In Search of Peace for Syria: World’s Eyes Are on Astana

At a time when there is a clear need for international cooperation, there has been no greater example of failure than the continuing tragedy of Syria. In fighting which began nearly six years ago, more than 300,000 people have been killed and 12 million – half the country’s population – have been forced to flee their homes. It is now the deadliest conflict of the 21st Century.

Given the horrific scenes of destruction and human misery the world has witnessed, it might have been hoped that the international community would step in to bring all sides together to resolve the crisis. But where intervention has been made, it has either failed to make progress or led to an increase in the intensity of the fighting.

Countries within the region, and beyond, have found themselves sucked into the crisis. Whatever their good intentions, their support, weapons and active involvement have deepened the agony of the Syrian people.

The impact has been felt far wider than Syria and its immediate neighbours, who are struggling to cope with millions of refugees. The crisis has led to a troubling increase in tensions between countries and long-distance flows of migrants unprecedented in modern times. It has also added greatly to the threat from violent extremism.

It is against this profoundly worrying background that the talks taking place in Astana on the Syrian crisis will be welcomed. They have been brokered by Russia and Turkey, who are working together despite differing views on the crisis, and will be attended by many of the groups involved.

It is no coincidence that Kazakhstan’s capital has been chosen to host these important talks. The government in Astana has good relations with Turkey and Russia as well as all the other countries engaged in Syria. The proximity of Central Asia to the Middle East means the Kazakhs have a particular interest in the security and stability of the region.

Kazakhstan also, of course, has a proud record of promoting peace and fostering international cooperation. It is a record which helped secure the country’s election onto the United Nations Security Council, as the first one from its region, and which Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev promised earlier this month would remain a priority during the two-year term.

The strong friendships that Kazakhstan has forged across the world have also enabled it, in recent years, to play a key role in easing tensions between its allies. Both Turkey and Russia have, for example, paid tribute to President Nazarbayev for helping restore good relations between them following the shooting down of a Russian aircraft.

Kazakhstan was also the venue for crucial talks between the major powers and Iran over its nuclear programme. At one of the most challenging times in the negotiations, these talks helped keep the dialogue alive and paved the way for the eventual historic agreement.

The hope must be that the upcoming crucial talks in Astana can play the same role. There is a desperate need to find common ground which can, in time, lead to a full and permanent end to the fighting and a better, peaceful future for the country’s citizens. If those involved seize the opportunity to address humanitarian concerns, it could prove to be, as Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov has said, an important step in preparation for the resumption of the Geneva process scheduled for next month.

No one should be in any doubt of the major obstacles which still have to be overcome to find a lasting solution to this crisis. But there is an increasing recognition from almost all those involved that only diplomatic efforts, not military action, can bring an end to the conflict without many more months of fighting, destruction and loss of life. Such an agreement is also urgently needed to help all parties and countries focus on countering the threat posed by DAESH and the barbaric groups associated with them.

Kazakhstan is not directly involved in the discussions. The hosts’ role is to provide a neutral and safe venue. But Kazakhstan has made clear that it will, through its position on the UN Security Council, do all it can to encourage the multiple parties involved to make progress. Finding a lasting and peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis must be a priority for the entire world.