Is Astana format on the way to be reformatted?

Another round of Astana Syria talks was held at the beginning of August in Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan. This format built around Russia, Turkey and Iran was launched back in January 2017 at the initiative of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. It had several main goals: First and foremost was to bring armed opposition and the Syrian government to the negotiating table, the second, to separate moderate opposition from the terrorists, strike reconciliation deals and establish de-escalation zones, and, finally, searching for compromises on political and humanitarian issues. By now, all these goals were mostly reached in one way or another and today’s reality is quite different from the one back in 2017 and even in 2018. Today, when the intensity of the fighting in Syria dropped significantly and the military stage of the conflict is coming to the end giving more space to political and humanitarian track, a serious question arises – does Astana platform remain relevant and effective in its original shape?

Undoubtedly, Astana talks have become the most effective and useful platform which contributed a lot to the progress in Syrian settlement. It established contacts between the armed opposition groups operating on the ground and the Syrian government and brought them to the negotiating table. It lowered intensity of the conflict by striking ceasefire deals and establishing de-escalation zones on the ground. It largely succeeded in separating moderate opposition from the terrorists (relocating them to Idlib province) and made preliminary preparations needed for the launch of the political process – National Dialog congress in Sochi, constitutional committee, Working Group on the Release of Detainees, Handover of Bodies and Identification of Missing Persons, etc.  

Evolution of Astana platform

After fulfillment of the above-mentioned tasks and for the sake of remaining an effective tool which is able to settle Syrian Kurds issue, to initiate political process and transformation, and to reintegrate of Syria back into the “Arab family” Astana format needs certain changes.

Despite its many advantages many countries, especially Arab states in the region, view this trilateral format as not reflecting interests of neither the Syrians themselves nor of all parties involved in one way or another. The main argument was that Astana talks’ main participants – Russia, Turkey and Iran – took on a role of deciding the fate of the Syrian people for them not even being Arab countries themselves and without representatives of the Arab ummah. The factor of “the Arab street” which provides public legitimacy to any agreement or deal also should not be ignored here. For broader support and success of this negotiation platform it will eventually need to get on board influential Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE.

In June 2017 Jordan joined Astana format as an observer state and has become the first Arab state participating in these talks. It indicated growing understanding of this issue on Russia’s side. This step gave a hope that in the future Moscow and its partners will try to attract more countries (neighboring with Syria in the first place) to this format in the test mode which could lead to bring important Arab states aboard of this platform.

This round of Astana talks saw Iraq and Lebanon joining as observer states for the first time. As a result, all Syrian neighbors (except Israel) – Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey are involved in this very important negotiation platform. Such move proves that Moscow started to realize the need to reformat Astana platform as it started running out of steam. Decision to focus on getting more Arab countries onboard is a very important step in increasing legitimacy of the Astana talks and preparing it for the future expansions.

Coming to realization that crucial issues of post-conflict reconstruction such as humanitarian assistance, economic reconstruction, Syria’s reintegration back into the Arab family cannot be settled without broader participation of the regional actors, is an important step. Making this move Russia demonstrated one of its new key focuses – attracting important Arab states to Astana platform. It seems that Russia is examining options of how to bring aboard Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Egypt. 

Do not forget the USA

Together with that the ultimate success of the Syrian settlement in many ways depends on the US. Since Astana talks were inaugurated Washington joined the format as an observer state, although after a year it discontinued its participation. That said, without plugging the US back into the Astana talks or into any other negotiating platform on Syria the conflict settlement is doomed to fail. The Kurdish issue in north-east Syria cannot be settled without the US as it has military presence in Kurd’s-held areas. It also affects US-Turkey and Russia-Turkey coordination on Syria. US-Iran confrontation also complicates all talks on Syria. Economic reconstruction and restoration of the country is hardly possible without lifting US sanctions which prevent all meaningful actors – EU, GCC, China – from investing in Syria. As a result, the US is a key actor which needs to be involved into direct talks with all parties involved.

However, there are certain obstacles on this way: The recent escalation between the US and Iran; rift in Turkey-US relations; acknowledging Assad’s legitimacy and searching for the compromises between all parties – Russia, Turkey, Kurds, Damascus, Iran and the USA – on Kurdish issue; US reluctance to act in Syria as it is focusing more on its domestic policies entering another electoral cycle, etc. All this stumbling blocks slow down the settlement process and prevents everyone from finding comprehensive agreement. On the other hand, there is still a hope for bilateral Russia-US talks which have a good chance to change the situation and prompt other parties to compromises.

As of now, Astana format has already fulfilled its goals and contributed to the settlement process in Syria. However, in order to remain relevant and effective negotiating platform, it needs to adapt to the new realities. Although, first indications of such change can already be seen, various differences between participants of the settlement process hinder Astana format from changing: confrontation between Iran, the USA and Saudi-led Gulf monarchies, unwillingness of certain countries to participate in the talks where Iran is present, certain disagreements between Astana participants, reluctance on the EU and US side to prioritize the Syrian issue, etc.

Anyway, initiators of Astana talks have started to realize the necessity to update it and began to make first steps in this direction. However, it remains to be seen whether it will lead to any meaningful results and whether Russia will be able to keep all parties involved committed to this platform in order to adapt it to the new reality and new goals.