As soon as the Ankara Agreement for a ceasefire between Russia and the Syrian armed opposition had been struck on December 29, 2016, Moscow called for a conference in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. This was in accordance with the terms of the Ankara Agreement itself, which stipulated that a conference should be held within one month of the ceasefire coming into effect and being respected. The Astana Conference was held on January 23-24, 2017, despite the major violations committed by the regime and its Iranian-backed militias around Damascus (Wadi Barada and the Eastern Ghouta), Mahajjah in the northern Rif Daraa, and elsewhere. Invitations to the conference from its Russian and Turkish sponsors were limited to a delegation of the Syrian armed opposition factions that had signed up to the Ankara Agreement and a Syrian regime delegation. The Conference aimed to consolidate the ceasefire and implement the other aspects of the Ankara Agreement, foremost allowing humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas and the release of detainees and prisoners. The United States attended the Conference as an “observer”, and its representation was only on the level of its ambassador to Kazakhstan. Iran’s rejection of Russia’s invitation to the US to attend the Conference was a source of annoyance for Moscow, and openly expressed as such by the Kremlin. UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura also attended, having previously stated that he would only be sending his representative.
Debate over the Iranian Role
All parties attended the opening session of the Conference, but direct talks between the opposition and regime delegations did not take place. Rather, negotiations were mediated by the UN envoy and the Turkish and Russian sponsors. Russia’s efforts to foster an atmosphere of optimism prior to the Conference failed to dispel the tensions that prevailed throughout. These tensions were apparent in Iran’s attempt to impose itself as a sponsor of the Conference alongside Russia and Turkey, at the very time that its militias (Hezbollah in particular) were continuing to violate the ceasefire on the ground, bombarding the towns and villages of Wadi Barada in an effort to storm and take control of the area.
Iran tried to use the Astana Conference to emerge from its isolation, despite its reservations over the Turkish-Russian effort to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. These reservations began with the agreement over the mid-December exit of the Syrian opposition from Aleppo and continued with Tehran’s opposition to the representation of armed groups in the Ankara ceasefire agreement who it considers to be terrorist groups. The opposition delegation, underlining its rejection of Iranian efforts to present itself as part of the solution in Syria, had reservations about Iran being a guarantor of any agreement with the regime, since Iran was a party to, and part of, the conflict. The opposition delegation also refused to discuss any issues apart from those on the agenda: consolidation of the ceasefire, relief for besieged areas, and prisoner release). This was due to fears that a section of the opposition not invited to Astana might succeed in circumventing the role of the High Negotiating Committee, or turn Astana into an alternative to the Geneva process as the reference for an acceptable solution for the opposition. The Astana Conference failed to achieve the armed opposition’s goals, particularly with regard to obtaining an immediate, binding commitment to cease all military action on Syrian territory with the exception of those against the Islamic State group. The opposition’s main achievement, however, was to force the regime and its allies to recognize it as a legitimate representative, after the Russians and Iranians had been adamant in branding the opposition as terrorists. This was also the first occasion that the armed opposition groups were invited to participate in efforts towards a political solution.
A Constitution Out of the Blue
The entire conference was devoted to discussing means by which to consolidate the ceasefire, as a key step to resume the track of a political solution in Geneva, which UN envoy Staffan De Mistura announced would resume on February 8, 2017. Russia, however, surprised everyone by producing a draft constitution for Syria which Russian experts had worked on, and which, from Moscow’s perspective, paved a way to solving the crisis raging in Syria for six years. This draft constitution made it clear that Russia was trying to reach a resolution outside the Geneva parameters and keep the solution in the trilateral context that emerged at Astana (Turkey-Russia-Iran), taking into consideration the US’s preoccupation with the transfer of power and appointments to the Donald Trump administration, as well as waning international interest in Syria and the apparent acceptance of Russia’s leadership role in solving the crisis. Some of the proposed constitutional provisions also revealed Russia’s attempt to win over a part of the opposition (the armed factions in particular) by weakening the position of the Presidency of the Republic as an avenue towards a solution. Article 44 of Russia’s draft constitution for Syria stipulated that the Representative Assembly (parliament) has the following functions: resolving issues of war and peace; terminating the mandate of the President of the Republic; appointment of the judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court; and appointment and dismissal of the Chairman of the National Bank of Syria. The draft also emphasized the impermissibility of making use of the army for purposes other than those mandated. Paragraph 4 of Article 10 provided that the army and other armed forces shall be under public oversight and shall defend Syria and its territorial integrity; they may not be used as an instrument of suppression of the people; they may not interfere in politics or participate in the transfer of power.
The opposition refused to discuss the draft document on the basis that drawing up a constitution was a matter for the Syrian people and should be the result of progress in a political process, not a precursor to it. Furthermore, the armed opposition had no mandate for this political issue in the absence of the High Negotiating Committee. The regime, which has always been highly sensitivity regarding matters of sovereignty, made no public comment on the Russian proposal.
