Syria peace talks: Armed groups come in from the cold

A view of Astana's Rixos President Hotel, the place that will host Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan (22 January 2017) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Those attending the talks at Astana's Rixos President Hotel must brave sub-zero temperatures to get there

There's a new venue, new brokers, and new negotiators, but can Syria talks here in Astana resolve the old intractable problems?

"Everything has changed since Aleppo," says a Western diplomat who's been engaged on Syria for the past several years. "There's a new equation."

The opposition's stinging defeat in Aleppo in December robbed them of their last major urban stronghold to challenge President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

And there was another game changer.

Behind the scenes, in the Turkish capital Ankara, a new Russian-Turkish alliance forged a deal to end the final fight for Syria's second city.

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Image caption Presidents Putin and Erdogan (left and right) have stolen a march on Syria's other major players
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Image caption Snow is being cleared from the streets of Astana in advance of the talks

Now two unlikely allies, who have always backed different sides in this war, are hoping to redraw Syria's geo-political map.

In secret talks in Ankara, they dealt with rebel commanders. Now they're taking that formula to Astana, Kazakhstan, in the first talks where men who control the guns are at the table instead of the Syrian political opposition.

"The armed groups are becoming interlocutors now," says an official closely involved in the talks.

First, the battlefield was reshaped with Turkey's tilt towards Russia, the main foreign military player in Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still insists President Assad must eventually go.

But, for the moment, he wants Russia's acquiescence as he focuses on his main enemy - Syrian Kurdish fighters, linked to Turkey's own PKK, who have been carving out their own autonomous enclave along the border.

For his part, President Vladimir Putin looked to Turkey to persuade rebel groups to finally abandon what had become a losing fight for Aleppo as the Syrian army, backed by Russia and an array of Iranian-backed militias, waged a ferocious assault on the opposition's last major urban bastion.

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Image caption The Fateh al-Sham group is on the UN's terror list and precluded from taking part in the talks

In December, the two presidents basked in their new prestige as they secured the evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo, and then brokered a nation-wide ceasefire - albeit partial and imperfect.

They stole a march on Syria's other major players, most of all the Americans, in the window before a new president moved into the White House.

The Astana talks now take Syria's embattled political process into Russia's backyard where the Kazakhs have long coveted a mediating role in this and other crises.

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The official mantra from Russian and Turkish officials is Astana is a complement, not a competitor, to the UN-brokered talks in Geneva which are meant to resume next month after years of little real progress.

"The agenda is to strengthen the ceasefire, build confidence, and prepare the ground for Geneva III talks next month," is how a Turkish official described it to me.

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Image caption Diplomats say the fall of Aleppo has introduced a new equation into the Syria talks
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Image caption UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is keeping a close eye on the progress of the talks

But the ground is shifting.

"Russia wants a military solution disguised as a political one," is how Syrian writer and journalist Hassan Hassan describes this new process.

"This is the Astana-isation of Geneva," he says, referring to previous talks where the opposition was represented by its main political grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC).

The sneering objection in Moscow and Damascus has long been "why should we speak to the Syrians who spend their time in five star hotels when we need to talk to Syrians who control the guns on the ground?"

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Members of the political opposition have long argued that they have the expertise and understanding that's needed in the tough talks with the government over a new political future for Syria.

"Astana is a good thing," Basma Kodmani of the HNC told me, but she emphasised that "military groups should limit themselves to military issues".

"It's a very delicate moment for the High Negotiations Committee," one diplomat involved in the process said. "There is a risk they will become marginalised."

Astana also means a shift away from the process fashioned by Saudi Arabia and backed by other Gulf states which are not part of this new initiative. They've not been invited to Astana.

But as the prospect of "Astana-isation" sinks in, what one diplomat called a counter offensive of "Geneva-isation" has begun.

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Image caption The UN's top Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura (right) is attending the talks hosted by Kazakhstan and its Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov (left)

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who is said to be "very engaged" on the Syria file, has sent his top Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura to Astana even though meetings are being held at a technical, not ministerial, level.

Syria envoys from European governments including Britain, who aren't officially invited, decided it was a good idea to head to below-freezing Kazakh climes.

No one is sure what, if anything, will be achieved here, and even who should be sitting at the table.

Most major rebel groups, after weeks of denials and indecision, have sent representatives. Some are here under pressure from Turkey which controls their vital supply lines across its border.

But one of the main Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham, is staying away because of opposition from its more hardline elements.

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What next for Syria?

And other powerful players are excluded altogether, including the main Syrian Kurdish fighting groups, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which is on the UN's terror list.

On the other side, the Syrian government has despatched security representatives, along with other delegates led by its outspoken UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari who plays the same role in the Geneva process.

The run-up to Astana was also marked by Turkey and Russia's very public disagreement with Iran, another key player in this process, which didn't want the United States to be included.

"We've said it many times, and it's the Russian position too, that we would like the Americans to be involved," a Turkish official told me.

At the 11th hour, an invitation was sent, and the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan is now here, but only as an observer.

Astana marks the start of a new process but it's embryonic, and must still contend with all the old rivalries, and the competing interests and agendas.

Russia and Turkey will eventually have to confront their core disagreements, including President Assad's role in any political transition.

This is still a tangled and unpredictable war in a country where so-called Islamic State is also still a key player on the battlefield.

"It is better to focus on what you can do together today, rather than what we will disagree on tomorrow," is how a Turkish official explains his country's shift in priorities.

For now, this new axis marks a major turning point in a war, which has seen all too many twists and turns.