Syria's Peace Talk: Time for someone else to have a go.
Russia and Turkey take over from America.
Kazakhstan is an odd place to seek a fresh start for Syria.
Its strongman, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in charge since Soviet times.
In 2015 he won 97.7% of the vote—an even better tally than Syria’s despot, Bashar al-Assad, can command.
But as a Russian-speaking capital of a Turkic nation sharing the Caspian Sea with Iran, there was some symbolism in selecting its capital, Astana, as a place to unveil the new tripartite protectorate over Syria.
And as peace talks go, the ones in Astana, on January 23rd-24th, marked a new realism.
The hosts were the three outside powers who are doing the bulk of the fighting in Syria.
Along with Russia and Turkey, they included Iran, which was pointedly kept out of the last round of talks in Geneva.
The Americans, Europeans and Arabs who steered those negotiations were this time either reduced to observer status, or absent altogether.
Saudi Arabia, once the rebels’ prime backer, is too preoccupied with its war in Yemen these days to have time for the one in Syria.
“The uprising began as an Arab awakening and ended in a carve-up among non-Arab powers,” says a Syrian analyst.
Also reflecting events on the ground, Syria’s opposition was represented by fighters, not by the politicians in exile who led the previous talks.
In the past Russia would have dismissed some of the delegates as jihadists, fit only for thermobaric bombing.
But, perhaps under Turkey’s nudging, it now sees the benefits of engagement if the process is to get anywhere.
Muhammad Alloush, who heads an Islamist armed group, Jaish al-Islam, showed his appreciation by praising Russia, which only a month ago was crushing rebels in Aleppo, for its “neutrality”.
Jaish al-Islam，一只伊斯兰的武装军队，它的首领Muhammad Alloush对俄方充满了感激之情，——俄方在一个月之前在阿勒颇粉碎了反叛者，以示其“中立”的立场。
To mollify the politicians in exile, the fighters insisted they were there to talk only about ceasefires.
But the Russians also proffered a draft constitution, and issued invitations for follow-up talks in Moscow, set for January 27th.
The exiles would prefer to rely on America to promote the political process in a fresh round of talks in Geneva, pencilled in for February 8th.
By then, however, Russia may already have written the terms.
An even more striking example of America’s new irrelevance is the mechanism devised for policing a ceasefire that has been in place for almost a month.
Out went the old arrangements agreed on with John Kerry, America’s former secretary of state, last September.
Russia’s new partners were Turkey and Iran, who together would “observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocation and determine all modalities”.
Can this work?
Tellingly, the final communiqué, seeking to bolster the ceasefire, was issued by the external powers, while Syria’s belligerents registered protests and reservations.
However, the rebels probably have little choice but to comply.
Chased out of their last major urban redoubt in Aleppo and doubtful of their support from the new American administration, many want to grab what they can.
Even so, the war continues undiminished against some of the most powerful militias left off Astana’s guest list—Islamic State, the YPG Kurdish forces, and particularly an al-Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) .
JFS has launched its own offensive, pitting its 6,000 hardened fighters against the 15,000 of more moderate groups.
That intra-rebel battle is again cutting roads across Idlib, the poor rural province the rebels still hold, and closing crossings to Turkey as they fight over bases.
Judging by its record, Mr Assad’s regime will be as recalcitrant.
Talks may bring him benefits, such as dividing the opposition. (Mr Assad’s representative, Bashar al-Jaafari, quipped that he hoped the terrorists would help defeat the terrorists. )
But even when weaker, the regime preferred military options.
Having won the whip hand, it is in no mood to discuss a transition to a broader government.
Should Russia try to bring him to heel, Mr Assad is signalling he has other friends to turn to.
While Iran sat at the table talking ceasefires, Mr Assad and its forces were making common cause fighting in the valleys of Wadi Barrada above Damascus.
By delegating responsibility for the ceasefire to three outside powers, the tripartite mechanism may well have the effect of creating zones of influence.
Untroubled by the Iranians and Russians, the Turks are fighting to expand their enclave (against IS and the Kurds) in the north.
The Iranians are doing much the same around Damascus.
Russia is firmly entrenched on the coast.
The conflict, it seems, will continue; as will yet another of the Middle East’s sad, interminable peace processes.