UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (left) speaks to Mohammad Alloush, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation, prior to peace talks in Astana on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

Astana/Moscow: Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan were a coup for their international sponsors, but exposed the limits of what Russia, Turkey and Iran can achieve in their efforts to resolve the six-year-old war.

It was the first time in nine months the two sides had come together, albeit briefly and unhappily, and the first time that Moscow, Ankara and Tehran had presided over such talks, with the United States only present as an observer.

The fact that the talks happened at all was a diplomatic coup that underlined the three countries’ growing Middle East clout and Washington’s diminished influence at a time when Donald Trump is settling into the presidency.

The head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev, hailed the talks, held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, as the “birth” of a new negotiating format, and there were hopes they might make it more likely that UN-brokered talks could take place in Geneva next month.

At the end of two chaotic days, Moscow, Ankara and Tehran backed a shaky Dec. 30 truce between Syria’s warring parties and agreed to monitor its compliance.

Yet negotiations did not go to plan, showing that the three would-be Syria conflict brokers, in their different ways, all have credibility problems. This suggests they may have to involve Washington and the Gulf States more fully if they are to have any chance of brokering a final deal.

That could be difficult as the talks spotlighted sharp differences between Moscow and Tehran over the possible future participation of the United States, in particular.

State media in Iran cited Iranian officials as saying any future US involvement was unacceptable, while Lavrentyev, the main Russian negotiator, said Moscow would welcome Washington joining the process.

“They (the Russians) can now see how difficult their partners are,” said one Western diplomat.

In previous rounds of UN talks in Geneva, Moscow had not been able to call the shots in the way it could in Kazakhstan, the diplomat said, because the United States and the West had succeeded in diluting its role. This time, Moscow had its first taste of what it is like to be in the hot seat.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had previously lamented the failure of UN-backed talks in Geneva, calling them “fruitless sitting around”. Lavrentyev, Russia’s chief negotiator in Astana, put a positive gloss on the Kazakh talks but did not hide the diplomatic difficulties either, complaining at different times about how tough the discussions were.

Western envoys, who turned up informally to observe developments from the corridors of the hotel, mingled with reporters to try to ascertain what the purpose of the meeting was. There was much speculation about whether Russia wanted a follow-up meeting that would go into the details of what was in the end a vague final communiqué.

“Frankly, we’re baffled. Why is Russia doing this now? What has changed for them that they want to disengage militarily and engage politically?” said one diplomat.

Western envoys congregated in the lobby of the Rixos, the talks venue, as snow fell outside and could be heard debating whether to try the local horsemeat specialities in the hotel’s Irish pub, where clouds of cigarette smoked filled the air.

At one point, on Monday evening, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry began searching for guides willing to show the rebels around local shopping malls after apparently being told that the opposition wanted to pick up some bargains.

Back at the talks, rebels and Western diplomats questioned the role of Iran and its allies.

“The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor.

They are finding a lot of obstacles from (Lebanon’s Shiite) Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime,” said Mohammad Alloush, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation.

Western diplomats said they too saw Iran as one of the main obstacles to progress with one saying Tehran’s commitment to the ceasefire and a political transition was uncertain.

Moscow said it had given the rebels the draft of a new constitution, drawn up by Russian specialists, to speed agreement on a political transition. It was unclear however what the document said or what the rebels thought of it.

The talks yielded a joint communique from Russia, Turkey and Iran which pledged to create a monitoring mechanism to police Syria’s patchy ceasefire, but the rebels did not endorse it.

Instead, they submitted a separate proposal on the ceasefire and questioned Iran’s legitimacy as a broker at a time when they said Iranian militias were breaching the ceasefire.

The communique legitimised Iran’s “bloodletting” in Syria, complained Alloush, and did not address the role of Shiite militias fighting the rebels.

Nor did the rebels, who for the first time were represented by military rather than just political figures, show any signs of watering down their demand that President Bashar Al Assad step down as soon as possible, something Damascus won’t accept.

For some of them, Russia’s broker status sat awkwardly.

“We are not opposed to Russia because it is Russia but we had a problem when its jets were participating with the regime in killing our people,” said Osama Abu Zaid, an opposition spokesman. “If this role ends then we’ll have no problem.” The Syrian government delegation had its own issues with the talks’ sponsors, questioning Turkey’s legitimacy as a broker at a time when it said Ankara was violating its sovereignty via an extended armed incursion into northern Syria.

Neither delegation included senior figures and Washington was only represented in an observer capacity by its local ambassador. Apart from one official from the United Arab Emirates present informally, Arab envoys were absent.

And in a major setback, Moscow failed to get the two sides to negotiate face-to-face despite Lavrentyev, the Russian negotiator, saying beforehand that face-to-face talks were “the main goal”.

The rebels baulked at that, saying they could not sit down with people responsible for so much bloodshed. Instead, Moscow had to make do with indirect talks with the two delegations relaying messages via intermediaries.

Some diplomats said it was the opposition that had refused, but others said there were fears that Bashar Al Jaafari, the head of the government delegation, who has a reputation for being curt, would add “vinegar to the water”, giving indirect talks a better chance of success.

There was quarrelling about the format and the agenda from the outset.

The opposition demanded talks focus solely on a ceasefire that should require Iranian-backed militias to quit Syria.

But the government, emboldened by the fact the talks were being held under the co-sponsorship of Russia, a staunch ally, and with the balance of power turning in its favour on the ground, said there was a chance to push for reconciliation with Al Assad remaining in power, a red line for the rebels.

Opening statements laid bare those divisions.

Alloush, the head of the rebel delegation, called the Syrian government “a bloody despotic regime”, while Al Jaafari, head of the government delegation, accused opposition negotiators of defending “war crimes” and of being rude and unprofessional.

Al Jaafari made clear too that a government offensive against Wadi Barada, which supplies most of the water for Damascus, would continue even though rebels see it as a truce violation.

“As long as 7 million people in Damascus remain deprived of water, it will continue,” said Al Jaafari.

Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based foreign policy think-tank close to the Foreign Ministry, told Reuters the talks had been “better than nothing.” “But there is no silver bullet,” he said.