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  January 28, 2017

Some Syrian Opposition Groups Begin to Abandon Armed Struggle

The mood at the Syria Peace Talks in Asnam suggests that the armed Syrian opposition's external supporters, like Saudi Arabia, have decided to wind down the war, says Vijay Prashad
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Vijay Prashad is the Executive Director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and is also chief editor of LeftWord Books. Vija He is the author of over 18 books among them The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016).


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The first round of Syrian peace talks was completed on Tuesday in the Kazakh capital of Astana between some of the opposition militant groups and the Syrian government.

The Russian president's special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, called the first day of talks “relatively fruitful” but some of the groups participating refused to sit face-to-face with the government representatives, citing that the Syrian government continued bombardments near Damascus.

Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the Syrian government delegation, hit back at some of the delegates for their apparent misdeeds. This is a part of what he had to say.

BASHAR JA'AFARI: Some of the participants, namely speaking the delegation of the terrorist arms groups, gave its own interpretation, or misinterpretation, of these agreements and went beyond the framework of these agreements. And that created a problem for all the participants because they did not... the delegation of the armed terrorist groups did not respect the provisions of the agreement on the basis of which we came to Astana.

SHARMINI PERIES: The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Nusra (Front), and the Islamic State were not invited to the conference but neither were the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) or its militia, the Y.P.G., the Y.P.J. or the Syrian Democratic Forces; this, despite the fact, that the Y.P.D. have not engaged in attempts to overthrow the Syrian government and have proven to be the most effective fighting against the Islamic State and are ideologically committed to democratic objectives. But neither were many other people who should've been there.

Joining us now to talk about the Syrian Peace Talks and the implications of where things may go is Vijay Prashad.

Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. His latest book is titled “The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution”. Good to have you back with us, Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, start by describing what took place at these peace talks and who was there, and who wasn't.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, there've been as, you know, six years of this war, this carnage in Syria. And there've been many different kinds of peace initiatives, many of them brokered by the United Nations. Some of them by regional countries, including when there was a Syria group brought by Egypt. And so, this is just one more of this sequence of peace initiatives for Syria.

But somehow it feels to me, and I'm generally not overly optimistic about many of these initiatives, but this feels to me as something different.

Well, it took place in Kazakhstan and that's important because Kazakhstan has close relationships with Russia but also a close relationship on cultural grounds with Turkey. Now, why is this important?

Well, for over the last six years, Turkey and Russia were on separate sides of this conflict and over the course of the last eight months or so, these two countries have begun to harmonize their view of the conflict. In other words, they claim to be on the so-called “peace camp” side of things.

So, the fact that they picked Kazakhstan to have this meeting is important. It's territory where both Turkey and Russia feel, in a sense, comfortable. So, they've shifted the center of gravity from a city, which the United Nations has made its preferred location for peace talks – that's Geneva – out into the center of Asia.

At this meeting, the three main regional powers that were there were Iran, Russia and Turkey. The purpose of the meeting really, in my opinion, was to cement the ties between Iran, Russia and Turkey, which had been greatly strained over the war in Syria. And indeed, that seems to have been the case because the final communiqué was really about Russia, Turkey and Iran helping to create a cease-fire mechanism inside Syria.

But this was also the first meeting in six years of the Syrian government on the one side and the armed Syrian opposition on the other. This is very significant because a section of the armed Syrian opposition has now decided that the peace route is more important than continuing the battle inside Syria, and to some extent I think what one needs to read here is that the external supporters of, at least this part of the armed Syrian opposition, has decided that this war can now wind down.

And by that, I mean, on the one side there's Turkey, which obviously has decided that the war should wind down. It is, after all, joined with Russia and Iran in this process.

But also, very significantly, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, etc., were not at the table – they were not interested. And nonetheless, despite the fact that they were not at the table, it's important to understand that the leader of the armed Syrian opposition, the person who led that delegation at the meeting, was Mohammad al-Alloush, whose group, Jaysh al-Islam, is essentially the proxy of Saudi Arabia. In other words, Saudi Arabia didn't insist on a seat at the table, which it has had at previous peace discussions, but it allowed its proxy to lead the armed Syrian opposition to the table.

