Director of the Asia and Africa Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan
A Year since the Start of the Astana Process on Syria: Its Outcomes and Assessments
The civil war in Syria is one of the deadliest conflicts of the second decade of the 21st century and the focus of attention of the entire world community. Hostilities in this country have put a heavy strain, first of all, on the Syrian people. Thus, according to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5.5 million people left the country during the conflict, provoking the world's largest refugee crisis.
The increased terrorist activity of Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and their affiliated armed groups that seized significant territories in Syria and threatened to spread their influence to neighboring countries was another menace looming over the whole world.
Thus, the ongoing conflict represents one of the most complex problems of world politics, both for countering international terrorism and ensuring security and the geopolitical future of the entire Middle East.
Given the urgent need for an early end to the bloodshed in Syria, on Dec. 17, 2016, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev supported the initiative of President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan to hold talks in Astana on an inter-Syrian settlement.
Astana was chosen as a platform for negotiations on Syria because Kazakhstan has proved to be a peace-loving state enjoying the confidence of the international community and maintaining friendly relations with all stakeholders. Largely due to this, for the first time since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, representatives of the Syrian government and the armed opposition came to the negotiating table, despite all the deep-rooted contradictions, to launch the Astana Process.
It is worth pointing out that UN Security Council Resolution 2336 (2016) notes the beginning of the Astana talks as an important step in achieving peace in Syria. Kazakhstan, in turn, tried to create all conditions for fruitful negotiations both for representatives of the guarantors, the government of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) and the armed opposition.
The Astana Process agenda was based on a Ceasefire Agreement signed between the government of Syria and the armed opposition on Dec. 30, 2016. The Astana talks were focused on one main goal – maintaining and strengthening the ceasefire in Syria by creating effective mechanisms for its observance. The cessation of hostilities was a sine qua non condition, without which any negotiations on a political settlement would not make sense. This was recognised by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who spearheads Geneva meetings as part of the political track.
At present, it can be stated that the eight rounds of the Astana Process on the Syrian settlement held from January to December 2017 have drastically changed the course of events in Syria and led to the cessation of large-scale hostilities between the opposing sides.
The main outcome of the first round in January 2017 was the decision of the guarantors – Iran, Russia and Turkey – to establish a tripartite mechanism for monitoring and ensuring full ceasefire, prevent provocations and determine the conditions for the joining of armed groups to the ceasefire.
The next important milestone of the Astana Process was the Memorandum on the Creation of de-Escalation Areas in Syria signed by the guarantors on May 4, 2017, according to which hostilities were completely ceased in the four security zones in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and Latakia, eastern Ghouta, the suburbs of Damascus and the southern provinces of Al-Quneitra and Deraa. Within these de-escalation zones, it has provided safe and unhindered humanitarian access, created conditions for rendering medical assistance to the population and meeting the priority needs of citizens, taken measures to restore infrastructure, primarily water and energy supply, and created conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons.
During the talks, military experts were involved in the painstaking work to separate the armed opposition from terrorist groups, which ultimately enabled the guarantors to focus on countering international terrorism.
The above-mentioned significant decline in violence in Syria, achieved thanks to the efforts of the guarantors throughout all previous rounds of the Astana talks, made it possible to centre on the humanitarian track as well. Thus, participants of the recent round of the Astana talks in December signed the regulation on the Working Group on the Release of Detainees/Abductees and Handover of the Bodies as well as the Identification of Missing Persons. The agreements establish a working group, which will include UN staff members in addition to representatives of the guarantors. At the same time, the guarantors undertake to use their influence on the parties so that they guarantee the humane treatment of detainees under any circumstances.
Much remains to be done in this direction, since the level of distrust between the opposing sides is too high, especially in such a sensitive matter as the exchange of hostages and prisoners. All stakeholders are aware of the need to make progress in this direction.
Initially, when we decided to provide the Astana platform for the Syrian settlement, our understanding was that the meetings in Astana, supported by the relevant UN Security Council resolution, were an integral part of the Geneva Process and were held to give a significant impetus to the political talks of the opposition and the government of the SAR. That was what guided UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who participated in almost all rounds of the Astana Process and welcomed its results.
As a result, the Geneva talks resumed after a long pause in February-March 2017 were held when active hostilities in Syria were ceased thanks to the Astana talks. This helped the parties start discussing the political aspect of the agenda, as required by UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). As UN Assistant Secretary-General Miroslav Jenca noted, “The political process of solving crises in Syria, which takes place in Geneva, is supported by the Astana platform."
Along with this, in December 2017 during the Astana Process the guarantors decided to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which was eventually hosted by Sochi on Jan. 29-30. The main outcome of the congress was the set-up of the Constitutional Commission under the leadership of de Mistura, which would work on the new Constitution of the country. As noted by the congress participants, it was made possible thanks to the Astana talks.
To date, all stakeholders agree on the need to have a final political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, we have to admit that, until now, the lack of trust between the parties involved in the conflict has been the cornerstone threatening the peace process. Moreover, distrust jeopardised the Astana talks more than once, especially during the first rounds of meetings, when the parties had difficulty in overcoming the contradictions. As a result, in spite of the fact that Kazakhstan was not directly involved in the negotiation process, we had to make considerable diplomatic efforts in order to smooth over the contradictions between the participants in the talks. Thus, during several meetings of Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov with representatives of the government of Syria and the armed opposition, attention was centred on the fundamental importance of finding a compromise in the negotiations for further progress in resolving the Syrian crisis.
In addition, I would like to note that the decision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to provide the Astana platform for negotiations coincided with our non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council during 2017-2018. This circumstance imposes additional responsibility on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. In this regard, Kazakhstan will continue to make its utmost efforts to address issues related to regional and global security. We are certain that all countries of the international community, especially those that have influence on the opposing parties in Syria, must put aside all differences and do their best to stabilise the situation in this country in order to end the suffering of millions of Syrians.
At the same time, given the complexity of the Syrian crisis and the periodic escalation of tension in this country, the Astana Process for resolving the military situation in the SAR will continue its work in parallel with the Geneva Process aimed at resolving the political issues of the Syrian settlement.
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