With tensions high, Kazakhstan plays mediator in Syria peace talks

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ASTANA (TCA) — As the Syria peace talks in Astana have given more international exposure to Kazakhstan as a player in the region wider than Central Asia, we are republishing this article by George Voloshin, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor:

As the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year (the conflict officially started on March 15, 2011, with mainly peaceful protesters in Damascus coming out into the streets to demand democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners), a potential peace deal remains out of reach. On March 14 and 15, Kazakhstan hosted a third round of peace talks on the basis of what has come to be dubbed the “Astana process,” in parallel with the Geneva peace process ongoing since 2011. The first two rounds were hosted in January 23–25 and February 15–16. The next round of talks is already planned for early May, following a series of interim meetings scheduled for April in the Iranian capital, Tehran. The Kazakhstani government touts the talks as an additional diplomatic tool to resolve the long-standing and seemingly irreconcilable contention between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, on the one hand, and the West and Turkey, on the other (Inform.kz, March 14; Kapital.kz, February 16; Tengrinews.com, January 25; Sputnik.kz, January 24).

The Syria peace process is invariably viewed by Kazakhstani authorities as an opportunity to make up for the missed chance to host another significant peace initiative—the one related to the deadlocked conflict in eastern Ukraine. Belarus was chosen in 2014 as neutral ground where representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine could be easily flown in at short notice. Despite its proximity to Russia and its membership of the Eurasian Economic Union, Belarus has notably abstained from supporting the Russian stance on Ukraine since the popular uprising in Kyiv in February 2014. Kazakhstan has largely done the same, aside from an official statement from the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs from March 2014 in which it called the Crimea referendum “a free expression of popular will.” Still, most international observers consider Kazakhstan an impartial broker and a neutral state without any menacing geopolitical ambitions (Tut.by, July 30, 2014; Azattyk.org, March 19, 2014).

Beyond all the usual diplomatic rhetoric, Kazakhstan has a genuine interest in a speedy resolution of the Syrian conflict. The bloody war, which may have killed up to 450,000 people since 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (based in the United Kingdom), has driven a wedge between Kazakhstan’s traditional allies—Russia and Iran versus Turkey and the West. Kazakhstan’s relationship with Syria is symbolic: bilateral trade amounted to a modest $5.8 million in 2011, which is several times less than the average cross-border deal. The last time Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry updated its information on bilateral relations with Syria was in May 2014. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan maintains active ties with Russia (its closest trade partner), Turkey (with which it shares a similar culture and language) as well as Iran (a strategic entryway into the wider Gulf region). Kazakhstan is also a privileged Central Asian partner for both the United States and the European Union (Syriahr.com, March 13; Mfa.kz, May 11, 2014).

Another way for Kazakhstan to “benefit” from an end to the Syrian war, besides a much-awaited de-escalation in regional geopolitics, is to polish up its own international image. In 2010, Central Asia’s biggest economy held a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was attended, among others, by then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The following year, it hosted the Winter Asian Games; and in early 2017, it held the Winter Universiade (academic olympiad). The next big event the country will host is the International Exposition (EXPO), set to open its doors on June 10, 2017. EXPO 2017 will showcase global achievements in the field of renewable and cleaner energy. However, a far more desirable advertisement for Kazakhstan, in particular for its political leadership, would be the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has been seeking the world’s most prestigious political award since 2006. His chances slimmed greatly in 2011, when social unrest in the western town of Zhanaozen left 16 dead and more than 100 wounded (Expo2017astana.com, March 7; Lsm.kz, February 13; Inform.kz, December 16, 2011; RIA Novosti, December 2, 2010).

The obvious obstacle to Kazakhstan’s successful contribution to a peace settlement in Syria is the sheer complexity of the conflict per se. Against all odds, President al-Assad has managed to cling to power since early 2011 and has shown no signs of quitting, unlike fellow autocratic leaders in Tunisia (fled the country), Egypt (overthrown and imprisoned) and Libya (killed). Although they pursue somewhat differing agendas in Syria, Russia and Iran remain staunchly in favor of the ruling Alawite regime in Damascus. On the other side, Turkey and the West have been clamoring for the departure of al-Assad’s clan and the subsequent incorporation of the domestic opposition into a new system of governance. Since Kazakhstan is not a stakeholder and can only provide a platform for dialogue, its role is necessarily limited to protocol issues. Unlike regarding Ukraine, for example, Nazarbayev is not personally familiar with the inner workings of the Syrian political system and is unable to influence any internal party to the conflict (RBC, February 12; Deutsche Welle—Russian service, January 22).

The much bigger problem is Kazakhstan’s struggle to remain an unbiased mediator. With President Donald Trump’s administration in Washington having shown little if any practical interest in Central Asia to date, and with Turkey embroiled in an endless spat with Europe over democracy and refugees, Russia and Iran appear to be the real influencers over the Syrian conflict. In late February, Kazakhstan, which is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the whole of 2017, abstained from voting on a Western-sponsored resolution imposing new sanctions on Syria. Russia and China vetoed the proposal. The United States was, furthermore, conspicuously absent from the January and February 2017 rounds of peace talks in Astana, as the US ambassador only modestly attended as an observer. It is difficult to see how any peace process could take place in Syria without US involvement. But Kazakhstan currently lacks the means to sort out the differences between Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Washington (Inform.kz, February 28; Interfax, January 21).