Astana, Kazakhstan buzzed with diplomatic ambition on the morning of March 15th. Delegations arrived, with legal advisors and security teams in tow, with the hopes of concluding arguably the most intractable conflict of our generation: the Syrian war. It was the fourth time a conference convened to address Syria’s tragedy; Geneva, Switzerland hosted talks in 2012, 2014, and 2016, all of which yielded little concrete action. Yet, Astana seemed different. The conference was the first to involve a diplomatic coalition wholly comprised of rebel faction leaders, bringing crucial narratives of on-the-ground combat experience to mediation. The negotiating table had narrowed, as Astana proved selective to only the key players in Iraq and Syria: The Syrian Government, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Free Syrian Army, and the Army of Islam. But most importantly, as top diplomats stepped out of their black SUV’s and into the hallowed halls of conflict negotiation, the cameras could not follow. Astana was established to alleviate six years of Syria’s nightmare, delegates asserted, and was not as image-conscious as conferences of the past.
While the talks defied many established norms and bureaucratic conferences of the past six years, Astana proved to be no exception. The talks concluded March 17th with little resolved — a trilateral talk between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, scheduled in May. One of the most paramount militant factions on the ground, the Free Syrian Army, publicly retracted their invitation out of discouragement with Russian and Iranian ceasefire violations and the powers’ compliance with the Assad government in disrupting the Wadi Barada water supply. While Astana was envisioned as an exclusive launching pad towards peace in the Levant — striking the ‘right’ balance between integral actors, short-term objectives, and discussion of strategic ambitions — the inclusivity of the talks proved artificial. Militant leaders had a seat at the table, but their voices muted in the face of a trilateral monopoly; a stake in the game did not equate to political influence in the eyes of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. With the conclusion of Syria’s civil struggle will come a very new geopolitical landscape in the Levant — one domineered by a growing sense of Russian influence and a question of waning American regional presence.
In this piece, I envision the motives and strategic ambitions behind Russia’s prowess in Syria, and analyze the possible political consequences of a Russian-led solution to U.S. foreign policy. Two questions must first be asked regarding the trilateral dynamic, survival of the Assad regime, and role of a retracted United States. First, is the war in Syria a crucible of the relationship between Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara, and one that will define external transactions? It’s crucial for both scholarly and policy communities to assess the delicacy of the relationship, using Astana as a looking glass into future trilateral decisions. Secondly, the Trump administration declined their Astana invitation, refraining from sending any formal delegation. The U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan occupied a seat at the table, but a ceremonial one at best, leaving the primary decision-making to Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syrian government, and rebel factions. Is this decision a product of an isolationist administration, or the acknowledgment that the United States has prolonged large-scale involvement to where all stakes have been lost? A lack of American participation in the largest conflict of the 21st century marks a new era — a new regional order — that U.S. Foreign policy will have to navigate.
Ties held between Moscow, Tehran, and Astana age beyond the start of Syria’s violence in 2011, and all three powers share a history of foundational relations through extensive trade of oil, practice of joint-military exercises, and mutual geopolitical threats. However, such close collaboration in the Syrian conflict is somewhat of a phenomenon in the region; the trilateral relationship is an odd coupling of the international liberal order’s largest ‘wild cards.’ Their heavy presence in the region has yielded them seats at the negotiating table, but their vast resources and established statehood statuses have given them the capability to mold and regulate the conversation at Astana.
Ellie Geranmayeh and Kadri Liik argue in “The New Power Couple” that the relationship between Iran and Russia is not solely grounded in opportunity, but also in commonalities. Tehran not only provides an airbase out of which Russian aerial reconnaissance forces operate out of in Syria, but both powers share a distinctive outlook on the Levant — a perspective not shared by Turkey, Assad, or even pro-Shiite and regime rebels in the region. With Syria as a “crucible of cooperation,” Putin and Rouhani wish to prop the despot, avoiding the democracy-building escapades of the past. On the first day of the talks, the Russian delegation proposed that a constitutional tribune be established to begin governmental reforms, all while cushioning Assad and his regime. Russia first introduced this draft constitution in January, 2017 at the intra-Syrian Astana Talks, where they established a framework for governance to then be approved by the Syrian people. While this approach was denied by many at Astana, the proposition sheds light on a premature Russian objective to rebuild Syria in its image, far beyond any cessation of violence. This approach still, technically, delivers regional stabilization, but at the sacrifice of many of the values and principles the international liberal order has prided itself upon. The Astana Talks reflected this pivot; the prioritization of maintaining the status quo reflects an ethical experiment, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the helm.
This experiment has constructed a smaller diplomatic environment for the three powers to maneuver. While a war of words was exchanged between the rebel delegation and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the focus of the talks remained primarily on maintaining the December 29th ceasefire agreement as a first step towards temporary stabilization. Constructed by Turkey and Russia and exclusionary to many jihadist and rebel forces, such as the Kurdish YPG and former al-Nusra front Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the ceasefire served as the foundation for January and March Astana peace talks, but on the condition that the truce would hold. The nature and conditions of the ceasefire explain the trilateral monopoly at Astana; Russia and Turkey were able to regulate the participants, conditions of peace negotiations, and framework of discussion by design. Just as in December, 2016, the trilateral dynamic has found it successful to operate in a more intimate environment, and will continue this strategy with a May 2017 meeting. While this was the only concrete solution produced by the Astana Talks, it demonstrates that the talks’ inclusionary aspect was a mirage; the fate of Syria has and will be determined by the trilateral powers.
