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Syrian impasse serves Astana players’ interests — for now

Last week’s 11th round of the Astana process has failed to launch a political process aimed at ending the seven-year Syrian crisis. Outgoing UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who attended the two-day meeting in the Kazakh capital, admitted there was “no tangible progress” on the composition of a 150-member constitutional committee.

 

The three guarantor states of the Astana process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — were unable to move beyond their initial agreement to create de-escalation zones in Syria, the most important of which is in the rebel-held province of Idlib.

Naturally, the Syrian delegation has continued to resist pressure to embrace a political process that would force it to make substantial compromises. It is astounding that the Damascus government believes it can come out of the crisis without offering any concessions or meeting any of the conditions agreed to previously in the Geneva communiques

The US, whose troops are entrenched in northeastern Syria allegedly to fight Daesh, has reiterated its doubts as to the viability of the Astana process. But the reality is and, as De Mistura himself knows, Astana remains the only political vehicle that could deliver something along the way. Why? Russia has played its cards intelligently in Syria and is the only player that can apply real pressure on President Bashar Assad. 

Moscow believes the Syrian leader can be rehabilitated and that most countries in the region and beyond have dropped the initial demand that he should give up power. Even the US, whose policy on Syria has been erratic under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, has revised its position on Assad and says that it is up to the Syrian people to decide who should govern them.

The same can be said of Turkey, which at this moment has the most to gain, or lose, from geopolitical developments in Idlib and the Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria. Ironically, both Ankara and Damascus share a common goal in not seeing Syrian Kurds come out of the crisis with self-rule that could encourage the secessionists. 

Iran, which is engulfed by domestic instability and is trying to fend off the fallout from the latest batch of US sanctions, has little interest in seeing its Syrian ally get involved in a political process that could end the status quo and force it to withdraw from Syria. Its presence there, controversial as it is for the entire region, including Israel, is part of a bigger power play that Tehran’s leaders are engaged in.

In their final statement last week, the guarantors reaffirmed their commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas. Regarding the de-escalation area in Idlib, the three countries expressed their concern at the ongoing violations of the cease-fire and called on all armed opposition groups to completely and immediately dissociate from Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

The statement satisfies the position and interests of the three countries while offering little in regard to pushing for a genuine political process. The question is how long can the three parties maintain this shaky common ground?

Turkey will resist pressure to end its military presence in northern Syria so long as its concerns over the future of the Kurdish territories, and US involvement, are not satisfied. The US, on the other hand, looks at its role in Syria as key in stemming Iran’s influence and its military support of Hezbollah. Even if the last group of Daesh militants in eastern Syria was to be finally defeated, the US is unlikely to withdraw. 

For Moscow, the status quo serves its geopolitical interests in the region and cements its emerging role as a key player in the Middle East. Its support of the constitutional committee will continue but is unlikely to lead to major changes in the current structure of the Syrian state. This vacillation will continue as Syria’s neighbors begin the slow process of normalizing ties with Damascus. Jordan has taken bold steps in restoring ties with the Syrian government by opening its land borders and sending a parliamentary delegation to meet with Assad.

Egypt and Algeria are pushing to restore Syria’s membership in the Arab League, which could happen soon.

In the end, the exorbitant cost of the Syrian crisis, which is now at an impasse, appears absurd and futile. But it is an indictment of foreign meddling and regional power play that it has destroyed most of the country, taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and displaced millions. Sadly the brunt of this tragedy will be felt by the Syrian people for generations to come. 

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