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Wednesday, May 03, 2017, 15:18 (GMT+7)
Astana Peace Talks and prospects for Syria

Recently, in the capital city of Astana (Kazakhstan), with the participation and support of Russia,Turkey and Iran, representatives of the Syrian Government and the opposition have held ceasefire talks to seek a political solution for the 6-year conflict in Syria. While there remained differences, the discussion opened prospects for peace in Syria.

Context of Astana Peace Talks

Since 2011, the Arab Spring movement - a “harmful wind” has involved Syria and many other Middle East - North Africa countries in the spiral of violence. Over the past 6 years, Syria has become a “hot spot” of conflict and brutality. It is estimated that the Syrian civil war has caused more than 300,000 death and put millions of households into poverty and homelessness, directly leading to the worst migration crisis in Europe. The UN Security Council has made numerous efforts to address the conflict in Syria, but gained no positive results yet, due to the complicated nature of the conflict involving many countries both within and outside the region. In September 2016, a ceasefire for Syria was signed by the parties, under the sponsorship of the U.S. and Russia. However, no sooner had the truce taken effect it collapsed.

Then after, Syria continued to fall into complex conflicts. To fight against the opposition, Syrian Armed Forces, back by Russian Air Forces, have launched large-scale attacks on the Self-Proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and rebel forces and reoccupied a number of cities, towns and villages. Notably, it liberated the city of Aleppo which used to be the political, economic and financial center of Syria and the symbolic land of the rebel groups. That victory is of strategic significance, marking a turning point of the situation in Syria. By September 2016, Damascus Government took control of over 40% the country’s territory and 60% of its population (the rest under control of the Kurds in the North and IS in the East, etc.). However, from the reality of the country and under powerful impact of external forces, Damascus Government is fully aware that its Armed Forces could hardly use military strength to resolve the conflict. The newly gained victories could only force the opposition to return to negotiations and give the Government certain advantages in seeking a political solution for the crisis. As for the opposition, repeated defeats in the battlefield, particularly, the loss of the strategic city of Aleppo and many other important lands, made them retreat back to several cities. In the context of seriously lessened strength and position, a ceasefire with Damascus Government is a no better choice for them. Moreover, Turkey, an important neighbouring country of Syria, has improved its relations with Moscow which has been worsened since November 2015 when Turkey shot down one Russian Jet Fighter. Turkey has changed its policy on Syria from supporting one opposition group to coordinating with  Russia and Iran to act as mediators in the Syria ceasefire conference.

One of Syrian peace talks convened recently in Astana (Photo Reuters)

Positive signals

With Russia, Turkey and Iran as mediators, Syrian Government and the opposition forces reached a ceasefire starting from December 30th 2016. Parties also pledged to start negotiations for a political solution to the conflict. On January 24th 2017, the parties issued a joint statement in which Russia, Turkey and Iran committed to collaborating to reinforce the ceasefire and establishe a cooperation mechanism to supervise the agreement’s obedience and prevent violations. These countries also pledged to strengthen cooperation to conduct military operations against IS and other terrorist organizations and accelerate negotiations under the UN sponsorship. On the basis of Astana ceasefire conference, on February 16th 2017, parties continued to discuss practical steps in exchanging prisoners of war, establishing joint groups and cooperation mechanism to supervise the truce. Russia, Turkey and Iran confirmed that Astana ceasefire is not an independent and close process, but a part of a political solution to Syria’s future led by the UN.

Prospects for Syria’s peace

Experts on international relations believe that in spite of its modest results, Astana ceasefire created positive signals. One of the Russian negotiators revealed that the ceasefire conference was an “open-minded and frank” discussion, with “careful and firm steps”. Many international and regional organizations and countries have responded positively to the ceasefire. Recently, the UN Security Council has agreed to adopt a resolution supporting the peace initiative for Syria proposed by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The US Department of State also issued a statement welcoming the ceasefire, adding that it helped reduce the violence in Syria.

However, experts also warn that since the conflict in Syria has lasted for years and involved major powers, the ceasefire would face difficulties and risks which could not be solved soon. First and foremost, violations of the ceasefire, which both the Government Army and the opposition forces has blamed each other, still occur. Analysts think that both Damascus Government and the opposition are pursuing the tactics of “fighting and negotiation”, using military victories as a treasure to bargain and take the initiative on the negotiating table. Reality in the battlefield of Syria shows that when parties abuse this traditional tactics, it would lead to side effects and cause a possible collapse of the ceasefire. Moreover, commentators on international relations believe that several contents in the ceasefire agreement orginated from the interests of mediators. Consequently, the Astana ceasefire conference, on February 16th 2017, could not issue a joint statement. In the Geneva Conference on Syria’s peace, under the UN sponsorship, held in late February 2017, Syrian Government and the opposition still had differences in their viewpoints on many important issues. In this regard, the most controversial and challenging issue is the role of President Bashar al-Assad in a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Damascus Government still holds its viewpoint that it will not discuss and negotiate about the destiny of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the opposition forces request the President Bashar al-Assad to step down before discussing a political solution. Differences in their viewpoints are barriers to the process of Astana ceasefire.

It is thought that the Astana ceasefire will be a long-lasting and extremely complicated process. Only when parties of the conflict are fully aware of the benefits of peace to the country and the people of Syria; respecting international law, the UN Charter, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria; willing to negotiate for an acceptable political solution, could the Astana ceasefire be successful, the conflict be settled, and peace return to Syria.

Kieu Loan   

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