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Rebellions and Realignments: Shifting Strategies in the Syrian Crisis

2023-07-27 15:26

Issam Khoury

Rebellions and Realignments: Shifting Strategies in the Syrian Crisis

Dissecting the Astana Talks fallout amid dual rebellions and the potential reshaping of Syrian crisis negotiations.



“The Astana track is fundamentally a Russian initiative, and the Kazakh government has opted to disassociate from the Russian side.”




Before the revelation of the military rebellion by the Wagner Company on June 23, 2023, against the Kremlin, a distinct political rebellion unfolded against the Russians, spearheaded by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.


In the twentieth round of the Astana negotiations addressing the Syrian issue on June 20, 2023, the Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister, Kanat Tumysh, made a statement declaring it to be "The final negotiation round on Syria." [1]


This unexpected announcement took the Russian Foreign Ministry by surprise, suggesting a deficiency in coordination between Kazakhstan and the Kremlin.


This apparent misalignment can be justified, as the political approach of Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev [2] demonstrates greater independence in decision-making compared to his predecessor, Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, [3] who was notably loyal to Moscow. Particularly, the Kazakh state did not endorse Moscow's war in Ukraine and upheld the sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow.


In response to this development, the Russian President's Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, stated that "The Astana formula is successful and will continue. It is not tied to a specific location, and a new venue will be identified later for the continuation of the meetings on Syria." [4]


Indeed, over a span of six years, Kazakhstan hosted 18 out of 20 negotiation rounds, the majority of which transpired during the tenure of Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, who maintained close ties with the Kremlin. The level of representation of countries in these meetings was noticeably low and included the following individuals:


• Mikhail Bogdanov, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, representing Russia.

• Ali Asghar Khaji, the Senior Assistant to the Iranian Foreign Minister for Special Political Affairs.

• Ayman Sousan, the Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister of Syria.

• Burak Akçapar, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Türkiye.


Moreover, the outcomes of this meeting mirrored those of previous gatherings. The same conclusions reached in the Astana 19 meeting [5]  were ratified in the Astana 20 meeting.[6] The only disparity lay in the poorly constructed wording and repeated phrases within the items. For instance:


• Clauses (2-4-6) repeatedly expressed the rejection of autonomy and underscored the territorial integrity of Syria.

• Clauses (3-4-6) reiterated the commitment to combating terrorism.

• In clauses (9-10-11), the same phrases concerning the Constitutional Committee were used.

• In Items (3-15), there was a recurring focus on the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees.

• Clauses (12-13-14) echoed the appeal for continued provision of humanitarian aid.


Interestingly, most of these items find their counterparts in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which was applauded by the conferences as they devoted an entire item to it. This included the following statement: "The Syrian conflict has no military solution. Participants reaffirmed their commitment to advancing a viable, long-term political process led and implemented by the Syrians themselves, with the assistance of the United Nations, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254." [7]


From this, it's evident that the Astana meetings often reiterated previous points and offered little new in terms of resolving the Syrian crisis. However, a few standout items included:


The decision to not classify the Salvation Government as a terrorist organization. The fifth clause held a conciliatory tone towards the Idlib governorate: "We studied the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone in detail. We agreed to exert more efforts to ensure sustainable normalization of the situation. We emphasized the necessity of maintaining calm ‘on the ground’ through the full implementation of all existing Idlib agreements."


This aligns with Turkish policy, which has significant influence in the Idlib governorate, and maintains agreements with the Russians to decrease military conflict in the area.


The condemnation of Israeli military attacks in Syria and the rejection of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Article Seven stated: "We condemn the ongoing Israeli military attacks in Syria, including those on civilian targets. We acknowledge these actions violate international law, international humanitarian law, and Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity. They also destabilize and increase tensions in the region. There is a continuous need to respect universally recognized international legal decisions, including the provisions of relevant United Nations resolutions that reject the occupation of the Syrian Golan, specifically United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 497. According to these, all Israeli decisions and actions in this regard are considered null and void."


This stance resonates with Iranian interests, as most Israeli raids in Syria target the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its allied militias. As for the Golan Heights, it currently serves as a rallying cry for the ruling regime in Damascus, much like the liberation of Palestine.


Mutual release of detainees and abductees. This item is present in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, but was expanded to include "the transfer of deceased bodies and the search for missing persons."


In truth, this clause benefits the Syrian regime as any person executed in Syrian prisons will be labeled as missing, thereby shielding the Syrian regime from appearing as a criminal entity.


The Astana track is fundamentally a Russian initiative, and the Kazakh government has opted to disassociate from the Russian side. Therefore, it concluded its role in the Astana 20 meeting by endorsing Syria's return to the Arab League. This action sets the stage for an Arab nation to host future reconciliation meetings in one of the Arab capitals. It signals a potential new Arab role in the Syrian issue, alongside the Iranian role, following the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If this comes to pass, it could mean an increased influence for Washington in shaping the Syrian solution, and a corresponding decrease in Russian influence, which is being undermined by its partners.


[1] Alhurra TV, June 21, 2023: 
"أستانة السوري".. مفاجأة في البيان الختامي و"ساحة جديدة" | الحرة (alhurra.com)


[2] Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev is a Kazakh politician and diplomat who is currently serving as the President of Kazakhstan since 20 March 2019.


[3] Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev is a Kazakh politician and military officer who served as the first President of Kazakhstan, in office from the country’s independence in 1991 until his formal resignation in 2019, and as the Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan from 1991 to 2022.


[4] Russia Today, June 21, 2023


[5] Alkhabar TV, Nov 23, 2022,  https://alkhabar-sy.com/archives/146022


[6] Russia today TV, June 20, 2023 



[7] Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2254 (2015), Endorsing Road Map for Peace Process in Syria, Setting Timetable for Talks, UN, Dec 18, 2015


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