Astana II: In the Russian yard, but by the rules of the opposition

Dr. Yahya Al-Aridi 2017-02-21 11:01:00

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On the way to Astana, I asked myself, like millions of Syrians, about this Russian insistence on dragging the remains of the Assad regime and its opposition to this freezing spot at a time when Russia has appointed itself as a guarantor of a cease-fire that knows cessation of hostility only in name.

It is easy to say that what Russia was not able to achieve by war it intends to achieve by “peace” tactics. However, isn’t this whole Astana thing another scene of the Russian war in Syria? If Russia honestly wanted a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis, it would have exerted more effort and put impetus into the Geneva Syria peace.

It is becoming apparent to me and to many that Russia does not want the Geneva track, which was created by others, to succeed, nor does it want the Astana platform, which is its own creation, to succeed. Russia realizes that however strong its attempts to rid itself of the “Political Transition” in Syria are, they are doomed to fail.

It is hard to get rid of Geneva because the power of its enemies and that of some of its friends are behind it, let alone the power of the Syrian people that cannot be annihilated. For these reasons, Russia has not left out a tactic it did not use starting from the scorched earth policy to using the Iranian hypocrisy and trivializing the efforts of others and up to pretending and playing the role of a mediator or a guarantor. 

It is well known that Russia used fighting ISIS as a pretext to interfere militarily in Syria. That was not enough, because it was not fighting ISIS. It had to invent an invitation by what it termed the “legitimate government” for that interference; Russia used Iran’s greed; it covered the Assad regime’s war crimes with its vetoes; it perpetrated similar crimes; and finally after its World-War like atrocities, it made a rapprochement with Turkey and created the Astana track and wanted it as a substitute for Geneva; yet it continued to deny that. To Astana, it invited what it called “terrorists” till recently. It inaugurated itself a guarantor of the regime it protected, and made Turkey a guarantor of the “terrorists”. On the 30th of December 2016, a cessation of hostility was signed, and on the third day of Trump’s inauguration, it held the first Astana talks in a symposium in which it added Iran as another guarantor, though it knows that if there is a hindrance to cease-fire in Syria Iran is the one behind it. A joint communiqué came out of that meeting signed by the guarantors not the concerned parties.

Since the signing of the cease-fire, Syrian opposition got piles of promises that the truce will be respected; nothing of that has happened. Instead, they got an invitation to another Astana on the 15th and 16th of February with few days remaining to the Geneva talks on Syria. It was realized that the ice of Astana was meant to freeze Geneva. In the mean time, Syria witnessed more regime, Russian and Iranian bombardment and airstrikes. Russia has also subjected the Geneva talks to more tension through sharp attacks on the formation of the opposition delegation to Geneva and by involving platforms that should belong to the Assad regime delegation rather than that of the opposition.

We arrived one day late for Astana II. Though no promise was fulfilled and no ceasefire was observed, we participated just not to give those who want to ruin it get things their way. We played in their yard but according to our rules. We made the four-hour meeting with the Russian delegation harder than fighting a war. The Russians felt that they were on a criminal trial. Many were the times when they said we do not care about the Assad regime. We made it a condition not to go into the general meeting hall without a written guarantee to stopping the Russian air strikes on our people. They said such a document needs authorization from the defense minister and the president. That was happening in front of the deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan. We accepted a commitment from the deputy to be the guarantor of the promise. In other words, we had the guarantor guaranteed. We realized the fakeness and tactical approach of the Russians; but we wanted to prove how much of liars they are. We also knew how heavy the files they carry on their shoulders were. But it is our blood which is at stake.

But why would Russia do all this? Russia knows that the Assad regime is helpless and at its disposal. Russia can use it as a bargaining chip as it wishes. Russia also realizes that Iran is a stubborn competitor in Syria. It is however ready to sell the Iranians as soon as the American red light is fully on.

Russia goes into all this chaos comfortably with Turkey guaranteeing the opposition in the north and Jordan in the south. It promised to get the others respect the ceasefire; but it is doing that tactically. If that fails, Russia is ready to launch its alternative project based on getting together what is left of the Assad “army” and the Free Syrian Army, to give Iran the share it sees fit, to form a military council in Syria as is the case in Egypt and Libya and putting an end to the Assad era.

Such a project may be blocked, if Trump insists on no-fly or safe zones in Syria, and if Turkey tilts alliance towards the US. The hardest question is whether Trump would seriously go full gear into such an adventure. Trump would succeed if he does not annoy Putin or tease him a lot. If he could just tune up Putin’s rough and tough involvement, he would succeed; otherwise, Putin would take a suicidal step and jump into the Iranian lap. The answer, however, remains somewhere in Tel Aviv. And as such Syria’s hell remains wide open and its wounds would continue to bleed.