Syria is one of the most pressing concerns on the global diplomacy agenda, with Russia combining a successful peacekeeping role with focused diplomacy. Since the fall of 2015, it has been evident that the United States, its NATO allies, and the armed opposition organizations they were backing have failed to fulfill their primary goal of removing the unwanted administration of Bashar al-Assad and establishing control over the region. The fact that the true American plans have failed is due to Russia.
Initially, the entry of the Russian Aerospace Forces into Syria at the invitation of the official authorities in Damascus was greeted with alarm not only in the United States, Britain, and France but also in Turkey, Syria’s neighbor. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as you know, is trying to use the civil conflict in Syria to solve a number of urgent issues for Ankara. In particular, Turkey is attempting:
1) to suppress the fighting activity of Syria’s Kurdish formations (Democratic Union Party, People’s Self-Defense Units or National Defense Forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces), which receive external support from the US and other countries (particularly the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, and Israel);
2) to occupy Kurdish-populated provinces in northern Syria under the guise of enhancing border security in order to prevent any possibility of autonomy or the creation of another type of Kurdish statehood, which could negatively affect the situation in Turkey itself (especially in the southeast of the so-called Turkish Kurdistan);
3) to minimize the influx of Syrian refugees into the areas of Turkey bordering Syrian Arab Republic and to localize the negative consequences of their presence on Turkish territory;
4) to replace the Kurds in Syria’s northern provinces with a Turkic population of indigenous Turkomen or (the Turkmen) connected to Turkey;
5) finally, through its active military and traditional diplomacy, to raise Turkey’s status in regional and global affairs.
After Syrian rebel groups, with US military assistance, managed to deal a significant blow to ISIS (an international terrorist organization banned in Russia) on their territories and unite the territories under their control (or liberated from terrorist forces) into a quasi-entity called Rojava in 2015, Turkey was deeply concerned about the possibility of an independent Kurdish state on its border.
Since 2016, Turkey has conducted several military operations against the Kurds in the northern provinces of Syria (e.g. Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch, Operation Eagle Claw, Operation Peace Spring). As a result of these assaults, the Turkish military has de facto occupied part of Syria’s northern border areas, pushed the Kurds far into Syria, and established a buffer zone with Turkish military police guarding it.
In turn, the Kurdish issue has always been a shared concern for the four neighboring countries of the Middle East (namely, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), where large populations of Kurdish communities number in the millions. As such, while Syria understands neighboring Turkey’s concerns over Kurdish independence, it regards the Turkish military invasion of its northern area to be an occupation. Damascus supports the restoration of territorial integrity.
The Kurdish issue in the Syrian crisis is one of the major topics at the negotiating table, along with others involving the concerned countries, therefore it isn’t by accident that the author chose to focus on it. Notably, the diplomatic services of Russia, Turkey, and Iran started looking for a venue to begin direct negotiations on the Syrian settlement at the end of 2016 only after the improvement of Russian-Turkish relations, which were harmed by the Turkish Air Force’s destruction of the Russian Su-24 bomber in Syria in November 2015.
Because of this, in December 2016, Kazakhstan took the peace-making initiative to host such discussions in Astana. Naturally, a neutral state’s mediation services in the form of organizing the venue of important international negotiations always provide the host party with bonuses, raise its political assets through the UN and regional diplomacy, and preserve for it some unwritten right to receive favorable contracts based on positive results of the negotiation process from all of its participants.
Thus, in January 2017, the Astana Platform of talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition was launched, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey serving as guarantors. From January 2017 to June 2023, Astana hosted 20 summits of the three countries (Russia, Iran, and Turkey) with the participation of observers (Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon) and UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegations. The peculiarity of the Astana Platform was the fact that two negotiation tracks were held here simultaneously: 1) on reconciliation in the Syrian Arab Republic between the government and the opposition; 2) on reconciliation of relations between Syria and Turkey, mediated by Russia and Iran.
Kazakhstan has always shown hospitality, hosting high-level delegations, adhering to the principle of neutrality, refraining from interfering in the negotiation process, and therefore contributing to the normalization of the Syrian situation. The Astana Platform of the Syrian negotiations was also significant for Kazakhstan’s neutrality and equal accessibility to both official Damascus and Syrian opposition delegates. After the start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, the Astana Platform, despite the international anti-Russian pressure from the West, primarily the US and the UK, has remained relevant and accessible to all interested participants.
Naturally, the US Department of State and the British Foreign Office originally viewed Russian diplomatic initiatives in Syria with suspicion and envy. However, Russian Aerospace Forces’ accomplishments in suppressing the activities of numerous international terrorist groups on Syrian soil established a different reality, forcing the West to acknowledge the Astana Platform of the negotiation process. Initially, US representatives participated in these Astana discussions, but the Americans later withdrew.
The negotiation process is never an easy one, involving representatives of different countries and interests. No one can determine their timing with chronological precision, because they can last for years or even decades. At the same time, it should be noted that, thanks to Russia’s initiatives and Iran’s participation, the parties have managed to pull Turkey and Syria closer together, even reaching an agreement on a road map for reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus. The Astana Platform has worked hard to remove Syria’s absolute isolation, ease Syria’s return to the League of Arab States (LAS), and restore relations between Damascus and several Arab monarchies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and others).
