Astana Talks: A Prelude to Peace in Syria

Ms Lakshmi Priya was Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi Click here for detail profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • November 27, 2017

    One year after the Syrian crisis began in 2011, talks to find a political solution were held in Geneva under the aegis of the United Nations. Seven rounds of talks have been held so far and the eighth round is scheduled to commence on November 28.1 While the United States and Russia are the major players in these talks, the Arab League, China, European Union, France, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Kingdom are all participants. Until now, however, the lack of a united Syrian opposition,2 the negative role of regional and international actors3 and the reluctance of the Assad regime and anti-regime forces to agree to a mutually acceptable solution4 have precluded a positive outcome at these talks. In addition, the non-inclusion of key regional players like Iran has also contributed to the absence of a positive outcome.5 A final hurdle has been the Syrian regime’s reluctance to agree to the opposition’s demand for a transitional government without Assad.6

    Meanwhile, beginning in January 2017, a relatively less ambitious process focused on attaining a cessation of hostilities, rather than the forging of a political solution, emerged under the leadership of Russia, Iran and Turkey. These talks have been held at Astana, Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan has no direct stakes in the conflict, it enjoys the trust of the Assad regime as well as of the opposition forces, in addition to being close to Russia. And, earlier in 2015, it had hosted two rounds of talks between Syrian opposition groups. During the first round of the Astana talks, Kazakhstan made it clear that it is only providing a platform for inter-Syrian negotiations and will not get involved7 in the process, although it subsequently declared its willingness to send forces to Syria if called upon to do so by the United Nations.8

    The Astana talks were initiated when the Geneva talks proved unable to achieve the desired political solution and remained stalled for a year (from February 2016 to February 2017) after the end of the third round because the opposition demanded a ceasefire and a stop to the advance being made by Syrian government and Russian forces towards Aleppo as a pre-condition for further participation in talks.9 Since the resumption of the fourth round of the Geneva talks in February 2017, three successive rounds were held in March, May and July 2017. The eighth round is scheduled to commence on 28 November 2017.

    The beginning of the Astana talks symbolized a geo-political shift. While the Geneva talks were spearheaded by the United States and other western powers,10 the Astana talks are being led by Russia, Turkey and Iran as guarantors. The US has attended the Astana talks only as an observer. These talks signified a shift from US-led efforts the primary aim of which was the removal of Assad to the Russian-led effort focused on humanitarian issues and bringing about a stable ceasefire.

    Maintaining that the Astana talks are complementary to the Geneva talks,11 the UN as well as the troika of guarantors have expressed the hope that the Astana process will pave the way for eventual peace in Syria.12 The Astana talks have ensured the active participation of the Assad regime by replacing the phrase ‘transitional body’ mentioned in the Geneva Communique issued in June 2012 with ‘political process’ in the Astana Communique, thus gaining the regime’s confidence as well as agreement to discuss ‘everything’.13 Moreover, with the Astana talks emphasizing on the need to fight against ISIS terror, Syrian opposition groups also agreed to participate since they did not wish to be seen as aligned with the ISIS.

    First Round of Astana Talks

    At the first round of the Astana talks in January 2017, the three guarantor states aimed to consolidate the ceasefire that had come into force on December 30, 2016 by addressing the challenges of reducing violence and minimising violations of ceasefire, building confidence among the parties, fighting jointly against ISIS/Daesh and al-Nusra and jumpstarting the peace dialogue.14 It was attended by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition including 20 different groups, delegates from the three guarantor states, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, and the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan as an observer. This round of talks inspired optimism as, for the first time, regime and opposition representatives sat together for face-to-face discussions.15

    The joint statement issued by the guarantor states at the end of the talks noted that the effort is a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process with the aim of contributing to global efforts to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254.16A trilateral mechanism17 involving the three guarantor states of Russia, Iran and Turkey to ensure full compliance with the December 2016 ceasefire was also established. The talks generated diverse reactions among the participants: while the Syrian government appreciated the outcome, the opposition refused to sign the final document. Yahya al Aridi, Advisor to the Syrian opposition group, insisted that Iran remove its forces from Syrian territory if it wants the restoration of peace.18 He stated that the wellbeing of Syrian citizens should be the first priority of these talks and added it is a feeling among some opposition delegates that some participants in the talks including guarantor states are pursuing their own interests.19 In addition, the Syrian Kurdish Self Defence forces questioned the outcome of the talks20 and emphasized that the crisis can be resolved only if representatives of all Syrian nationalities and religions are consulted. For his part, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura asserted the need to engage the Arab League in the talks.21

    The Second Round

    The second round of the Astana talks held in mid-February 2017 was marked by expressions of mutual distrust by the Assad regime and the opposition. While the Assad regime accused Turkey of supporting terrorist groups in Raqqa,22 the opposition complained of truce violations by the regime forces. In addition to the members who were part of the first round of talks, the second round saw Jordan attending as an observer. Measures to stabilize the situation in violence struck areas including the framing of rules for a joint operation group, taking steps to consolidate the ceasefire regime and adoption of a document on the establishment of a ceasefire monitoring group were the issues discussed in this round.23 Although no final statement was signed at the end of this round of talks as well, the guarantors announced the creation of a joint trilateral monitoring group as part of the trilateral mechanism established in the first round of talks to ensure that all parties adhere to the terms of the December 2016 ceasefire. In this round, a mechanism for exchange of captives and dead bodies was agreed upon as a confidence building measure. And importantly, this round established the relevance of Astana talks as a precursor to the Geneva talks by providing momentum to the resumption of the latter.24

