Syria Peace Talks Start in Astana Next week: Minefields Ahead?

 Adel Darwish

Talks due to start 23 January  in  the Kazan capital Astana between Syrian government and many opposition, armed and civilian groups, and their backers in a settlement process sponsored by Russia  and participation  of Turkey, Iran and possible  Gulf Arab states raising  hopes to end to a  five year blood civil war; but there are several dangerous mines on the road The talks were part of a comprehensive plan  started with a Russian Turkish imposed  ceasefire on December 30.

The only headline news from Syria since the two weeks old   Russian Turkish arranged ceasefire, which is still holding apart from the odd car bomb,  was Moscow announcing scaling down military presence beginning with withdrawing the powerful aircraft carrier task force  in the Mediterranean last Friday ( Jan 6).

The plan  and Astana Talks accepted by most groups fighting, but not all. .Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad forces and their allies like like Iran controlled  radical group Hezbollah as well as many volunteers from Arab countries opposed to Islamists radicalisation. The Turks  imposed ceasefire on groups they backed like the west favourite Free Syrian Army. The prospect of a possible takeover by Islamists groups like Islamic State ISIL or Jabahat al-Nusra or Muslim Brotherhood , terrified other smaller independent groups who originally rose up in 2011 demanding reform or change of government, into joining the ceasefire.

It is remarkable that ceasefire still holding given that there are over 130 “ opposition” armed groups including different nationalities  ( western and Arab intelligence  agencies reporter over 105 different nationalities of Jihadists in the ranks of ISIL & other Islamists terror groups)  and that some  Arab Gulf states who finance and arm some opposition groups didn’t sign  up to the ceasefire, while those countries stand on the Astana talks is still ambiguous

The truce  is  a testimony to the effectiveness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy, even though it fell short of getting all Arab countries opposed to damascus to join the peace talks, strong calls in the region for them to do so are getting louder .

Many repeatedly question the wisdom of our politicians going along with America in demonising Mr Putin instead of trying to work out an imaginative diplomacy with the Russians leader  who seemed in 2015 to be the only one  to have drawn a long term strategy for Syria, according to several foreign policy experts and seasoned diplomats who would have liked to see Britain at the table in the Syrian settlement talks .  

Among them is Sir Peter Ford, from the old Camel Corps, the name hacks gave to a now gone generation of Foreign Office Arabists who served in the region and the Arabs trusted them since  they knew their way in the back alleys of Arab countries souk policies and they mastered the haggling diplomacy.

When the ceasefire was  announced on 28 December, the British government reaction was a cautious welcome but spun the old line of removing President Assad first. It prompting  ambassador Ford to suggest that Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson  “ have Lost  grip on reality” in his interview with BBC. The diplomat questioned their logic on following the outgoing Barack Obama line instead of trying liaise with the elected president Donald Trump who is committed to destroying ISIL which his predecessor failed to do, as some American diplomats suggest.

“ 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, President George H  Bush foreign Policy planners and Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East in an essay last year  to Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “ nor he wants to get involved in nation building.”

It was evident that Obama administration had no coherent strategy in Syria. By Last Autumn not only Mr Putin’s strategy seemed to have achieved its first stage goals, he also started implementing ites second stage . The first was to secure the Syrian regime by  pushing back Islamists and keeping the geographical integrity of Syria intact in order to secure Russian military and naval bases there. Now Mr Putin’s second stage already underway namely, strengthening Moscow influence and political dominance in the Levant, while diplomatically and politically humiliating the Obama administration and its western allies by exposing that vast majority of the so called Syrian opposition groups are but Islamists radicals and terror groups; even the few “moderates” trained by the CIA at cost of millions to American taxpayer, joined Islamists with their American weapons.

The Russian leaders pulled a rabbit out of the hat by getting Sunni Turkey  and Shia Iran to be part of his plan to implement ceasefire.

Once the ceasefire started, Moscow announced 23 January the start of settlement negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups whether armed or civil, sponsored by Moscow and will include Turkey and Iran.

For the first time e, the peace talks are not held in the region itself, nor in Geneva or former colonial capitals like London, Paris or any western capital, but in the capital of Kazakhstan. Not only within Mr Putin’s sphere of influence but also shifting the gravity of solving the world’s hottest issue from West to East. In addition to  excluding  America and her allies from  settling the five year old Syrian civil, Mr Putin  really rubs Obama’s nose in.

The ceasefire and Astana talks backed by a UN security council resolution last week. It was welcomed by  most aid and humanitarian agencies and above all by the Syrian people themselves. However dangerous minefields ahead that can derail the road to Astana. However Some regional countries, and the groups they back have vested interest  in continuing the civil war.

Some of the strongest rebel groups joining 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 matters further.  “ An aggressor occupier [meaning Turkish military presence in Syria], have no legitimate right to speak of behalf of Syria ”  said Iranian Defence Minister Hassan Dahkan in an interview with Russian Television network RT.

Suspicious of of President Trump and fearing the loss of their current dominance in the region, the Iranians might make mischief through  their controlled militia Hezbollah.

Mr Trump taking over presidency three days before talks open in Astana is a double-edged sword. On one hand a Trump-Putin understanding involving Turkey could roll-back Iranian influence regaining the trust Arabs lost in Obama’s America thus pushing 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, Virginia. Given the CIA showdown with Mr Trump over the alleged Russian hacking into the Democrats 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  Obama non-policy  .