The closure of the Astana Platform by Kazakhstan, declared by Kanat Tumysh, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, immediately following the 20th Summit on Syria on June 21 this year, was unexpected, at least from the perspective of the Russian side. According to their Kazakh colleagues, all of the Astana format’s goals, which were first stated in 2017 before the start of the negotiation process, have supposedly been met. At the same time, the Russian side (e.g., Russian Presidential Special Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev and Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia) claims that the Syrian settlement process is far from complete and that much work remains to be done (including intra-Syrian reconciliation, restoring Syrian-Turkish relations, and other issues).
The oddest aspect of Kazakhstan’s choice was that it came as a surprise to all (or part) of the Astana format participants. The fact is that the text of the final statement at the plenary session was supposed to include plans for the next, 21st meeting in the second half of 2023 in Astana. However, due to Kazakhstan’s position, the negotiators were forced to drop the idea. What prevented the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan from informing the partners about its decision at least a couple of days in advance, that is, before the summit, and not catching them off guard?
Among the reasons for such a decision and, to put it mildly, undiplomatic behavior by Kazakhstan, one should note the subsequent explanation of this republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that supposedly all the goals of the negotiation process have been achieved, or that Syrian reconciliation will take a long time, and Astana lacks the technical, organizational, and material capabilities to regularly host the format’s participants. Well, even if one were to assume that this is the case, considering such a high level of participants in international negotiations (where Russia and Turkey are allies of Kazakhstan), why did Astana not deign to at least warn its partners about the decision taken? At the same time, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is an accomplished and experienced diplomat with a MGIMO degree and the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.
Experts can offer various explanations, including external intervention and pressure on Kazakhstan from, say, the United States. It is no accident that the decision was revealed at the very end of the meeting by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. Tokayev is unlikely to make such decisions in a few minutes without consulting with others and thoroughly considering all of the implications.
Naturally, talks for a Syrian solution are still ongoing and will continue. These negotiations took place in Astana, which was simply the name of the location where they were held. Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the participants from the Syrian settlement’s guarantor nations, will undoubtedly seek a different venue for future sessions.
However, it should be recognized that in the current difficult international situation and anti-Russian pressure from the West, when there are widespread attempts to isolate and block the participation and initiatives of Russia in various international forums, the search for a place similar to Astana, where the authorities and the opposition of Syria will meet simultaneously, will not prove easy.
Turkey and Syria have in fact been able to move closer to normalizing bilateral relations as a result of Russia’s diplomatic efforts. It is no secret that Moscow has already organized several rounds of talks at the level of the heads of the Foreign Ministry, foreign intelligence bodies, and the Defense Ministry. Therefore, if relations between Damascus and Ankara were to improve at the head of state level, it would have a depressing effect on the leaders of the uncompromising opposition because the official Damascus authorities would be acknowledged by almost all of the important players in the negotiation process. As a result, the normalization of Syrian-Turkish relations may be followed by an intra-Syrian reconciliation.
Maybe it is this progress in the Syrian settlement, especially after the victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (that is, the guarantor of Turkey’s continued cooperation with Russia and Iran on this issue) in the last elections, that scares the real external customers of blocking the Astana site of the negotiation process?
One might speculate that after the elections and the change of most of the Turkish government (especially the appointment of Hakan Fidan as Foreign Minister), Erdoğan decided to flirt with the United States and Europe. In such circumstances, Ankara may be hesitant to accelerate the normalization process with Damascus, which would create a win-win situation for Moscow in the Middle East while incurring Washington’s fury. Accordingly, in order not to directly spoil the necessary relations with Russia, Turkey through the US (or directly within the framework of the same OTS) has exerted a similar unfavorable (for Russia) ppressure on Kazakhstan to terminate the Astana format and delay the process of negotiations and, consequently, the time to achieve normalization with Syria. The Turks understand as well as the Russians do that in the current situation it will not be easy for Moscow to quickly find a replacement for Astana (it will just take time, and whoever agrees may become the object of purposeful external influence).
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is a very cautious politician, although he can often demonstrate more decisive actions. He has done so many times. For example, in January 2022 in connection with the unrest in Kazakhstan and its quick suppression with Tokayev’s appeal for help to Russia and the CSTO; in June of 2022, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Tokayev in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly refused to recognize the independence of the DPR and LPR on the basis of the inviolability of the international principle of the territorial integrity of states; then Tokayev strengthened the vector of alliance with Turkey within the framework of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) and began to increase oil tanker supplies bypassing Russia via Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe; Kazakhstan is forced to declare a strict compliance with the sanctions regime against Russia and the need to reduce parallel transit; and now the winding down of the Astana format on Syria, where Russia is a major participant in the negotiating process and a guarantor country. Is this kind of consistency a mere coincidence in the policy of official Astana towards Russia, or a technical justification? There have become too many such justifications lately to look random.
Nevertheless, the Russian side hopes to preserve and develop friendly relations with Kazakhstan (a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union), where the historical pattern of the countries’ union will be preserved.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.