The Astana Rounds: Tracing the Path to Resolution in Syria (1)
Part 1: 2016-2019
The conflict in Syria has unleashed devastating consequences, leaving countless lives shattered and communities in despair. Amidst this turmoil, a glimmer of hope emerged with the initiation of negotiations in Astana. Sparked by the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin and endorsed by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, these negotiations sought to provide an additional platform for peace talks, complementing the efforts in Geneva.
Supported by influential actors such as Iran and Turkey, the negotiations aimed to solidify a ceasefire regime and foster direct dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. This piece explores the significance of the negotiations in Astana, tracing their origins and examining their impact on the pursuit of lasting peace in Syria. By analyzing the motivations, key players, and outcomes of these negotiations, we can gain a deeper understanding of their role in shaping the future trajectory of the conflict-ridden nation.
On December 14, 2016, during a phone conversation between Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the two leaders agreed to propose to the conflicting parties (Russia - the Syrian government, and Turkey - representatives of the armed opposition) to continue the peace negotiations on a new platform, in addition to Geneva. The capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, was chosen as the location for this new platform.
The proposal by President Vladimir Putin to establish an additional platform for the Syrian peace process received support from Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan (1990-2019).
In a joint statement by the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, and Turkey on December 20, 2016, following negotiations in Moscow, the parties expressed their readiness to contribute to the development and act as guarantors of a future agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition, with ongoing negotiations. They also extended an invitation to other countries that have influence on the situation "on the ground" to do the same.
The negotiations aim to consolidate the current ceasefire regime, which was established through agreements signed on December 29, 2016, and serve as a platform for direct dialogue between the government and the opposition in accordance with the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The first round of talks on Syria took place in Astana on January 23-24, 2017. The negotiations involved delegations from the Syrian government, the armed opposition, representatives from Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the UN. It marked the first time that delegations from Damascus and the armed opposition sat at the same table for negotiations. The negotiations between the two Syrian delegations were conducted indirectly.
One significant military outcome of the negotiations was the agreement among Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria, to establish a tripartite control mechanism for maintaining the ceasefire regime in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The second round of negotiations in the Astana format for the Syrian conflict settlement took place on February 15-16, 2017. The delegations of the guarantor countries (Russia, Iran, and Turkey), representatives of the Syrian government, the armed opposition, and the UN participated. Observers from Jordan and the USA were also invited.The main outcome of the negotiations was the final agreement on the creation of a monitoring group for peace in Syria with the participation of Iran, Russia, and Turkey. During the negotiations, progress was made on the formation of a mechanism for the exchange of prisoners, as well as an agreement on the exchange of the deceased's remains.
The third round of negotiations in Astana for the Syrian settlement took place on March 14-15, 2017. The armed opposition of Syria decided not to send its representatives to the negotiations. Consequently, the planned plenary meeting did not take place, and the parties focused on consultations in various formats. Topics discussed included the release of prisoners, with a preliminary agreement reached on the creation of a working group, as well as further efforts to separate moderate opposition from terrorist groups through map verification. Discussion on the creation of a constitutional commission was initiated.
The fourth round of negotiations in Astana for the Syrian settlement took place on May 3-4, 2017. The negotiations resulted in the signing of a memorandum on the creation of four security zones in Syria. Additionally, participants discussed the establishment of a working group for the exchange of forcibly detained individuals and reviewed the draft of the relevant document.
The fifth round of negotiations in Astana for the Syrian settlement took place on July 4-5, 2017. The primary focus of the negotiations was the definition of de-escalation zones, with the memorandum on their establishment being the main outcome of the previous round. However, no documents were signed as a result of these negotiations.
The sixth round of the international meeting on Syria was held in Astana on September 14-16, 2017. The negotiations resulted in the announcement of the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria, including areas to the north of the city of Homs, in the suburbs of Damascus (Eastern Ghouta), on the border with Jordan (Deraa province), and in Idlib province. It was decided that Iran, Russia, and Turkey would monitor the de-escalation zone in Idlib, while the Russian military police would monitor the remaining zones.
The seventh round of negotiations on Syria took place in Astana on October 31, 2017. The participants discussed Russia's proposal to hold the National Reconciliation Congress of Syria in Sochi, which was initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the "Valdai" forum. Representatives from Damascus viewed the congress as a timely initiative and expressed their readiness to participate, while the Syrian armed opposition declared their refusal to attend.
The eighth round of talks on Syria was held in Astana on December 21-22, 2017. The countries serving as guarantors of the ceasefire regime (Iran, Russia, and Turkey) issued a joint statement welcoming the successes achieved in the fight against terrorism in Syria, particularly the defeat of ISIS. They reiterated their commitment to continue cooperation to eliminate ISIS, Jabhat An-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations, as well as prevent the movement of terrorists to other countries and regions.
The guarantors also addressed the working group on the release of detainees and hostages, the transfer of deceased individuals' remains, and the search for missing persons. A joint statement on humanitarian demining in Syria, including UNESCO cultural heritage sites, was adopted. The Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue was also discussed.
The ninth round of negotiations on Syria, facilitated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, took place in Astana on May 14-15, 2018. The discussions began with a meeting of the working group focused on the release of detainees in Syria, followed by consultations among the delegations.
On the second day, a plenary session was held with the participation of all negotiating parties, including the delegations from the guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), the Syrian government, and the Syrian armed opposition. The UN delegation led by the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and the Jordanian delegation attended as observers. The United States declined to participate as observers in the Astana negotiations.
The main topics of discussion were the implementation of the de-escalation memorandum and the formation of the constitutional committee.
The tenth round of negotiations in the Astana format took place on July 30-31, 2018, marking the first time the talks were held in Sochi instead of the capital of Kazakhstan.
During Astana-10, there were intensive discussions regarding the formation of the constitutional commission for Syria. The first day of negotiations focused on consultations regarding the selection of candidates for the commission from Syrian civil society, while on the second day, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura presented the preliminary lists of commission members and the methods of their appointment to the guarantor countries.
Other important issues under discussion included the extension and expansion of the ceasefire in Syria, the release of prisoners and abducted persons, and the situation in the province of Idlib.
The eleventh round of negotiations on the Syrian settlement took place in Astana on November 28-29, 2018. The delegations from the guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), the UN special envoy, representatives of the Syrian government, and the opposition participated in the talks. The formation of the constitutional committee was discussed during the negotiations, but an agreement could not be reached among the participants of the Astana process.
The twelfth round of negotiations in the Astana format, involving representatives from Russia, Turkey, and Iran, took place on April 25 and 26, 2019, in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana). The new UN Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, participated in the negotiations for the first time.
In a joint statement following the negotiations, Russia, Turkey, and Iran emphasized the importance of creating conditions and facilitating the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes in Syria. They called on the international community to provide necessary support in this regard.
The countries also stressed the need to continue delivering humanitarian aid to all Syrians across the country and urged the international community to increase assistance to Syria, including through the provision of humanitarian supplies and the implementation of early recovery projects that address essential infrastructure facilities such as water and electricity supply, schools, and hospitals.
Furthermore, the guarantor countries agreed to invite Iraq and Lebanon as observers to the Astana format talks on Syria.