    The Third Round

    The third round of talks in mid-March was boycotted by the rebels who accused the regime of violating the ceasefire agreed to in December 2016.25 The talks were extended for a day in anticipation of representation by the North and South front opposition as well as by the Free Syrian army,26 but finally there was no representation from the Syrian opposition. The North Front armed opposition is funded by Turkey and South Front is funded by Jordan.27 The significance of this round lay in Iran officially becoming the third guarantor of the December 2016 ceasefire.28

    The talks ended inconclusively with all sides agreeing to meet again in May.29 The guarantor states discussed ways to implement the agreements reached in previous rounds, resolve military issues, improve the humanitarian situation and pledged to expand trilateral cooperation. This round of talks reviewed the status of the ceasefire, the modalities of establishing working groups on the Syrian constitution and issues related to the exchange of detained and imprisoned people, the creation of a single map showing the location of terrorist and armed groups like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra, and addressed the issue of demining UNESCO world heritage sites.30

    The Fourth Round

    The fourth round of talks, which took place in May 2017, aimed to demarcate the de-escalation zones in Syria. While this was welcomed by the regime, the rebels perceived it as an attempt to divide the Syrian people on the basis of internal differences. The memorandum on the establishment of de-escalation zones was signed by the guarantor states and the proposed zones included the provinces of Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Dara, Quneitra and Ghouta.31 De-escalation zones including security belts were created as a temporary measure for six months, to be extended by the guarantor states in consensus. The aim was to bring about the cessation of hostilities, the promotion of rapid and safe access to humanitarian aid, and ensure the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced people. Although the talks failed to demarcate the safe zones as the opposition members withdrew from the talks owing to the bombing of rebel-held areas by the regime, the safe zones officially came into effect from midnight of May 6.32 And the signing of the memorandum by the guarantor states gave impetus to the peace process in general and the Astana talks in particular.33

    The Fifth Round

    The fifth round of talks took place in July and was attended by the representatives of the guarantor states, observers including the UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura, the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, delegates from Jordan, and representatives of the Syrian regime and nine representatives of the armed Syrian opposition including those belonging to the Northern and Southern fronts. The agenda of the talks related to de-escalation zones, activities of forces that control these zones, provisions on coordination centres and confidence building measures.34 Closed-door meetings were held to discuss seven documents on de-escalation zones and a provision for a joint working group which was tasked to come up with details of a plan for de-escalation zones.

    Although no document was agreed to in this round, it was decided that the Joint Working Group would meet in Iran at the beginning of August. This round of talks was significant as, for the first time, the participating delegations agreed to the presence of armed foreign monitors on the ground.35 Also, for the first time, the Sunni Salafist militant group Ahrar al-Sham participated in the talks. Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Alexey Borodavkin, stated that the Syrian opposition including the conservative Riyadh Group were no longer demanding Assad’s immediate departure, which was a sign of a softening of their earlier stand.36

    The Sixth Round

    At the sixth round of talks held in mid-September, five documents related to practical issues on the ground were signed by the guarantors in the presence of regime and opposition forces. The documents dealt with regulation of de-escalation zones, humanitarian aid issues and dialogue for national re-conciliation.37 Four de-escalation zones were established in Syria as per the map agreed on September 8 by the Joint Working Group in Ankara.38 The Terms of Reference for deployment of de-escalation control forces was prepared by the Joint Working Group to operate in the agreed upon areas.39 A Joint Coordinating Centre was established by the guarantors.40

    The guarantors confirmed their determination to continue their fight against ISIS and emphasized on the need to strengthen confidence building measures. In addition, they expressed their determination to continue implementing the provisions of the memorandum on the establishment of de-escalation zones that came into force on May 6 and reaffirmed their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic along with their adherence to the provisions of UNSC resolution 2254. They also called upon observers and the international community at large to support the de-escalation process by providing assistance to the population, facilitating de-mining, undertaking efforts to preserve Syria’s historical heritage, restoring life support facilities and helping to create socio-economic infrastructure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned after the talks that observer status shall be extended to other countries to garner additional support.41

    The Seventh Round

    The seventh and latest round of talks held on October 30 was attended by the representatives of the guarantor states (Russia, Turkey and Iran), representatives of observer states (USA and Jordan), and a UN official. UN special envoy Staffan da Mistura did not participate in this round of talks. This round emphasized on the need to enhance confidence building measures such as release of hostages, exchange of detainees, de-mining of territories and facilitating humanitarian aid among the parties to the conflict.42 It was decided that the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which seeks to expand the range of Syrian civil society participation by engaging tribal, religious and ethnic groups including the Kurds, will be held in Sochi (originally scheduled for November 18 but ultimately held on November 22).43 The Syrian government participated in the Congress in Sochi. But perceiving the extension of invitations to various groups as contributing to disunity and fragmentation44 and as an attempt to brush aside the issue of political transition without Assad, the opposition chose to participate in a meeting of opposition groups held in Riyadh. Mohammad Alloush, a member of the Syrian opposition’s high negotiations committee (HNC), dismissed the Sochi conference as a “meeting between the regime and the regime.”45


    The Astana talks have helped revive the Geneva process which had remained stalled for more than a year. The Russia-led Astana talks have gained US support46 and it is expected that the Sochi dialogue will bring elements of Syrian civil society on board, thus enabling the quick attainment of a ceasefire. The tangible results of the Astana process lie in the reduction in violence and functioning of de-escalation zones. The fact that the six-month ceasefire47 brokered by Russia and US with the help of Jordan in southwest Syria in July has survived till now and will most likely be renewed in the next round of talks provides hope for peace in Syria.48 By focusing on the cessation of violence and humanitarian issues, the Astana talks would hopefully serve as a prelude to peace in Syria.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.