Syrians are absent in Astana peace talks

With each round of peace talks, it is further clarified that Syrians under siege are not the key factor in negotiations.

Participants of Syria peace talks attend meeting in Astana
Participants of Syria peace talks attend the meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, on January 23 [Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov]

Perhaps one of the biggest examples of the disconnect between Syrians inside Syria and Syrians sitting at the negotiating table in Astana this week is seen in a video produced by Shaam News Network, in which several residents of the besieged al-Waar district in northern Homs, when asked about the negotiations, responded, “What talks?”

In another interview in the same besieged district by Qasioun News Agency, an elderly Syrian man asked, “What is this Astana? Who sent them and who elected those who went to Astana? Who are they? We are in besieged al-Waar district, and they’re in Turkey, eating and drinking in hotels, while we’re here ‘eating’ rockets.”

In Erbin, a suburb of Damascus, residents actually mobilised in protest against the Astana talks, chanting that they were sick of the same nonsense repeating itself, and calling on those at the negotiating tables to not betray the aspirations of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people.

In Zamalka, during one of the demonstrations, a man reminded the Astana delegation, “in the name of Aleppo, and in the name of Wadi Barada, do not forget that the Ghouta region is a trust you must uphold at Astana.”

Some in Douma expressed that they had some hope in the Astana talks, so long as those negotiating on behalf of the opposition didn’t compromise on the main principles of the revolution and the necessity of lifting all sieges and releasing all detainees.

Those interviewed in Idlib focused more on the international actors playing a role in Syria, expressing that Russia’s promises couldn’t be trusted and that they saw attending Astana as a bad choice, but the best one given the limited choices on the table.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t

Some went so far as to suggest that the opposition boycott the talks to avoid betraying the revolution and to protest against the regime’s continuing violations of the latest ceasefire. Syrians have borne the brunt of the regime and Russia’s record of broken promises, making it hard to believe that participating in the talks would bring tangible results on the ground.

This translated into a very difficult decision for the opposition delegation: if they didn’t go to Astana, not only did they risk further marginalisation in an already prejudiced decision-making process, but they also risked offending Turkey, who they see as not only as a broker of the talks, but also a supporter of the Syrian people.

Furthermore, some of the better-known and more respected representatives risked losing popular support and respect in liberated areas of Syria.

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Osama Abu Zeid, who is the legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army and was an instrumental member of the negotiations committee during the pre-talks in Ankara and the actual talks in Astana, justified the committee’s decision in a series of tweets, stressing that the only issues they discussed during the talks were the conditions of the ceasefire, complete cessation of hostilities, saving besieged areas, release of detainees and resuming service of the Ain el-Fijah spring.

Another member of the negotiations team, Essam al-Reiss, said in an interview with Orient News that Astana was seen by them as “the only way how to stop the Syrian nightmare … we came here to show all the world who is the Free Syrian Army … we didn’t achieve a lot, because we heard lots of promises, but it’s just words for us.”

Inner unity, international will

With each round of Syria peace talks, it is further clarified that Syrians under siege or being held in the regime’s prisons are not the key factor in negotiations. After the last round in Astana, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to support a so-called ceasefire in the country, and the Syrian regime was being given 10 days to decide whether it will abide by the conditions put forth by the opposition.

One thing is for sure. For over five years, talks on Syria have failed because the variables do not change: an opposition that feels cornered into talks because there are no other options, and international actors with agendas and interests far-removed from those of the Syrian people acting as brokers of these talks, with the added dilemma that these states are trying to broker the peace they have been responsible for disturbing.

But it is the Syrians interviewed about the Astana talks who best summarise the two main reasons negotiations will continue to fail, no matter who is brokering them and no matter what implementation mechanisms are used: a lack of inner unity of purpose among the opposition and the absence of an external, international will to remove the regime and return Syria to its citizens.

Malak Chabkoun is an independent Middle East researcher and writer based in the US. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.