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Could Kazakhstan broker a political settlement in Syria?

Orient Net - The New Arab 2017-01-12 06:30:00

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Despite a small number of new clashes in western Syria, the ceasefire – negotiated between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, should be welcomed as good news to concerned parties, and in particular to the people of Syria, enduring throughout a horrendous six-year conflict. 

The unfolding of events represents a major shift in regional politics away from the West, enabled largely by the USA and its allies’ inability to reach a decisive conclusion over the fate of Bashar al-Assad due to their lingering fear over the potential spread of Islamist extremism.

This ceasefire constitutes the middle phase of a three-staged Russian plan. The plan required the Syrian State to first reassert its control over all major cities in the country as well as the roads connecting them, followed by a nation-wide ceasefire.

However, the most interesting and possibly, most promising twist is the introduction of Kazakhstan’s Astana as the leading destination to a final phase of a negotiated political settlement in Syria.

The Astana Talks are speculated to start from January 2017.  Although Astana would be in the midst of its harsh winter (with an average low of -22°C and high of -13°C), there are a number of factors that would make Kazakhstan an ideal place for talks. 

Given that most regional capitals can no longer play such a role having taken sides in the conflict itself, Geneva too has become associated with inefficiency and Western domination.

Ever since Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Astana, landlocked between two superpowers at odds with each other, Russia to the North and West and China to the East, has learned to walk a tightrope when it comes to forging an independent foreign policy.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has chosen to pursue “conflict mediation” as a core activity, supported by a population who have experienced first hand the horrors of war from the days of Stalin’s forced displacement, to the days of the Soviet Union when Kazakhstan was used as an atomic weapons test site for decades with an estimated 600 trials, below and above ground, causing tremendous environmental damage, political and economic hardship. 

Nazarbayev is also widely credited for having played a key role in mending relations between Russia and Turkey, following the latter’s dismay to the way the West and in particular the USA reacted to the failed military coup in July 2016. Yet even before that, Astana has already hosted two closed doors meetings for the Syrian opposition in May and October 2015.

Notably, with a large Sunni Muslim population (more than 70 percent), Kazakhstan is unique in its ability to forge an excellent relationship with Iran.

A significant economic collaboration between the two countries led to the construction of the North-South Transnational Corridor with almost a 700 km-long railway line giving landlocked Kazakhstan, and neighbouring Turkmenistan, access to Bandar Abbas on the Arabian Gulf. 

The economic interdependence with Iran seems to flow without a fear of Shi’ism spreading in the country despite the existence of a small Shia minority.  

This is a reflection of Kazakhstan’s government not viewing Islam and sectarian divisions as reasoning for relationships, as religion is not affiliated to the state.

Kazakhstan has been building its participation in international organisations and peace initiatives in the last decades. In 2016, Kazakhstan was elected to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for 2017-2018, becoming the first country from Central Asia to occupy a seat in the UNSC.

It took over the chairmanship of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011, headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

President Nazarbayev has also launched an international initiative to abolish nuclear testing and further a nuclear free world.  

Moreover, Nazarbayev initially suggested and helped create the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and has been rapidly expanding the union’s establishment of embassies, including a current embassy in Israel and 180 other diplomatic relationships.

The regime’s control of major cities was dramatically concluded by the fall of Eastern Aleppo and the expulsion of rebel fighters to Idlib, thus paving the way to a truce at midnight on December 30th, 2016 - the third of its kind this year.

The ceasefire relied on the direct agreement of the rebel fighters on the ground without going through their political elites abroad, demonstrating the effective outreach and influence Turkey holds amongst the majority of the rebel groups.

The ceasefire explicitly excluded factions deemed by the United Nations Security Council as terrorists, such as Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, but included many groups that until recently were denounced as “terrorists” by both the Assad regime and Russia.

However, the agreement made no reference to any of the Western powers, including the United States and the United Nations, and has made no apologies for ignoring much of the ground work that the West has been financing in the form of millions dollars in multiple track-two initiatives as well as the UN Geneva talks.

This process does in fact look like a strong Eastern initiative to a permanent solution for Syria, particularly now that Russia gained UN legitimacy to its plans by tabling the ceasefire at the UN Security Council on December 31st, 2016.

Nevertheless, for the Astana Process to be effective, Kazakhstan needs to introduce an innovative format for the talks that allows all involved factions in the conflict, including the opposition leadership and their patrons in the Gulf capitals, to play a role in shaping the agenda.

Without an understanding of inclusivity, the potential for rising “spoilers” is great despite the apparent coherence between Russia and the incoming US President Donald J. Trump.

Sultan Barakat (The New Arab)

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