Astana, Kazakhstan – “Astana is created from nothing,” they say here. There is certainly some truth to that as it is a city created from scratch on a Central Asian steppe.
I am here for the 7th round of talks on ending six years of devastating war in Syria, which are led by three main players: Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Russians and Iranians are backing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey is backing some of the rebels.
However, it has become extremely clear it’s the Russians who are in charge of this particular show. While that may come as no surprise to Syrian observers, the depth of their influence certainly surprised me.
Speaking to some people at these talks, you get a real sense that the Russians have consolidated politics and military tactics in Syria into something all other parties failed to do. The Russians have either forced or coerced the Syrian regime into remaining quiet and doing, as they say, some analysts say. It’s a strategy that certainly seems to be working.
Deepening Russia’s involvement, its foreign ministry announced on Tuesday that 33 Syrian opposition groups and political parties had been invited to the Russian resort of Sochi for a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” on November 18.
For its part, the US has stated it wants the Assad regime to have no political role in the future of Syria, but in Astana that was met with scepticism.
The Russian special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters: “The Syrian president made an important statement on the 26th [October] in which he said he would welcome, or to be more accurate, he made it clearer about his thoughts on constitutional amendments, which includes drafting a new constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections.”
Reading between the lines, Russia sees a role for Assad in the future.
When it comes to Syrian opposition figures, the Russians appear to be saying they will get what they’re given. The main demand of the opposition is prisoner-hostage exchanges. The Russian envoy Lavrentyev says such moves are a “complicated issue”, which suggests no agreement will be reached.
The Syrian opposition understands it is in a position of weakness because it is so divided. Opposition consultant Yahya al-Aridi was diplomatic when talking to Al Jazeera.
“In a sense we are united because we want a peaceful Syria, but we don’t a have format. But the substance is more important than the format,” Aridi said.
Format is important, however, because it allows Russia to take advantage of Syrian opposition disunity to Moscow’s advantage, which has long been a complaint of the disparate groups opposing Assad.
Then there is the UN, which is pushing for political change. The Russians are making the right noises about Assad but not any concrete promises about his future. Assad himself is biding his time.
Meanwhile on the ground, even in de-escalation zones set up after the Astana talks in September, violence against civilians continues unabated.
The International Rescue Committee says Russia, Iran, and Turkey have failed to protect civilians. The three countries are guarantors of the so-called safe zones, and they say any attacks they launch are against legitimate targets, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.
The US role is also somewhat confusing, particularly for the Syrian opposition that eyes Russia’s influence with much suspicion. The only thing the Americans seem to be consistent about in their statements is not having Assad in power, which the Russians and Iran are managing quite well.
At breakfast I overheard one member of a western delegation ask the location of the Syrian government representatives. “We need to ask the Russians, they are meeting them soon,” came the reply.
It is a fitting aside. At the talks in Astana, the Russians seem to be at the centre of it all.