The Astana Declaration
Alongside the proposal for a draft constitution, the Astana Conference’s final statement announced the creation of a trilateral mechanism to oversee compliance with the ceasefire, made up of the state guarantors of the ceasefire, whose work would begin in Astana at the beginning of February in preparation for the shift back to Geneva and the resumption of the political track for a solution. The opposition groups registered their reservations about Iranian participation in that mechanism. The declaration also stated the need for the rapid implementation of all the measures stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015, including the provision of humanitarian aid to besieged civilians. The statement stressed the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, and reiterated the determination of final statement’s signatories to jointly fight against Fath al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) and the Islamic State group, and to separate them both from the other armed opposition groups that had been invited to participate in the Geneva talks alongside the political opposition.
Polarization among the Opposition Factions
The fallout of the Conference was soon felt on the ground in the form of serious divisions between factions who had participated and those who had refused to do so and called those who did traitors. These divisions soon developed into armed clashes when Fath al-Sham directed a pre-emptive strike against the opposition factions who had been at Astana, based on suspicions that those groups were party to an agreement to take on Fath al-Sham. Russian officials fed those suspicions by claiming that maps had been exchanged showing the locations of Fath al-Sham elements. Those claims coincided with air strikes that caused hundreds of Fath al-Sham casualties, understood by the group to be the start of a campaign to wipe it out.
Disagreements between Fath al-Sham and other opposition factions had already surfaced, with an eruption of a war of words following the battle for Aleppo. Some factions accused Fath al-Sham of being responsible for the fall of the city and the destitution of its inhabitants by having refused—despite the small number of its fighters in the city—an offer to leave the eastern part of the city in exchange for an end to the Russian assault. Polarization between Fath al-Sham and its allies on one side, and the other Syrian opposition factions on the other, reached a peak with a series of mergers within two large camps of fighters. Less than one week after the conclusion of the Astana Conference, Fath al-Sham, the Nour al-Din Zinki movement, Liwa al-Haqq, the Ansar al-Din front, and Jaysh al-Sunna announced their merger into a unified military corps called the Sham Liberation Organization. The formation of this grouping was preceded by various factions in Rif Aleppo and Rif Idlib joining Ahrar al-Sham—these included the Suqour al-Sham brigades, Jaysh al-Islam (Idlib section), Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Tajamma Fastaqim Kama Umirat, and the Shamiya front (western Rif Aleppo section)—in search of protection, as conflicts developed into violent clashes with Fath al-Sham following some of these groups’ participation at Astana and their acceptance of its outcomes. The above developments suggest that the Syrian opposition has started to coalesce around two large blocs with two distinct projects. The first is jihadist and international, led by Fath al-Sham, and which is trying to impose a specific way of life on local Syrian society even before removing the existing regime. The second is Syrian nationalist, led by Ahrar al-Sham, and which sees the main issue as the removal of the ruling regime.
Trump’s Safe Zones
In addition to Russia having become the main player on the political and military scene in Syria, there has been a noticeable weakness in the American role, manifest in its low-level representation at Astana. The US was content to be present as an observer, while Russia, together with UN envoy Steffan De Mistura, took on the lead role in mediating between the Syrian parties to the conflict. This US absence did not, however, continue for long, since President Donald Trump during his first week in office renewed the proposal for safe zones in Syria, based on the idea that this would provide a solution to the issue of refugees. Such a proposal was invariably rejected by the previous administration of President Obama. Trump has asked the Departments of Defense and State to draw up a plan to create safe zones in Syria within 90 days. The Russians have not disguised their displeasure at this proposal, which interferes with their efforts, and follows their role at Astana as the only party with any say in the outlines of the solution for Syria – whether because of their success in bringing together the different military actors active on the ground, or in promoting their vision of what a solution would look like.
Astana formed another stage on the path to a settlement of the Syrian crisis. While Russia seemed more concerned than ever before to bring about a solution to consolidate its gains and position in Syria, many obstacles to a solution to end the conflict remain in place. Foremost among these is the Iranian position together with the Syrian regime that opposes the ceasefire, a position that aims to persuade Russia of the need for, and possibility of, an outright military victory. Iran and the Syrian regime are working to bring their opponents together from the environs of Damascus in Idlib (where Fath al-Sham are mixed up with others) in the hope that Russia or the international coalition will finish them off, on the grounds that the ceasefire does not cover terrorists. The effect of other factors is yet to become clear. These include the position the Trump administration will adopt, and the outcome of the polarization between Syrian opposition factions, who must still adopt a firm position on plans that do not serve the Syrian national project, set them in confrontation with the international position, and prolong the life of the oppressive regime. It seems important at this stage that the active forces of the Syrian people (political, grassroots, and armed) reaffirm that any solution must include the removal of the current regime and the transition to a pluralist civilian democracy in a unitary Syria. Clarity and steadfastness of purpose are essential given the intervention of complex regional and international factors and the large number of platforms for dialogue and negotiation.
To download a PDF version of this report, please click here or on the link above. This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on January 31, 2017, please click here.