And a great deal was accomplished at this meeting. I think people generally like to understand peace talks or cease-fires as a one-off thing: either you do it or you don't do it. But peace is a confidence-building process. So, I think there was a part opened up around the question of a cease-fire mechanism and I think around the fact that they just sat at the table for the first time despite the posturing on all sides, which is important because everybody has a constituency that they need to deal with.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Vijay, as you said, the Saudis were not there and neither were the United States. How significant is that?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it's quite significant. The fact that the Saudis were not there and they, let's say, allowed their proxy to lead the armed Syrian opposition, suggests to me that Saudi Arabia has basically thrown in the towel in Syria. It is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen, where it has not been able to make any gains. It has its own internal economic problems. And I think the Saudis have read the tea leaves fairly clearly, which is that it's unlikely that the Trump administration is going to put any resources towards overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. So, I think this indicates that the Saudis have thrown the towel in.

The United States, I feel since about 2015, when Russia intervened directly inside Syria, since around then, the United States has basically, slowly, I think in a measured way come to understand that the downfall of Bashar al-Assad is off the table. Therefore, I think that because of the tensions between the U.S. and Turkey on the one side, the tensions between the United States and Russia on the other. Then the sense that there is no way to really create any space to overthrow Mr. Assad, I think the United States has basically been shut out of this process.

In fact, there's some doubt over the process of the United States not being there. The U.S. said that they were invited and declined to go. The foreign minister of Iran has said that, “No, the United States was not invited,” so there's a little bit of again some posturing over the sidelining of the United States. But the fact is, the United States has been sidelined and I think the Gulf Arabs have basically, as I said, thrown in the towel.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, how significant is it that the Kurds were not invited to the table given that they are the ones on the ground? Perhaps fighting ISIS with the most might and militancy on the ground.

VIJAY PRASHAD: In a sense, I'm sorry to say, it's not that significant and for the following reason. You see, since Turkey essentially moved into this so-called peace camp, Turkey's interests have befuddled how the table has been set.

Let's take two examples of that. On the one side, one of the most ruthless groups in the armed opposition that didn't come to Kazakhstan was Ahrar al-Sham, which is the main proxy of the Turkish intelligence apparatus and military. Nonetheless, this group, Ahrar, released a statement before the Kazakhstan meeting saying, “We are not coming, but we give blessings to the meeting and hope that there's success for the sake of the Syrian people.” This is an extraordinary statement from a group like that. This is the group that was helped decisively by Turkey to take large sections of northern Syria, including in Aleppo, and they've suffered serious battlefield defeats as a consequence of the withdrawal of Turkish support.

But even though Turkey is a major player at the Kazakhstan meeting, its main proxy didn't show up. But, as I said, it gave its blessings.

One of the ways in which Russia and Iran have been able to bring Turkey to this position is to mollify Turkey's fear about the possibility of a Kurdish statelet, what has been called Rojava or Western Kurdistan; that this statelet should not be formed on the Turkish border in northern Syria.

There have been some undertakings from the Russians and the Iranians that, indeed, once the war ends in Syria, even if there is a more federated state, there will not be a Kurdish statelet in the north as there is in northern Iraq.

In fact, the Kurds have been very sympathetic about this problem that they've been facing, which is why they created the Syrian Democratic Forces rather than pursue their objectives merely through the Y.P.G., which is a Kurdish militia. They have suggested that the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is basically a Kurdish militia, has fighters who are Arabs, Christians, Assyrians, etc. and therefore is a Syrian force and so they should be at the table.

So, there is a real problem here between Kurdish aspirations, which are indeed for some sort of autonomy in the north, and Turkey's paranoia about having a Kurdish state at its border.

So, it was very clear that because the Turks were a central part of the Kazakhstan meeting, they would never allow the Kurds to sit there as full-fledged members, particularly because they're going through a new phase of war inside Turkey against the Kurds in Turkey.

So, it was not a surprise in that sense, Sharmini, but they are still going to have to collaborate how the Syrian Kurds are going to fit into a general cease-fire agreement the once perhaps ISIS is defeated and the Al Qaeda proxy decides to go elsewhere.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay. I thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to your report next week.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.




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