Fourth Astana Process Talks Achieve Gains Toward Peace in Syria

Ending the conflict in Syria has proved to be stubbornly difficult. The lack of trust between opposing sides has led to unbearable suffering for the people of Syria. In April, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria announced that more than 400,000 people have died in this brutal civil war, making it the deadliest conflict of the 21st century.

The people of Syria have been left with almost no optimism that one day their lives can return back to normality. A tiny glimmer of hope has been resurrected, however, following the fourth high-level international meeting on Syria May 3-4 in the capital of Kazakhstan within the framework of what came to be known as the Astana Process.

The previous three rounds of talks in Astana helped facilitate dialogue between conflicting parties, which contributed to stopping the bloodshed in Syria. Unfortunately, the situation in Syria has significantly deteriorated in recent weeks. It was absolutely essential that all sides came to the negotiating table and worked out a way to deescalate the situation.

Expectations were low for the fourth round of talks, especially after the tragic events in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib and the U.S. strikes that followed. However, hopes of a breakthrough were raised following the confirmation that all the main actors, including the representatives of the Syrian government, armed Syrian opposition and the guarantor states – Russia, Turkey and Iran – would attend.

The significance of these talks was further raised when it was announced that UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, Nauaf Oufi Tel, political adviser to Jordan’s Foreign Minister, as well as Stuart Jones, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, also agreed to attend the negotiations as observers. This was the highest level of attendance within the Astana Process to date.

The two-day talks were indeed turbulent. The chances of success drifted further away when the Syrian armed opposition briefly suspended its participation at the end of the first day. The breakthrough came on the last day of the discussions, when the guarantor states signed a memorandum on creating de-escalation zones in Syria, giving the population some respite from a long and brutal war.

The establishment of the zones, aimed at reducing tensions, will be set up in four areas, namely in the Idlib province and some neighbouring territories (Latakia, Hama and Aleppo) to the north of Homs, East Ghouta and some provinces in southern Syria (Daraa and Al Quneitra).

The significance of this agreement should not be underestimated. After six years of the ongoing conflict, it was difficult to foresee a path towards peace. The establishment of the de-escalation areas is another step towards an end to the civil war.

Of course, nothing should be taken for granted. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the agreement is implemented on the ground and that all sides comply with it. It should nevertheless be welcome news that all military activity, including flights of aircraft, will be banned in the designated zones. This will allow for the restoration of infrastructure, humanitarian aid delivery and essential services, as well as the return of refugees.

Undoubtedly, it will take many more meetings before an agreement can be found to end the Syrian war. All eyes will now turn to Geneva, where the next round of talks will be held before the end of May. Unlike previous negotiations within the framework of the Geneva Process, there is now some optimism that further breakthroughs can be achieved. It is most welcome news that the talks in Astana have played a crucial role in complementing and facilitating the Geneva Process. From the very beginning, this was one of the main objectives of the Astana Process.

The next round of Syria peace talks in Astana have been scheduled for mid-July. It will be important to build on the success of the previous rounds, which demonstrated that Kazakhstan’s capital continues to provide an important platform to work towards finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Kazakhstan’s impartial stance and its role as a mediator have ensured that all sides are able to have open discussions on a neutral territory – an important factor in ensuring the success of the talks.

The people of Syria deserve to have hope that their country will soon witness peace and stability. It is the responsibility of the international community to make sure that this hope becomes reality as soon as possible. Nobody should jump too far ahead and assume that the agreement on the de-escalation zones is a sure sign the conflict will end. However, it is now crucial to use this momentum to strive towards stopping all violence in Syria. Kazakhstan will certainly continue to contribute to international efforts to achieve this objective. With the right political commitment and desire, the Syrian war will reach its final end.