Russia repurposes Astana to salvage Arab normalisation with Syria

Securing a buy-in from Jordan and Lebanon could potentially keep regional normalisation talks with al-Assad on life support.

Russia repurposes Astana to salvage Arab normalisation with Syria

On 24-25 January, the 21st international meeting on Syria unfolded in the Kazakh capital as part of the Astana process—a trilateral forum sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

What adds intrigue to this event is not just the resumption of the process following the host's abrupt announcement last June to stop hosting talks—a surprise to many, including the three sponsors.

Even more noteworthy is Moscow's attempt to leverage this platform for negotiations with neighbouring states, even though they have chosen to attend as observers.

The initiation of direct talks — namely with Jordan and Lebanon — to ease heightened tension with the Syrian regime might indicate an effort to modify the mandate of the Astana process to be geared towards supporting regional normalisation efforts with Assad in the wake of reported setbacks.

Launched in January 2017, the Astana process was established by Russia, Iran, and Turkey with the aim of reducing levels of armed violence in Syria and seeking diplomatic solutions to the conflict. Delegations from these sponsors — in addition to the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition — typically participate in the negotiations. Meanwhile, representatives of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the UN attend as observers.

Bombshell dropped

As the participants wrapped up the 20th round of talks in June 2023, Kazakhstan dropped a bombshell, declaring it would no longer host the discussions. According to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, the talks had achieved their mission, marking successes like creating de-escalation zones, ending bloodshed, and reducing casualties.

The ministry also pointed to Syria's recent re-entry into the Arab League and efforts to restore ties with Turkey as evidence that the Astana talks had achieved their objectives.

Surprisingly, Alexander Lavrentyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to Syria and head of Moscow's delegation at the talks, conveyed that Kazakhstan's decision caught everyone off guard—an unexpected move, as echoed by others.

While the Astana talks' sponsors hinted that the meetings would continue later that year, no decision was made regarding a new venue for future talks. Kazakhstan later expressed willingness to resume discussions as a goodwill gesture if all parties agreed.

However, news on the when and where remained elusive until 19 January, when various outlets linked to the participants reported a new meeting scheduled for the upcoming week.

This announcement comes months after reports of the suspension of meetings between the Arab League ministerial committee, formed to oversee normalisation with the Syrian regime, and regime representatives.

The termination reportedly occurred after Lebanese-Syrian talks on the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon failed to materialise. Additionally, the al-Assad regime's refusal to cooperate with Arab League countries aiming to curb the Captagon trade played a role in the decision.

Deviation from stated objective

These developments might clarify Russia's attempt to steer the recent talks in Astana towards prioritising progress on these contentious issues through closed discussions. Lavrentiev revealed that the 21st round of talks would prioritise negotiations with Syria's neighbouring countries, a move that does not align with the stated objective of the Astana track.

Lavrentiev pointed out that he will convene a meeting with the Jordanian delegation to address the challenging situation on the border with Syria, marked by escalating drug smuggling operations causing issues for the region's countries.

Read more: Jordanian air strikes break Syrian silence over drug trade

He also highlighted a meeting with the Lebanese delegation to discuss the significant influx of Syrian refugees, stating, "The problem of Syrian refugees is causing a headache for the Lebanese government."

Finally, a meeting will be held with Iraq to discuss issues related to combating terrorist groups and the threat emanating from the Syrian-Iraqi border. This is another topic within the track of Arab normalization meetings with al-Assad.

Despite their roles as observers, Russia's efforts to engage in discussions on contentious issues with neighbouring states during the Astana meeting are aimed at increasing their direct involvement in the process. This move seeks to salvage regional normalisation efforts with al-Assad and enhance the significance and relevance of the Astana process.

Despite their roles as observers, Russia's efforts to engage in discussions on contentious issues with neighbouring states during the Astana meeting aim to increase their direct involvement in the process. 

Serving as mediators between the Syrian regime and these countries on complex issues requiring extensive work clearly demonstrates Russia's intention to repurpose the Astana platform as a supplementary negotiation platform to the regional normalisation track with al-Assad.

If Russia manages to secure buy-in from these countries —especially Jordan and Lebanon — such a move could potentially keep the regional normalisation talks with al-Assad on life support.

However, historical precedents, such as the failure of Russia and the Astana process to restore relations between Turkey and Syria, suggest that the outcome of this new attempt to make progress on drugs, refugees, and counter-terrorism-related issues may not differ. 

The regime has exhibited no genuine willingness to change its disruptive attitude or make meaningful concessions. Therefore, assuming that Russia can use whatever influence it still maintains with al-Assad to revive normalisation talks with Damascus — previously declared clinically dead — would be misleading.

However, enabling Russia to link the Astana talks to regional normalisation efforts would establish another futile subtrack, diverting whatever little remaining energy from the pursuit of a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

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