The Astana peace talks began last week in Kazakhstan. The talks include Russia, Turkey, Iran and delegates from the Syrian government as well as some of the opposition forces (not including ISIS or the Levant Conquest Front) fighting against al-Assad. The peace talks follow a ceasefire that was brokered by Turkey and Russia on December 29th. These talks were initiated by Russia in response to what they believed to be ineffective peace talks being led by the United Nations in Geneva.
By leading these talks and the ceasefire agreement, Russia is demonstrating its influence and power in the region. Russia’s attempt to be a leader is no clearer than President Putin’s recent rejection of President Trump’s desire to create a safe zone in Syria for refugees. On January 26th, the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said “No, our American partners did not consult with us… but probably all the consequences ought to be weighed up.”
Clearly, Russia is now the country running the show in Syria, and President Putin is now the one dictating who will or will not participate.
Moreover, if the United States were to unilaterally reinsert itself back into Syrian affairs, the results would likely be disastrous. After President Obama refused to follow up on his ‘red-line’ policy and chose to remain uninvolved with the conflict in Syria, Russia has stepped in to deploy its A2/AD missile air defense systems as well as patrol the skies over western Syria. This means that if President Trump were to create safe zones in western Syria without ‘weighing the consequences’ as mentioned by Mr. Peskov, then the result would surely be the downing of American aircraft over Syria.
But today President Putin and President Trump had their first conversation signifying the thawing of relations between these countries in the hopes of future cooperation in the region and abroad. And cooperation will be needed because despite Russia’s role in bringing a ceasefire (which doesn’t include some of the biggest actors like ISIS) to Syria, its talks in Astana have been less than productive.
After only hours of discussion between the parties on the first day, the delegates from the Syrian government and the opposition forces descended into name calling and yelling at one another. So far, talks have not made any notable progress. And the lack of progress at the talks is representative of Russia’s inability to be a leader. For example, in terms of the ceasefire that was negotiated in December, it was not so much that Russia was able to wield its influence in order to bring about an end to the fighting; but rather it was Russia’s choice to stop its indiscriminate bombing of targets on the ground that actually helped bring an end to the fighting.
Russia was both a participant to the conflict as well as a mediator to the very same conflict.
But even if Russia is a ‘leader’ in the Syrian peace talks, it is still a wakeup call for the United States that it may have to request permission from Russia to pursue American related interests and goals in the region.