by the entry of the Russian Aerospace Forces into the Syrian conflict and activation of support for the regime’s allies from Iran and the Shiite militant grouping from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Efforts by Russian advisers and aviation have succeeded in inflicting considerable damage on radical opposition groups, mainly on the number of supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, the strategic and operational balance has been broken: Bashar Al-Assad won his overthrow by force was impossible. Damascus changed the nature and tone of its diplomacy.
Syrian representative to the UN, Bashar Jafari, in a moment became another man — confident, dictating, sometimes not absolutely reasonably, his terms. The UN special envoy on Syria was also replaced: the post was occupied by the diplomat Stefan de Mistura. The negotiations organized by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Kazakhstan in January, 2017 became the following stage. Astana-I is a completely different story. As well as the previous, these negotiations haven’t led to breakthrough. They could hardly have been successful because of a whole range of reasons. First of all, the list of participants was less representative. Secondly, the Geneva format has de facto reserved for itself the status of the main platform of resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Politically Astana has become the convenient mechanism of consolidation of progress of Russia in Syria. The US and the West fell out of the Syrian settlement for a certain period, and Moscow took advantage of the vacuum and tried to strengthen its position. It is unlikely Turkey would had taken part in work of a similar format if not a victory of Donald Trump and uncertainty in Washington. Iran in turn, has treated with some vigilance attraction by Russia of Turkey. In a word, no one took «Astana», as an independent format of negotiations. It is considered that the Kazakh negotiations strengthened the ceasefire.
However, with careful analysis, it becomes evident that the cease-fire was permanently violated and there was, in fact, never a real truce. In general, the failure character of this meeting was confirmed by the absence of the leadership of delegations, including the Syrian opposition and Turkey, on Astana-II. On the other hand, we can’t call negotiations in Astana a complete failure. The permanent attempts of the parties (although not of all) to strengthen the ceasefire regime — have become the main objectives of the Astana format. And «Geneva» de facto turned into a field of conflict resolution from the political positions.
In general such division of labor is acceptable, but provided that Moscow will manage to connect all parties, including opposition, the USA and Arabs of the Gulf to negotiations in Kazakhstan. And on the eve, on March 14-15, the third round of talks in Kazakhstan took place. Representatives of the Syrian opposition did not come, and the discussion was limited at the level of deputy ministers, heads of departments and special representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey. At the same time, negotiations in a permanent regime are conducted by experts who consult with their capitals. Despite the announced ceasefire regime, the Syrian conflict does not cease for a minute. Terrorist attacks are carrying out in Damascus, fighting is conducted in certain areas of Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Difficult and unclear situation is in Deyr az-Zore.
The terrorist groups carried out the next regrouping: new names, management and unions. Groups that are close to Al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood of Muslims group are coming to the forefront, while ISIS increasingly goes to villages, Rakka and the desert regions of Syria. In short, the negotiation process around the Syrian conflict has a limited effect on the course of hostilities. But the successes or failures of the parties on the battlefield have a tremendous effect on the position of the parties, both in Astana and Geneva. The civil war in Syria is an archetypal conflict that will last, regardless of the negotiation process, for a very long time. We should understand that different people are at war and at the negotiating table.
And the conflict between the regional forces: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Iran and the Shiite groups, on the other, has a tendency to increase. However, this does not mean that negotiations are not needed, but in order for them to have a serious influence, it is necessary to involve all parties and increase the fatigue factor of the conflicting parties. International mediators, in turn, should understand that they aren’t able to stop the conflict completely and they should concentrate on its regionalization.
Transformation of the civil war in Syria into the “limited” conflict in one or another region of the country, it is, perhaps, the first step to the de-escalation. Time and fatigue are the second step. Simultaneously, the great countries Russia and the United States must exert pressure on the participants and sponsors of the conflict. Syria needs compromises, concessions and reduction of hostility like air.
Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., orientalist.
This article was published in Forbes.