Indirect talks between Syrian rebel factions and government representatives have opened in Kazakhstan, as Russia takes on the role of Middle East power broker.
The meetings, scheduled to last two days at a luxury hotel in the Kazakh capital, Astana, will focus on how to extend the ceasefire negotiated after the opposition’s crushing military defeat in Aleppo at the hands of the Russian air force and Iranian-backed militias.
It had been hoped the talks would lead to a face-to-face meeting between opposition fighters and representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government. However, rebels said on Monday they had no plans for direct talks.
The talks are sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The US, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the UN are, for the moment, largely marginalised. Russia faces a new set of challenges as it attempts to move from participant in the conflict to peace broker.
Leaders of the Syrian opposition delegation, representing as many as 12 factions, claimed on the eve of the Astana talks that Moscow genuinely wanted to move to a neutral stance but was being held back by the Iranian and the Syrian governments.
Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the opposition delegation, said the failure of Moscow to put pressure on Iran and the Syrian government to end what the opposition says are widespread violations of the Turkish-Russian brokered ceasefire would be a blow to its influence in Syria.
“It’s a real test of the power of Russia and its influence over the regime and Iran as a guarantor of the deal so, if it fails in this role, there will follow bigger failures,” Alloush said. “Russia wants to move from a direct party in the fighting to a guarantor and neutral one and this point is being obstructed by the Syrian regime that wants it [the ceasefire] to fail and Iran that is fighting this with its sectarian militias in Syria.”
Russia believes the talks can be more productive than previous efforts led by the UN, partly because the military balance has changed and partly because the negotiations are between the Syrian government and fighters, rather than with political leaders representing the opposition but often living outside Syria.
The Syrian opposition says the government and Iranian-backed militias are continuing military offensives in several areas in Syria, including in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, regardless of the ceasefire. But the opposition factions have few cards at their disposal and may have to choose between agreeing to separate from terrorist groups, such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) – formerly the Nusra Front – or face their destruction.
Some of the worst fighting in recent days has been between opposition groups in Idlib, one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria.
Moscow invited all the opposition fighting groups except Islamic State and JFS to the Astana talks, but the once powerful Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham refused to attend after a fierce internal debate. The decision leaves tens of thousands of fighters outside the talks, which was also the case when it refused to participate in the Geneva talks in 2016.
Moscow believes the diplomatic backdrop of the Astana talks is more favourable than last spring’s abortive talks in Geneva, partly because the opposition has been weakened and divided by the Aleppo defeat. It also believes Washington under Donald Trump is interested primarily in defeating Isis, rather than ousting Assad from power.
Turkey appeared to reverse its five-year demand for Assad to stand down on Friday, saying it could no longer insist on a resolution of the conflict requiring the Syrian president’s removal. “We have to be pragmatic, realistic. The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad. It is not realistic,” said the Turkish deputy prime minister Mehmet Şimşek.
Ankara claimed his remarks had been over-interpreted, but many observers regarded his statement as a confirmation of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement under way for many months
In return for Turkish flexibility, Russia has gone along with the continued insistence by Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish PYD is barred from talks. Washington has relied on the PYD, particularly its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to oust Isis in north-west Syria and it looks as if the Trump administration has not yet acceded to a Turkish request to abandon the Kurds.
Turkey and Russia are working together militarily in northern Syria to show they can provide an alternative to the PYD.
With the talks formally due to end at lunchtime on Tuesday – early in the morning UK time – any agreement is unlikely to spread beyond the terms for deepening the ceasefire and providing humanitarian access, as well as agreeing on broad principles for a future Syria.
The talks may reveal the extent to which tensions between Tehran and Moscow over the future of Syria can be contained. So far, there has been silence, for example, over whether the Iranian-backed Hezbollah should be forced to quit Syria.
Russia and Iran are both seeking to exploit the military and political victory with commercial and military deals with Assad.