A week after Kazakhstan was abuzz with talks of ceasefire and proposed amnesty deals, the United States’ Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was familiarizing himself with the ropes of diplomacy at the first session of the ‘Anti-ISIS Coalition.’ Convened in Washington, Tillerson served as the face of a new, revamped effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in all existing strongholds. The day was a reflection of the new Trump administration’s adamant vow to eradicate the terrorist faction, in the interest of national security, from the face of the Levant. While a week apart, the two conferences reflected a deep contrast the strategies towards the Levant — a side encompassed in restructuring Syria’s institutional makeup, and another side centered around new approaches to counterterrorism, protecting national borders instead of transcending them. While separate thematic issues, the war against extremism and the alleviation of Syria’s civil conflict should become an intertwined strategy for Astana’s powers and U.S. foreign policy.
The United States did not send a formal delegation to the Astana Talks, despite receiving an invitation. They cited the “demands of the transition” as to why a negotiating team was not assembled, sending the American ambassador to Kazakhstan, George A. Krol, to the conference. This decision marks an interesting pivot in the normative and institutional structure of Middle Eastern diplomacy; the United States has spoken softly, but has carried a large stick in the region over the last half-century — particularly since the 2003 Iraq intervention. It is important for scholars and policymakers to analyze exactly why the new administration withheld participation from Astana, as it was seen as an open door for American foreign policy to enter, after six years of tentative activism in the region through funding and supplying Sunni rebels against the Assad regime. However, the White House would have deemed Astana a failure for U.S. interests from the start, as they did not prioritize counterterrorism through their dialogue — in fact, they invited many of the individuals that the Trump administration deems ‘terrorist’ factions.’ Astana was a conference rooted in the survivability of a ceasefire the United States was not included in, and therefore there was no national interest in active participation.
A Looming Question
On the morning of April 4th, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces deployed chemical weapons on Khan Sheikhoun, a small town in the Idlib province, killing 85 civilians. The chemical used appeared to be an active nerve agent, similar to Sarin gas. Men, women, and children were strewn across the streets, gasping for air and shaking uncontrollably. Hospitals were flooded with victims, utilizing the scarce resources they had. The day was immensely reminiscent of August 21, 2013, when nearly 1,400 were gassed in the Ghouta agricultural belt just outside of Damascus, and met with a ‘red line’ ultimatum by the Obama administration, that later proved incredulous. President Donald Trump’s White House reinforced this red line through authorizing the launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from US warships, targeting a Syrian government air base. where the chemical agents were deployed. This decision has been widely accepted by the scholarly and policy community as one of the largest moments in his presidency — the first use of a hard power tool by an isolationist president that has repeatedly chanted ‘America first’ as his doctrine in foreign policy.
The decision is accompanied by a series of serious questions. The first question that policymakers and scholars should examine, is what preconditions led Assad to perceive the opportunity to use chemical weapons without consequence. Brookings Institution fellow, Dr. Thomas Wright, has stated that the new administration’s uncertain objective in the Levant and receding participation in the conflict signaled a green light to President Bashar al-Assad. It was, in many ways, a test to the credibility of the ‘red line’ Trump’s predecessor had drawn, as well as the new president’s prowess in his first crisis situation. While the missile strikes signal greater commitment to preserving the human rights of the Syrian people and exercising an anti-Assad agenda, the exact role of the United States in the conflict is still a looming uncertainty. The first use of hard power in Syria by the Trump administration is not equivalent to a new White House strategy in the Levant — ‘America first’ still reigns as the chief doctrine, ruling the chance of intervention and active military presence unlikely. While the cruise missiles have preserved the credibility of U.S. policies, they serve as merely a slap on the wrist; President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is still largely uncontested by American militarized action and its survivability cushioned by the Iran-Russia alliance.
In May of 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey will exclusively convene around the negotiating table, behind closed doors. While the continuation of December’s ceasefire is still in a delicate state, much evidence points to a keener focus on Syria’s future political order. The intimacy of these talks demonstrates the artificiality of the Astana Talks’ democratic inclusivity; rebel voices and non-state narratives are welcome, but muffled under the resources and capability of the trilateral powers in the region. The future of Syria is still unclear, and will continue to be. The state of Turkey still opposes the durability of an Assad presidency and opposes any inclusion of Kurdish participation at the table, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) at Astana. Rebel factions and extremist forces still characterize much of the conflict, and their refusal in many proposed ceasefires and political propositions stand as a powerful bulwark against cooperation in the region’s political order. Most importantly, the exact role that the United States will play in Syria is not certain; ‘America first’ will continue to indoctrinate the level of engagement U.S. forces will have in Syria — but for the time being, the American seat at the table remains ceremonial.