In December 2016, Moscow's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia, Iran and Turkey had agreed to co-sponsor peace negotiations in Astana between the Syrian regime and the opposition aiming to reach a ceasefire. Lavrov also announced at that time that the three countries would act as guarantors of any agreements reached between the two Syrian parties in these meetings.
Six meetings have been held in Astana since the launch of the conference and de-escalation deals have been reached in various regions of Syria, with the sole guarantor and sponsor being Russia. Turkey's distance from these areas, which mostly fall in Syria’s center and south, have prevented Ankara from participating, while the armed opposition has rejected any Iranian sponsorship or guarantee as it is a party to the war.
It must be acknowledged that the Astana conferences resulted in a real reduction in the severity of fighting between the forces and allies of President Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition groups. It also must be acknowledged that the number of groups objecting to the Astana accords has greatly declined, limited today only to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, of which Nusra Front comprises its main faction.
However, will the United States and its European and Arab allies be content with only an observer role? And have all of them authorized Russia, Turkey and Iran to be the sponsors, guarantors and observers of a peace process in Syria and to end the war? And what is the role of the Assad regime, the High Negotiations Committee, the Syrian National Coalition, and the opposition platforms in this process?
I do not believe that the United States has given Russia final authorization in the Syrian issue, just as the observer role which the U.S. plays today could end at any moment if the Americans decide that the winds that are blowing do not move their ships.
The United States will cautiously remain an observer to events as long as the war against the Islamic State in Iraq, Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor has not ended. This requires mobilizing all possible Iranian and Turkish ground forces and Russian air forces to eliminate ISIS and then Nusra Front in Idleb. This could last a full year, at least, during which time Russia, Turkey and Iran will try to impose their hegemony over Syria and to achieve agreements and truces with the weak, divided and exhausted Syrian political and military opposition.
They will avoid, as much as possible, angering the United States and Israel, which explains the silence of Russia and Iran over the repeated aggressions carried out by Israeli warplanes against Syrian territory and the Israeli raids which have killed dozens of Hassan Nasrallah’s mercenaries, including top Hezbollah leaders, without any notable reaction. It also explains Turkey’s silence about the United States supplying the Syrian Democratic Forces with modern weapons and financial aid.
The emerging differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have had a major impact on the Arab role in the negotiations around Syria, with none of the Arabs participating in the conference except Jordan, also as an observer given their role in the southern region, Meanwhile, groups under their influence have participated in de-escalation agreements in the south.
However, the relative decline of the Saudi role does not mean that Riyadh is surrendering to Turkish-Iranian hegemony in the region and their control over events. Saudi Arabia is also monitoring the situation closely and trying to read the American position without intervening to directly confront the Astana trio.
The role of Syrians in these negotiations is entirely absent because the two Syrian parties — the regime and the armed and political opposition — are completely satisfied with the three guarantors.
The northern factions are all tied to Turkish logistical support and money from Qatar, an ally of Ankara, while Jordan has joined to control the factions of the Southern Front. The High Negotiations Committee, which has long shown resentment toward the Astana talks and considers it a distortion of its role as an oppositional voice, has remained silent this time as a result of the divisions among its constituents, which increased after the emerging crisis between its regional sponsors, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and after the explicit Saudi and international messages to it about the need to rationalize its rhetoric to become consistent with the events on the ground in Syria.
Assad’s allies are no longer very concerned with what he wants. They know that Assad will go sooner or later and that he can no longer be rehabilitated, especially after the severe war crimes which he committed and after the explicit American and European messages around the need to find a political solution which ensures his orderly departure, and of the junta he leads. It is clear to his backers that Assad is no longer able to guarantee their interests in Syria. For this reason, the field agreements around de-escalation in all areas are being conducted directly between the Russians and field commanders without any attendance or representation of the Assad regime, while Iran, through its Lebanese intermediary Hezbollah, is negotiating with ISIS and Nusra Front to conclude prisoner swap deals between the two sides, as if Assad was not there.
Astana has proven to be the most successful conference of all negotiating meetings related to Syria so far for one basic reason: the agreements are conducted between the real decision-makers on the ground with the attendance of an observer who they cannot ignore — the United States.
The final resolution in Syria is not imminent and nor is it close. A stable solution requires direct dialogue between Russia and the United States, the two biggest and most influential forces in the Syrian arena and in the Middle East — and this will not happen, in my estimation, before ISIS and Nusra Front leave Syria completely, and this is something that could require a year or a little more.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.