Upcoming talks in the Kazan capital Astana between the Syrian government and opposition, and their backers in a settlement process started and sponsored by Russia with the participation of Turkey, Iran and possibly Gulf Arab states, has given renewed hopes of an end to the bloody five-year civil war.
As Tribune went to press, a ceasefire imposed by Russia and Turkey on December 30, was still largely holding, and Moscow started scaling down its military presence in Syria.
That comprehensive ceasefire is accepted by President Bashar Assad’s government and his Iranian backed Lebanese Hezbollah allies. Turkey-backed opposition groups and the Free Syrian Army FSA accepted the truce, as did other smaller independent groups who originally rose up in 2011 demanding reform or change of government, but now prefer a deal with Assad to being overrun by Islamist terror groups like Islamic State ISIL or Al-Nusrah Front.
No Islamists ( including over 30,000 volunteers of 105 different nationalities according to intelligence agencies) are part of the ceasefire deal. Nor are many of an estimated 130 “opposition” armed groups.
Arab Gulf states who finance and arm some groups still haven’t made up their minds.
Nevertheless, the move towards a settlement signals the success of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy. Last year Tribune repeatedly questioned the wisdom of UK politicians going along with America in demonising Mr Putin instead of trying to work out an imaginative diplomacy with the Russians, who seemed to have drawn up a long term strategy for Syria.
Seasoned diplomat Sir Peter Ford, ambassador to Syria, accused premier Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson of having “lost grip on reality”, in following Barak Obama’s line of removing president Assad (without having any means to do it) instead of trying to liaise with the elected president Donald Trump, who is on good terms with Putin and committed to destroying ISIL.
Having achieved its first goals, namely securing the Syrian regime by pushing back Islamists and keeping the geographical integrity of Syria intact to secure Russian military and naval bases, Putin started his second stage. He strengthened Moscow influence and political dominance in the Levant, and politically humiliated the Obama administration and its western allies by exposing that the vast majority of the so called Syrian opposition groups are Islamist radicals and terror groups; even the few “moderates” trained by the CIA at cost of millions to American taxpayers, joined Islamists with their American weapons.
Getting Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran to be part of his plan to implement ceasefire was Putin’s master stroke.
For the first the peace process talks are not held regionally nor in Geneva or a former colonial capital like London or Paris but in the capital of Kazakhstan. That is not only within Putin’s sphere of influence but also shifts the gravity of solving the world’s hottest issue from West to East – as well as pushing America and her allies out of the process.
Backed by a UN security council resolution last week, the ceasefire and Astana talks were welcomed by most Syrians and aid and humanitarian agencies. But there are political minefields that can derail the process, some of which are charted. Some regional countries, and the groups they back have vested interest in continuing the civil war.
Some of the strongest rebel groups joining the Astana talks are backed by Arab governments who, justifiably, distrust Iran.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan call to Saudi Arabia to join the Astana talks provoked an avalanche of angry reaction from Iranian officials saying Ankara would complicate matter further. “ An aggressor occupier [the Turkish military presence in Syria], have no legitimate right to speak on behalf of Syria,” said Iranian Defence Minister Hassan Dahkan in an interview with RT.
Suspicious of President Trump, and fearing the loss of their current dominance in the region, the Iranians might make mischief through their controlled militia .
There are also forces within America itself. “President Obama doesn’t aim for a total defeat of ISIL, thus he accepts its presence in different forms during his presidency” wrote ambassador Dennis Ross – who was one ofPresident George HW Bush’s foreign policy planners and Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East – in an essay last year to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “nor does he want America to get involved in nation building.”
The Trump presidency, coinciding with Astana talks, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand a Trump-Putin understanding involving Turkey could roll back Iranian influence, thus regaining the trust Arabs lost when Obama pushed them to sign up to ceasefire ending their support for rebel groups. On the other hand it might go badly wrong by remote control from Langley.
Following the CIA showdown with Mr Trump over the alleged Russian hacking into Democrat computers, the security agencies might get up to their usual tricks to wreck a Trump-Putin deal and to force the new administration to adhere to their previous Obama non-policy.