Astana Offers Unique Opportunity to Resume Syrian Peace Talks

The bloodshed in Aleppo is shocking. Each day has brought more pictures of the destruction, with families torn apart and the city destroyed. We have witnessed a new low in a brutal conflict that has created the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. Millions have been forced to leave their homes and seek safety in neighbouring countries, while almost seven million remain internally displaced, trapped in devastating uncertainty where they can neither return home nor start rebuilding a life elsewhere.

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have been killed, including around 16,000 children. The war has also allowed extremist terrorist groups, including so called ISIS, to take hold of some parts of Syria and carry out atrocious acts of human indecency. The latest reports of the successful evacuation of many civilians in Aleppo are, of course, welcome.  However, it would be wrong to see this as a sign that the conflict in Syria is coming to an end.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Kazakhstan has urged the international community to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict, arguing that military options would only exacerbate the situation. Back in 2012, President Nursultan Nazarbayev urged the parties to the Syrian conflict to sit down at the negotiating table, saying that “Kazakhstan has repeatedly voiced its support for the efforts aimed at a peaceful settlement of the crisis situations in Syria.”

The international community should, therefore, welcome the offer from President Nazarbayev to host fresh peace talks between the conflicting parties in the Syrian conflict in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This follows a significant agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who had agreed to push Syria’s warring factions towards new negotiations. All sides must now urge the Syrian government and recognised Syrian opposition groups to accept this important proposal. Early indications are that the cowardly murder of Russian Ambassador in Turkey Andrey Karlov on Dec. 19 would not derail the agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara nor would deter them in their determination to seek the quickest end to hostilities in Syria.

Astana is a natural home for these negotiations, building on the role that Kazakhstan has already played in mediation attempts.  In May last year, Kazakhstan hosted the first round of talks involving representatives of the Syrian opposition committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In October 2015, the second round of these talks took place. A number of important agreements were reached during these discussions, including on humanitarian issues, where a consensus was established to create corridors to support the safe passage for the millions of refugees leaving the country.

As well as having practical experience hosting such highly important negotiations, Kazakhstan has remained a neutral mediator throughout the Syrian crisis, which has ensured its government is trusted by all sides involved in the conflict. A trust built on the reputation the country has developed as an honest broker in international diplomacy across such issues as the Iran nuclear talks and Ukraine crisis. As the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov noted last week, “Astana has already hosted meetings between representatives of Syria’s opposition, Kazakhstan has certain experience.” He concluded that “Astana may play a good role in this process.”

The most urgent task now must be to end all military activity in Syria and resume negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. It is important to act to bring all sides together. Kazakhstan is committed to doing that, offering the world a neutral and experienced base in which to begin these vital talks. These negotiations have the potential to bring hope for a better future to millions across the world. The international community must now set aside their differences and work together to ensure this opportunity is not lost.