Representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition delegation take part in the first session of Syria peace talks at Astana's Rixos President Hotel on January 23, 2017
Liberation of the city of Aleppo, a trilateral meeting of Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow, and the agreement to hold political talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, indicate the beginning of a new phase in the Syrian crisis. Peace talks in Kazakhstan can be a major turning point in the process of the Syrian crisis settlement, but this issue is first of all contingent on how much the three states of Iran, Russia and Turkey commit themselves to the Moscow meeting statement, and on the fact that all involved parties accept the continuation of the status quo.
Apparently after the perennial showdown in Aleppo, and then the full control of government forces on the city, a significant part of the fighting parties (Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, Turkey and a part of opposition groups) has agreed that being on the offensive, and trying to achieve further gains - in other words, the zero-sum game - can possibly lead to adverse results for them, and available relative gains may be also at risk. In fact, the continuation of the status quo, though not desirable for any of the parties, if changes, it may also bring about more serious consequences. Therefore, the Astana meeting is almost considered for all negotiating parties more like a meeting for not losing further gains, than getting more gains. For this reason, if the Astana talks lead to a particular political solution to the Syrian crisis, this solution will be an agreement on minimums.
A minimum agreement means that due to various reasons, including the fatigue of war, rising costs and the far-fetched possibility of a new victory, each of the negotiating parties prefer to get the minimum possible gains than trying to get a good victory. The minimum agreement is characterized by the fact that though the level of willingness for reaching an agreement is high, with regard to the issue that each of the parties have minimal gains, this does not allow great flexibility to the parties in negotiations. Regarding that parties do not receive an equal share from the minimums, so the level of satisfaction with the status quo and the enthusiasm for the success of negotiations are also different. In this context, the most important question raised here is that how much reassuring, durable and acceptable can be the minimum agreement on the future of Syria, in particular, for the Islamic Republic of Iran? The answer to this question requires checking the status of each of the negotiating parties at the moment of entering into negotiations.
Russia enters into the political negotiations, while she seems to have more maneuvering room than all the other parties. For Russia, to reach an agreement is likely as much important as the content of the agreement. For this reason, Russia is more willing to see the success of negotiations than other players. All that Russia wants from negotiations is to ensure her interests in Syria, on the one hand, and to provide the conditions for a face-saving withdrawal from Syria, on the other hand. One of the most important aspects of Russian policy in Syria since the escalation of the civil war in Syria, especially after the arrival of the ISIS in this country, is to try to differentiate between the domestic opposition movements, on the one hand, and the foreign extremist movements, on the other hand. For the Russian, the first group can be negotiated with, but the second group should be attacked on with the participation of all states that claim to fight against terrorism and extremism. Although Russia does not accept the distinction between good and bad terrorism, in order to avoid the pressures of international norms, and to reduce the costs of battle as well, she, by trying to create a rift between forces fighting in Syria, controls a part of these forces through political negotiations, and attacks on the other part through creating an international coalition.
Accordingly, the Astana meeting can be a major turning point in Russia’s policy in Syria. If the talks succeed, practically a significant part of Russian troops in Syria assuming their mission is completed will be able to return home (of course, the other part will remain in Syria to fight against the ISIS), but if these negotiations fail, Russia will be forced to make more serious decisions. In this context, if the Russian take the opposition groups as the main reason for the failure of these negotiations, disputes between Russia and Turkey will increase, and the Russian doubt over the potential ability of Turkey to control opponents will rise; but if Russia blames the Syrian government or Iran for the failure of the talks, it is likely that Russia will gradually take another route than that shared with Iran, and will increase the Russian pressure on the Syrian government with the help of Turkey.
Now it seems that Russia relies heavily on Turkey’s ability to control the Syrian crisis, and is willing to take the crisis to her desired point by cooperating with Turkey before the new US government’s policy on Syria is formed. In fact, both the Russian are able to give concessions to Turkey in Syria, and the Turk are capable of providing substantial assistance to advance Russia’s policies in Syria. Russia is able to ensure for Turkey the safe zone in northern Syria that Turkey has long been seeking for, and Russia can also play an important role in controlling the actions of the Kurd groups. In return, Turkey will likely be able to guarantee the continuation of the existing ceasefire by controlling the opposition groups. These mutual guarantees will ensure minimum benefits for both sides. If moderate opposition groups are considered different from Turkey, and given the reduced interference of the US and even countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, these groups can also have minimum benefits that will guarantee their survival in the future of Syria. The level of satisfaction of these groups is certainly not as much as that of Russia and even Turkey, and that is why if the status quo changes (for example, if the US or Saudi Arabia is interested again to change the state of the crisis), it is possible that, even against the will of Turkey, these groups will either refuse to accept the results of the political negotiations, or if they accept the agreements, they will try to violate them.
Meanwhile, the two other actors in the Syrian crisis, i.e., the Syrian government and the Islamic Republic of Iran, also consider some minimum gains (such as stabilizing the Assad government) for themselves from these negotiations, but for two reasons they will probably attend the process of negotiations with more complex terms. First, stabilizing the Assad government, however, is an issue that should be talked about as the negotiations continue, and second, in the Astana meeting, the Syrian government should negotiate on giving fewer concessions and not making more concessions. While Russia and, to some extent, Turkey will negotiate to get further gains, the Syrian government and consequently, the Islamic Republic of Iran and even groups opposing the Assad government should try not to face more difficult conditions as the result of negotiations.
Mahmoud Shoori, head of Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic Research (CSR), is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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