Political Risk Analysis - Astana Peace Talks: What To Watch - MAR 2017

BMI View: The resumption of Syrian peace talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran marks a positive step towards a reduced level of fighting between rebel forces and the regime troops, and reviving the diplomatic process. The alignment of strategies between the different coalitions, US participation in the conference and the Kurdish question will be key for the future of the peace process.

The resumption of peace talks between the different actors involved in the Syrian conflict comes after months of dramatic change in the balance of power, and their outcome will play a decisive role in the future of the war. Fighting intensified in the last months of 2016, with weeks of airstrikes on Aleppo resulting in regime forces and allies retaking the eastern part of the city, which had been under rebel control since 2012, on December 22 2016. The Russian intervention since September 2015, followed by the deployment of regular army forces in April 2016, has tipped the balance of forces in favour of President Bashar al-Assad's troops, which had previously suffered a series of defeats and territorial losses throughout 2015. The regime now controls Syria's largest cities Damascus and Aleppo, as well as the coastal region, which together host the majority of the population and account for the bulk of economic activity.

Meanwhile, rebel forces appear to be at their weakest since the start of the war, with their presence now mostly limited to the region of Idlib and to rural areas. In addition to losing their stronghold of Aleppo, external support for the rebels has waned in recent months. Traditionally a strong backer of Syrian rebels, Turkey initiated a rapprochement with Russia in summer 2016 and reduced its support for the rebels in Aleppo, while trying to secure an area of influence along its border. Turkey's main objective in Syria now is to contain Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara conflates with the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Meanwhile, the US has increasingly shifted its focus towards defeating IS, participating in the offensive on Mosul in Iraq and supporting the preparation of an operation in Raqqa in Syria. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency will confirm this shift, through greater cooperation with Russia and weaker ties with the rebels ( see ' Trump Election A Game Changer ' , November 16 2016).

Rebels Pushed Back To Rural Areas
Syria - Control Of Terrain, January 2017
Source: Institute for the Study of War, BMI

Following the recapture of Aleppo by regimes forces, Russia, Iran and Turkey brokered a nationwide ceasefire (except in IS- and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham-controlled territories) on December 29, which has resulted in a significant reduction of fighting across the country despite some breaches and humanitarian relief still not reaching besieged areas, according to the UN. The ceasefire will be followed by peace talks to be held in Astana on January 23, in an attempt to revive the diplomatic momentum which has been on hold since April 2016.

Below, we highlight the key things to watch during the Astana peace talks and their implications for the conflict and a future peace settlement.

  • Articulation Of The Astana Talks With The Geneva Process : Russia, Turkey and Iran are the main sponsors of the Astana negotiations. In the meantime, UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced his intention to resume the Geneva peace process on February 8. This raises the question of whether the Astana talks are thought of as an alternative or preparation for further talks in Geneva. The former option would further enhance Russia's position as the main global actor in the region, while leaving the US with a weaker hand. On the other hand, it would risk alienating rebel groups, that view more favourably UN-brokered negotiations. Their leaders have stated that the Astana talks should focus on ceasefire conditions, while a political settlement should be discussed in Geneva.

  • Rebel Forces And Turkey : A key challenge faced by the opposition since the onset of the conflict is its lack of unity. A delegation of the High Negotiation Committee (HCN) led by Mohammed Alloush will participate in the negotiations in Astana, after being pressured by Ankara. Nonetheless, there is still a high degree of uncertainty over the degree of coordination and involvement of rebel groups. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which has gained significant influence in recent months, especially in the region of Idlib, will not be represented in Astana, which will limit the scope of the application of a potential agreement on the ground. In addition, rebel groups are increasingly dubious about Ankara's alignment with their own interests, following Turley's rapprochement with the Syrian regime and Russia. This will make it more difficult for Turkey to convince rebel groups to accept a deal.

  • Strategy Alignment Between Russia, Iran And The Assad Regime : As President Assad's troops and their allies continue to make territorial gains, we believe that the interests of Russia, Iran, the Assad regime and other allied forces are likely to diverge. Now that a partial regime victory seems secured after regime forces retook Aleppo, Russia seems increasingly willing to secure a peace settlement, as signalled by the withdrawal of its air forces from Syria since January 2017. On the other hand, President Assad has adopted a less compromising attitude towards the rebels for the past year or so, following territorial gains made by his forces. Meanwhile, Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah have an interest in maintaining a presence in Syria, as it allows them to circulate weapons throughout the region.

  • Presence And Role Of The United States : Despite Iran's opposition, Russia invited the new US administration to attend the Astana negotiations. If President-elect Donald Trump accepts the offer to participate, it would give a better sense of his Middle East and Syria strategy. Should the US participate and adopt a secondary role in the negotiations, it would support our view of a realignment of the US strategy with Russia. Moscow's position as the key global player in Syria would be strengthened.

  • The Kurdish Question : The Kurdish issue will have strong implications for the fight against Islamic State in Syria. The Kurdish-led SDF have so far been the US's main partners in the fight against IS, especially in the preparation of the future offensive on Raqqa. However, Turkey continues to fiercely oppose Kurdish participation in the negotiations, due to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)'s connections with the PKK. If supported by the US, the alienation of the SDF will significantly delay an offensive on Raqqa and leave more room to IS to regain territory in Syria, after retaking Palmyra from regime forces in December 2016 and the ongoing gains in Deir al-Zour.

Long-Term View: Fighting Will Continue; Settlement Still Far Away

The recent developments do not alter our long-term view that fighting will continue in Syria over the coming years, although the level of violence is likely to decline ( see ' Three Scenarios For The Civil War, August 19 2016). The resumption of negotiations between rebel groups and the Assad regime marks a positive step towards a potential solution to the conflict. Nonetheless, the situation on the ground and the lack of unity among rebel forces suggest that some degree of violence will continue to prevail over the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, it will take several years for a settlement to be reached and we expect Assad to remain in power, at least for the next couple of years.