Some argued that without his rule, radical Islamists such as ISIL would take over Syria.
Astana, Kazakhstan – Key players in the war in Syria are due to meet on Monday in Astana to begin talks aimed at consolidating a nationwide ceasefire and potentially paving the way towards a political settlement.
The talks, organised by Russia, Turkey and Iran, come weeks into a countrywide ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Ankara that has largely held despite incidents of violence across the country.
The negotiations, expected to last several days, will bring together representatives from the armed opposition, along with delegates from the Syrian government, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United Nations, and are to be followed by a UN-mediated meeting in Geneva on February 8.
The talks mark the most serious effort in months to put an end to nearly six years of war in Syria, which have left much of the country in ruins, killed nearly half a million people, and displaced half of the population.
It is important to underline that this time Syrian opposition will be represented by the forces which fight in Syria, not just by political figures who mainly reside abroad and are detached from the reality on the ground.
Details of the Astana format and its goals remain murky.
The opposition has said that its sole focus will be to shore up a nationwide ceasefire, while Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has said he believes the talks will lead to local “reconciliation” deals with rebels.
Analysts say the meeting in Astana marks a distinct change from what has previously been a diplomatic process led by UN and initiatives put forward jointly by the United States and Russia.
“I think the difference in these so-called peace talks that are taking place in Astana is that Russia is now firmly in the driver’s seat, where in the past, the UN-led negotiations had the United Nations as an overseer and convener of the talks, where both sides were at the table and essentially nothing was agreed upon,” Nader Hashemi, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told Al Jazeera.
“After the fall of Aleppo, Russia now is in full charge.”
Russia, whose military intervention was vital in turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favour, initiated the latest diplomatic process shortly after its air force helped the Syrian government and allied Iran-backed fighters win a major victory in retaking east Aleppo last month, the opposition’s biggest defeat of the war.
“Yes, we are observing a diplomatic process. Yes, the United Nations is involved, but it is process that has been cooked in a Russian kitchen,” said Turkish political analyst Gokhan Bacik.
It also had help from Iran, another key Damascus ally, and Turkey, which has been a strong supporter of the opposition but has steadily shifted its priorities in Syria away from an Assad-centric focus towards preventing the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state along its border and combating the spillover of violence into Turkey.
On Friday, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said that Turkey could no longer insist on a resolution of the conflict in Syria without the involvement of Assad.
“The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad, it’s not realistic,” Simsek told a panel on Syria and Iraq at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Bacik concurs. “Turkey is now going through an unhappy realisation process … I’m not sure about the personal future of Assad, but it seems now that Turkey is likely to accept a solution that allows the existing regime to remain in place,” he said.
“The Kurdish issue is becoming the main dynamic that shapes Turkish foreign policy towards Syria,” Bacik added. While some Kurdish political representatives will attend the talks in Astana, the PYD [the pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party] and its YPG military affiliate have been excluded largely because of Turkish fears of a growing Kurdish autonomy along its border.
“What we’ve learned in the last 20 years of negotiations in the region is that excluding major groups on the ground does not work. This is a major potential gap in the Astana process,” said Bacik.
And while representatives of the incoming Trump administration have been invited to attend the talks, the US state department said on Saturday it will not send a delegation from Washington to attend Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital but that the US ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, would attend the Russian-led talks as an observer.
The Syrian opposition announced that it will be sending a “military delegation” led by Mohammed Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), and delegates from factions under the Free Syrian Army umbrella.
In contrast to last year’s UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva when the opposition was represented by the High Negotiations Committee, mainly made up of Syrian leaders living in exile, analysts say Astana’s military delegation “gives the talks more chances for success”.
“It is important to underline that this time Syrian opposition will be represented by the forces which fight in Syria, not just by political figures who mainly reside abroad and are detached from the reality on the ground,” Russian foreign policy expert Alexey Khlebnikov, told Al Jazeera.
The talks in Astana mark the beginning of a different process, according to Ayham Kamel, director of the Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa division.
“They signal that at least part of the rebel groups on the ground are interested in talking or have been pressured into holding negotiations. If you look at all of the Geneva framework, at no point could you translate any agreement there with members of the Syrian political opposition into facts on the ground because they effectively controlled nothing, as opposed to these rebel groups, which are the most relevant parties,” he said.
“You can criticise them, agree with them or not, but they are relevant because they have military control on the ground.”
And while the rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara signals a marked change in the conflict, and the balance of power on the ground now lies squarely in the government’s hands, deep divisions remain over the fate of Assad and the shape of any transitional government.
“If the Astana meeting moves beyond stabilising the fragile truce to discussing political solutions, then the points of contention that threaten the success of the talks will be many,” Mohamad Alahmad, professor at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, said.
“These are the same points that caused the failure of the past three Geneva conferences […] the essence and framework for political transition, and the fate of al-Assad,” Alahmad told Al Jazeera.
The change in the balance of power on the ground with “Moscow’s militarily triumph and its takeover of the Syrian file” puts the Syrian opposition in a position in which “it will be forced to accept concessions” during the talks, said Alahmad,
“I think that compromises were already made when the opposition agreed to attend the talks.”
With Turkey “softening its stance on [the removal of] Assad” as a prerequisite to negotiations, the opposition’s demands have been “reduced to asking the president to leave”, said Samer Abboud, a professor of International Studies at Arcadia University.
“Assuming that removing al-Assad will change the entire political system is a total failure of imagination and political faith,” Abboud told Al Jazeera, adding that even the opposition’s demand on removing Assad “is not in their hands any more”.
“They have no ability to shape what is going to happen at Astana or after that.”
According to excerpts from the interview released on Thursday by his office, Assad told Japanese broadcaster TBS that he hoped the negotiations would lead rebels to “lay down their arms and receive an amnesty from the government”, a sign of his confidence in diplomatic initiative launched by Russia after the opposition’s defeat in Aleppo late last year.
“At this time, we believe that the conference will take shape as talks between the government and terrorist groups in order to reach a ceasefire and allow these groups to join the reconciliation deals in Syria,” he said.
Damascus has reached a series of local truce agreements over the past year, in which rebels – the government refers to them as “terrorists” – agree to lay down heavy weapons and evacuate areas after years of bombardment and siege.
Thousands of civilians have been forced to leave their home towns after similar deals were made in places such as east Aleppo, Daraya, Moadamiyeh and al-Waer, which some rights groups have called a “crime against humanity”.
In the latest of such truce deals, rebel groups and government representatives agreed to a new ceasefire in Wadi Barada, a strategic area in the Damascus suburbs, in which the evacuation of fighters and civilians is expected to follow.
Rebels accuse the government and its backers of using the deals as a deliberate strategy of displacement and demographic change.
But as Russia takes control of the diplomatic process in Syria, analysts expect local truces to accelerate.
“The Russians are guaranteeing deals,” said Kamel. “[They] are behind all of this noise, acting as guarantors to different deals, which makes local ceasefires a lot more viable than they were in the last five years.
“That is a part of the story, but then the clearer part is that the military balance of power has changed. It’s very clear that regime change has become much more difficult if not impossible.”