The Syrian peace talks arranged by Russia, Turkey and Iran that opened today in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, show that President Bashar al-Assad is winning the six-year-old war, but his final victory may be a long way off. Several participants in the conference have good reasons to fight on and Isis has recently made important advances.
Representatives of some of the rebel armed groups sat on one side of a round table, while the Syrian government delegation sat on the other, but the rebels said there would be no face to face talks. The most positive likely outcome of the meeting would be a reinforcement of the shaky ceasefire that began on 29 December and has been only partly effective. The US is not taking part in the talks, in contrast to previous abortive negotiations, but has sent its ambassador to Kazakhstan indicating that it does not oppose them.
The most important feature of the conference is that it proves that Russia’s military intervention in the civil war on the side of Mr Assad since 2015 has promoted it to being the most powerful foreign power engaged in the Syrian war. It signed a long-term agreement with Syria last Friday which will enable it to expand its naval base at Tartous on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and to increase its use of an airbase at Latakia.
The other big change from previous abortive peace talks is that Turkey, formerly the most important ally of the Syrian opposition, has in many respects changed sides. Up to last year, Syrian insurgents had relied on being able to move freely backwards and forwards across the Syrian-Turkish border. But Turkey now gives priority to limiting the political and military strength of the Syrian Kurds who have established a de facto state in northern Syria.
The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that Turkey was retreating from its long-term policy of displacing Mr Assad. “We have to be pragmatic, realistic,” he said. “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so Turkey can no longer insist on, you know, a settlement without Assad, and it’s not, you know, realistic.”
Turkey later said that Mr Simsek’s remarks had been misinterpreted, but in practice Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s lack of response while pro-government forces backed by Russia were recapturing rebel-held east Aleppo at the end of last year showed that Turkey had already changed its policy. Turkish soldiers are suffering heavy losses in a battle against Isis for the town of al-Bab, north-east of Aleppo. Russian planes have for the first time been offering air support to Turkish troops, but an Isis video showed its fighters destroying Turkish tanks and armoured vehicles.
Turkey has ensured that the Syrian Kurds, who receive strong support from US air power, are not represented at Astana, though their People’s Protection Units (YPG) are in the forefront of the fight against Isis in Syria. They supply the military punching power to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which are advancing towards Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital in Syria, and is only a few miles from the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates, the largest dam in Syria.
The Syrian Kurds, who number about two million out of 16 million Syrians still in the country, are not the only important players unrepresented at today’s talks in Astana. Though 14 rebel factions are present, including the powerful Army of Islam based just east of Damascus, the two most powerful rebel armed groups are not there: Isis and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JNS) formerly known as al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. JNS led the fight for east Aleppo, but was unable to put up the same sort of stiff resistance to the Syrian army and its allies as Isis has been able to do against the Iraqi security forces in Mosul.
Isis has been demonstrating that it is still a powerful military force in Syria by capturing the ancient city of Palmyra for the second time in December; it has since blown up the Roman amphitheatre. On 15 January it launched a determined assault on the Syria government enclave at Deir Ezzor, a provincial capital on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, where 93,500 people have been long besieged by Isis, depending on supplies dropped by Russian aircraft to survive.
The Isis assault partly succeeded in cutting the government-held part of Deir Ezzor in half on 17 January and captured the land on which relief supplies had previously been dropped. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that “6,000 people in east Deir Ezzor are running out of bread and food supplies.” Russian aircraft have launched heavy air strikes to hold back the Isis offensive and an elite Republican Guard unit is being helicoptered in to hold the city, which remains under threat.