Opinions on the outcome of the Astana talks have varied, as the 2-day negotiations between the Syrian Government and opposition factions ended on 24 January at the Rixos Hotel in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The Astana talks were organized by Russia, Turkey, and Iran with the aim of consolidating a Syria-wide ceasefire and potentially paving the way for a political settlement to end the 6 year civil war.
While the first day of talks featured the first time that representatives from both the Syrian Government and opposition factions sat at one table for the opening, both sides refused direct negotiations and proceeded to accuse each other of undermining the talks. The opposition accused the government side of violating the ceasefire, while the government responded by labeling the opposition groups as terrorists. On the second day, both sides continued to accuse each other of undermining the talks, with both sides needing separate rooms, which resulted in the opposition forces’ refusal to sign a joint declaration.
The Astana talks did result in a joint communiqué from Russia, Turkey, and Iran, outlining a trilateral mechanism to observe and monitor the ceasefire. The three countries also agreed that the opposition forces should take part in the UN-led peace talks in Geneva this February.
The UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura downplayed any comparison of the talks to the upcoming talks in Geneva. Instead, de Mistura praised the results and said that the UN was ready to assist the parties of the trilateral monitoring mechanism and to ensure that it helps strengthen the quality of the ceasfefire.
Bashar Ja’afari, the head of the Syrian Government delegation viewed the negotiations in Astana as a success, and expressed his full support for the joint communiqué.
On the other hand, the opposition expressed their reservations against Iran’s participation, which was a key reason for their refusal to sign the joint statement. “This is a joint statement by three countries. We are not party to this agreement. It is an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey – they can sign any agreements they want to. But from our side, we said we had many reservations,” said Osama Abu Zeid, a legal advisor to the Free Syrian Army.
Likewise, the opposition also mentioned that their participation in the Geneva talks would depend if their demands and their counter-proposal on the ceasefire mechanisms were to be made. “We presented a scheme for mechanisms to monitor and implement the ceasefire. The Russians have promised to review the demands in a week and said they will make a decision with the Turkish side during their meeting in Astana after seven days” he added.
Aleksandr Lavrentiev, the head of the Russian delegation for the Astana talks, lauded the opposition for their active participation during the negotiations. Lavrientiev also noted that the correct choice of venue may have also aided in getting a significant presence from the two Syrian sides. “We would have probably failed to persuade them (representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition – TASS) to join the talks elsewhere,” he mentioned, adding that Russia, Iran, Turkey demonstrated full readiness for cooperation. According to Lavrentiev, “There will be speculations that Astana is trying to substitute for the Geneva process… The participants in the negotiations are fully aware that the Astana process is a very good supplement to the Geneva format.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described the talks as a “success”, and a turning point in the Syrian reconciliation process. “The talks are very important from the point of view of building the trust between the sides.”. However, the Deputy Chair for Foreign Relations of the Turkish Republican People’s Party, Ozturk Yilmaz, bemoaned the insignificant participation of the US, which aimed to undermine the negotiations in Astana. “They wanted to cripple the process in Astana, they stepped back from participation fully … with the view to wait the process to be transferred from Astana to Geneva, back on track where the US is strong,” Yilmaz added.