ROUNDTABLE: What outcome do you expect from the Astana talks?

Syrian government representatives met with leaders from opposition factions including Jaish al-Islam, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish National Council this past Monday and Tuesday in Astana, Kazakhstan. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also attended.

The conference, brokered by Russia and Turkey, purported to strengthen the December 30 nationwide ceasefire.

“The priority, as we see it, is about the ceasefire in different places in Syria in order to protect lives, and to allow humanitarian aid to reach different areas in Syria,” Syrian state media agency SANA quoted President Bashar al-Assad as saying on January 20.

In a January 23 press statement, the Syrian Coalition opposition government clarified its objectives as “the consolidation of the ceasefire, forcing regime forces and their allied militias to commit to the agreement, preventing violations of the truce” as well as improving the humanitarian situation.

The two-day talks resulted in a final document produced by Iran, Russia and Turkey, which “envisages the establishment of a ceasefire monitoring mechanism,” Russian state media TASS reported on Wednesday.

 Members of the rebel delegation in Astana on January 24. Photo courtesy of National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces

Here, Syria Direct’s Mohammed Ibrahim, Mohammed Al-Haj Ali and Noura Hourani interview six Syrian civilians in both rebel and regime towns: a woman besieged by Islamic State forces in eastern Syria, a university student in a coastal regime stronghold, a journalist in southern, rebel-held Daraa, an activist in Kurdish territory and an English literature student in Damascus.

Two residents hadn’t even heard of the conference due to electricity cuts in their cities. For others, the talks occurred far away from the daily realities of siege, water shortages, electricity rationing and inflation.

“It’s as if this conference were taking place on another planet,” says Abdullah, a university student in Latakia.

“Honestly, we’re tired of all these conferences. They result in the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Each time talks end, the situation goes from bad to worse.”

Abu Leed al-Homsi, 25, a resident of Waer, the last rebel-held neighborhood in Homs city.

Q: What do you expect the outcome of this conference to be? Do you foresee any tangible results, or will it be like previous conferences?

I don’t think that anything agreed on during this conference will be implemented on the ground. The outcome will be the same as previous conferences because the regime sent Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, to attend the talks.

Q: Do you think that the delegates at the conference represent you and your interests?

The delegation that represents me is the one that holds fast to the principles of the revolution, strives to achieve the people’s demands and has no separate agenda.

Q: In your opinion, which issues should be prioritized?  

A complete and total ceasefire in every single part of Syria. As civilians, this is our chief demand. We also want Iranian and Shiite militias to leave the country.

**

Tariq Amin, 28, a journalist in opposition-controlled Daraa province in southern Syria.

Q: What do you think this conference will achieve?

We fear that without any agreed solution or plan on how to ensure that the ceasefire actually happens, that this conference will become a repeat of the Geneva conferences. With no clear way to guarantee a ceasefire, there are numerous possibilities for how things will play out. Also, the regime’s forces and allied militias continue to stay on Syrian land and violate ceasefires in several areas, as in Wadi Barada recently.

Q: In your opinion, do the delegates at the conference represent you?

For me personally, any party that is committed to the demands of the Syrian people, who sacrificed so much for the sake of freedom and dignity, and that is working to stop the bloodshed, represents me.

Q: What are the top priorities for Syria, in your mind?

A complete ceasefire in all of Syria, the removal of the regime’s allied militias and the end to acts of aggression in all areas that constantly experience ceasefire violations.

**

Mariam, an English literature university student in Damascus.

[Ed.: Mariam says she had not heard of the Astana conference due to a lack of electricity and Internet in the capital. Although she has access to electricity four hours a day, she does not have a television. She spoke to Syria Direct via WhatsApp.]

Q: What do you think of the Astana talks?

I haven’t heard about them!

Q: But the media has reported the conference for a while. You don’t watch the news?

We don’t have a television because of electricity cuts—we only get four hours of electricity a day. For two of them, the electricity current is very weak and often cuts out. I no longer have a desire to watch television; it’s not one of our priorities here.

Q: But you’re a university student. Aren’t your friends discussing this?

No. I’ve never heard someone bring up this conference before. This may be because of the electricity cuts, or because most people are focused on the current water crisis. We never imagined that we’d be facing a water crisis in the capital.

Also, people are tired of conferences—they don’t mean anything to us. We’re not hopeful because the previous peace talks didn’t change the situation.

Personally, I think it’s a joke.

Q: Do you think this current conference will be successful? If you had a chance to speak to the delegates, what would you ask them to do?

