Despite the best efforts of the international community, many long-running issues in the Middle East remain unresolved. Just recently, the uncertainty over the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as the decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have added to the region’s complex challenges.
Elsewhere, the long-running conflict in Syria has sparked dangerous confrontations between Israel and Iran, while the people of Syria continue to suffer. For eight years now, the crisis has caused immense pain and destruction. Countless lives have been lost and families displaced.
In the face of this enduring conflict, it might be easy to lose faith in the merits of seeking a diplomatic solution. This would be a grave error. Although the conflict may have started with violence, it cannot be ended by it. A diplomatic solution must be found. Negotiating a peace settlement based on a common purpose remains the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis. As a nation determined to help end violent conflicts around the world, Kazakhstan is committed to this solution.
It is for this reason that Astana hosted a ninth round of peace talks this week on 14-15 May. All involved parties confirmed their participation during the plenary session on May 15. These include the guarantor states of Russia, Turkey and Iran, representatives of the Government of Syria and of the Syrian armed opposition. Steffan de Mistura, special envoy of UN Secretary General for Syria, and representatives from Jordan participated as observers.
This was the ninth round of talks since the Astana Process began more than one year ago. Given the continuous violence in Syria, some may claim the process has been unsuccessful. But such a view would be misguided. While it is indeed disappointing that the violent conflict has continued, concrete steps have been taken to decrease the violence and create a path towards the resolution of the crisis.
The Astana Process negotiations have helped to establish mechanisms to monitor Syrian ceasefires and were instrumental in the establishment of de-escalation zones. Both actions helped reduce violence against civilians in the country throughout 2017. Furthermore, the establishment of four de-escalation zones enabled civilians to receive much needed humanitarian assistance.
It is worth remembering that whilst still unacceptably high, 2017 saw the lowest number of civilian casualties in Syria since the start of the conflict. More than 10,500 civilians were killed in 2017, compared to 13,617 in 2016. Of course, the international community must not rest until there are no casualties at all.
It is impossible to deny that the situation in Syria remains critical, with violent clashes a daily occurrence. Several agreements that were reached during the previous rounds of talks, including the establishment of de-escalation zones, have not been fully implemented in practice. The humanitarian situation remains desperate and more help from the international community is urgently needed. Most worrying of all is the apparent use of chemical weapons, a completely abhorrent act.
Despite these setbacks and complex challenges, there can be no military solution to this crisis. Only sustained diplomatic efforts and negotiations can offer some light at the end of this dark tunnel.
For this reason, the Astana Process must continue. This week, the participants discussed the ongoing implementation of de-escalation zones, the release of captives and hostages, and the formation of a constitutional committee. The government of Kazakhstan has frequently stated that it is important that the guarantor states use their authority and influence to encourage the government and armed opposition groups of Syria to take concrete steps to implement and strengthen confidence-building measures. The issues that were discussed this week are precisely aimed at such action. These are crucial steps on to road to peace and stability in Syria.
Nobody is under any illusion that this round of talks will be enough to create a breakthrough in the deadlock. But the outcome of the Astana Process, which seeks to complement the UN-led intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, can offer tangible relief to the millions of the country’s citizens who are desperate for any alleviation to their suffering.
For this reason, it is right that Kazakhstan continues to offer its assistance as a neutral and objective mediator in this conflict and remain committed to helping all sides find a lasting, credible solution.