Syria peace talks off to a rocky start

By Harry Heath

Peace talks between officials of the Syrian regime and key members of rebel forces held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana began in typically turbulent fashion, with President Assad’s leading diplomat condemning comments made by his opposite number as “provocative” in tone and lacking seriousness.

The negotiations threatened to mark progress in the endeavour for a political solution after years of bloodshed in the region, although it wasn’t long before tempers flared between the rivalling parties and their conflicting outlooks came to the fore. Central to the dispute was Mohammed Alloush, the leader of rebel militia Jaysh al-Islam, who referred to President Assad’s regime as a “terrorist entity”.

Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations described the former’s conduct as “removed from diplomacy” and evidence that the armed rebel groups are “unrealistic, impudent and amateurs”.

Alloush implied his scepticism of a peaceful outcome. Despite favouring a political solution to the civil war that has left vast parts of Syria in ruin, he made it clear that the rebels do not regard a political compromise as the only means to ending the conflict.

Alloush described his rebel comrades as “men of peace, knights of war”.

The climate in Syria has undoubtedly changed since the devastation of Aleppo in December. Despite facing a considerable defeat militarily, certain rebel factions are attempting to cling on to their remaining political credibility by meeting officials of the regime. President Assad previously failed to draw distinction between these same rebel forces and the so-called Islamic State.

Prominent figures at the negotiation included representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey who each have their own vested interests in the outcome of the conflict. Turkey’s President Erdogan maintains the necessity for Assad to fall, while Putin has been the Syrian leader’s paramount ally in asserting military dominance. However, an unexpected Russo-Turkish alliance between Putin and Erdogan has been influential in establishing the talks in Astana; once more demonstrating the power of the strongman in redrawing the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Absent from the talks was an envoy from Washington, casting doubt over the future of America’s reluctantly interventionist policy of backing the rebels in Syria as we enter the age of Trump.

Rebel leaders now put their faith in Russia’s appeared change of strategy; since bilateral talks were conducted last month, Russian officials have promoted a ‘moderate’ opposition that is capable of negotiation. More cynical rebels see the regime forces as merely seeking to get them onside in the fight against common enemies ISIL and al-Qaeda.

Regardless of the widespread pessimism surrounding this new beginning of peace talks, it is perhaps surprising that this is taking place at all. In opening the dialogue, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayez emphasised that the civil war has “brought nothing but misery and sorrow” to the region thus far; however the acrimonious nature of Monday’s talks may well represent an irreconcilable relationship between the state and the rebels. While we should cherish any discourse over further destruction, clashes such as this are a bulwark against progress and peace in Syria.

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