This conference won’t be different from the others—it won’t succeed.

If I could talk to them, I would tell them that we want the war to end. We want peace. And to be completely honest with you, our primary demands are for water and electricity to return to Damascus.

**

Iman, a resident of a regime district in Deir e-Zor city.

[Ed.: Iman had not heard of the conference because she has limited access to Internet. Her neighborhood has been encircled by Islamic State forces since 2015. Iman sometimes has Internet access at night, which she accesses through Iraq. Syria Direct communicated with her via WhatsApp and waited for 10 hours until she responded.]

Q: In your opinion, will this conference succeed? What demands do you have for the delegates?

First and foremost, we want the siege in Deir e-Zor to be lifted so medicine and food can enter the city. We want electricity, which has become a luxury that we dream about, to return. We also want detainees to be released and for displaced people to return to their homes.

We want everyone who has killed Syrians to be held accountable.

Arya Omerî, a Syrian Kurdish activist from Amouda city in al-Hasakah province.

Q: Tell me your thoughts on the Astana conference.

This conference is supposed to initiate negotiations between the regime and the opposition under the auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Along with the regime, these three countries, through direct and indirect actions, are responsible for the war in Syria.

Despite this, we were hoping that they would have good and serious intentions with these peace talks. But it doesn’t appear that way. Even now, after reaching an initial agreement to enforce December’s truce, the regime’s army is still violating the ceasefire.

Q: Is there a delegation that represents you and your personal demands?

Kurdish military parties, which played a big role in fighting terrorism and establishing security in Kurdish territory, were excluded. In addition, many Kurdish political and civilian parties and groups, which are also fighting hard for peace, were also excluded. 

[Ed.: The Kurdish National Council (KNC) was invited to represent the Syrian Kurds at the Astana talks, while the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Self-Administration were excluded, ARA News reported on January 22.]

If the conference organizers were actually serious about making peace, they would not have excluded any party that desired to joined the negotiation table and discuss a future, war-free Syria.

In addition, those participants who say that they represent the Syrian people don’t actually represent us. They represent a very small sector of society. Some of them have criminal records; they’ve committed crimes against the Syrian people.

So it’s very obvious to me that this conference only represents the interests of the countries that called for the talks. It puts the political interests of Russia, Iran and Turkey, and those of the regime, first.

**

Abdullah, a business and economics student at Tishreen University, in the coastal regime-held city of Latakia.

Q: What’s your opinion on the Astana conference?

Honestly, we’re tired of all these conferences. We have hard feelings towards these useless meetings because they result in the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Each time talks end, the situation goes from bad to worse.

What were the results of the Geneva talks? Nothing came out of them, unfortunately. But electricity rationing increased, water cut out more often, and fuel became almost nonexistent. We’re drowning in high prices.

In reality, the Astana conference united regime supporters with the opposition. At the university, students on both sides have cracked jokes about it. This has been the only benefit of the talks.

One joke that’s been going around is “after every peace conference, you get one or two more hours of electricity cuts, for free.”

Q: Is there a group that represents you at the conference? What do you think of the initial agreements that were made?

No one represents me. Turkey, Russia and Iran are pressuring both the government and the opposition. These countries have their own interests, and the Syrian people are the biggest victims of these political games.

The agreement focused on the ceasefire as the beginning of a political solution. But the situation is very different on the ground. Damascus doesn’t have electricity, and it’s been without water for a month. Clashes are ongoing, and fighting is intense in Wadi Barada.

It’s as if this conference were taking place on another planet.

These violations continue to happen, and both sides don’t seem to care. The fighting is holding up aid deliveries to civilians.

We, the civilians, have been fueling this grinding war for five years.

Q: What do you hope that Syria gains from this conference?

I hope that both sides look directly at the suffering of the Syrian people and realize the tragic stage of war that we have reached.

We the people have sacrificed everything that we have. If they are truly serious about peace, both the government and the opposition need to be willing to compromise in order to reach a solution.

Syria has become an occupied country because both sides have recruited outside fighters and allowed and foreign powers to intervene on their behalf.

People on both sides of the conflict are fed up with the situation.

How am I supposed to react when I, a Syrian, see an Iranian soldier or Hezbollah fighter giving me commands? Or when I see that foreigners are more valuable than me, in my own country?

The same thing goes for opposition areas. A Tunisian man or some other foreigner, who claims to be defending the people of Syria, is given authority to control people’s fate.

The situation has become catastrophic. 

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.