Astana is quickly gaining a reputation as a place for effective peace talks, as proven by Kazakhstan's track record throughout the Syrian conflict.
Over the past decade, Astana has taken on an ever-more prominent role on the global stage, hosting major conferences and international gatherings such as Expo 2017 and the 2011 Asian Winter Games. Perhaps most significantly, however, is Astana’s growing role as a critical site for peace negotiations. Its central location and well-established diplomatic ties with both Eastern and Western powers make it a natural fit for the complex and politically fraught task of hosting representatives from conflicting groups in the hopes of finding diplomatic solutions to ongoing disputes.
Nowhere has this been more evident and vital over the past few years than in Astana’s role in hosting peace negotiations for the Syrian civil war. Since mid-2015, Astana has been the site of negotiations for what has become one of the world’s most violent and politically significant conflicts. As of early 2018, negotiations are ongoing, but it appears clear that any diplomatic solution will be reached in Astana. Since beginning in 2011, the Syrian conflict has resulted in the death of more than 350,000 fighters and the displacement of more than 5 million Syrians, the largest refugee crisis since WWII. Originally an attempt to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government after protests that grew out of the Arab Spring movement were repressed, the conflict has since been described as a proxy war due to the number of international parties lending support to both the Syrian government and opposition groups.
Assad has received support from Russia and Iran, while the main coalition opposition group has received military and logistical support from the US, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others. And the fractured nature of the conflict, especially amongst the opposition, has made easy resolutions impossible for any side. Efforts at ending the conflict through diplomatic means have been underway since the early days of the civil war, but early attempts quickly failed due to the complex relationship between both opposing and allied parties. A pair of UN-backed conferences in Geneva in 2012 and 2014 could not reach a consensus, with several key parties failing to attend. Enter Astana: in May 2015, President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited representatives from Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government to attend a conference in Astana on the status of the war. Though the Syrian government did not attend, a series of opposition representatives gathered for talks. After a failed round of peace talks in late 2015, representatives from both sides of the conflict agreed on Astana as a site for extended peace negotiations.
Astana is a compelling fit for these critically important talks because Kazakhstan is one of the few countries in the region with strong relationships with Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Western powers. All parties involved had confidence in President Nazarbayev’s leadership and ability to coordinate fair and secure negotiations, overcoming a major obstacle in working toward a resolution.
From 2016 through late December 2017, members of the Syrian conflict held eight rounds of negotiations in Astana, discussing issues ranging from the treatment of detainees to the location of de-escalation zones to reduce violence. In contrast to previous Geneva meetings, Astana has regularly hosted representatives from all sides of the conflict.
As of early 2018, the violence in Syria has subsided from its peak as al-Assad’s forces regained control of the country, but UN observers noted that the conflict is far from over. Further talks planned for late January in Astana were expected to have the UN as a participant in order to spur both sides past the deadlock they reached in 2017.
Even once a solution is reached, though, Astana’s role as a key hub for international diplomacy will continue. The characteristics that have made it central to ending the violence in Syria will doubtless make Kazakhstan an important participant the next time tensions flare in the Middle East.