ASTANA, Kazakhstan: The next Syria peace talks are not taking place in a storied European city but in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, a “new Geneva” flaunting its role as an international mediator and platform for peace efforts.
Built opulently on former marshland, Astana – which was a minor provincial steppe town before replacing Almaty as the Kazakh capital in 1997 – has become an unlikely gathering place for those pushing for solutions to enduring conflicts.
Clashing with the barrenness of the surrounding landscape, Astana’s towering, ultramodern buildings first hosted talks involving minor Syrian opposition groups in 2015, the city’s debut in helping to end a seemingly intractable conflict.
On Monday representatives for Syria’s rebel groups, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the United Nations – as well as officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran, the talks’ organisers – will descend on Astana in a bid to bolster a frail nationwide truce.
It will be the first time an opposition delegation composed exclusively of rebel groups and the Assad regime sit at the same negotiating table since the conflict erupted in 2011, and the most significant peace negotiations to take place in Astana.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the next stage in ending Syria’s bloody civil war was getting all sides to agree to a nationwide ceasefire, and suggested they could agree to take part in fresh peace talks in Kazakhstan.
Monday’s talks, which will be held in the city’s luxury Rixos President Hotel, will give an extra boost to Astana’s efforts to brand itself as a “new Geneva”, the Swiss city that has hosted several rounds of ill-fated talks on the Syrian crisis.
“This location worked out very well for everybody, the government and all the opposition groups,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday, praising Astana for “offering its services in a civil and non-intrusive way”.
Analysts say that Kazakhstan’s push to hold high-level peace talks in its capital allows the country to present itself as a regional power and international economic player, raising its prestige on the world stage.
The Central Asian nation’s role in hosting high-level talks “boosts its status as a regional power, which can give it economic opportunities,” said Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Zhuravlyov.
He stressed that ex-Soviet republic Kazakhstan had forged solid partnerships with Russia, Turkey and a number of Western and Middle Eastern countries.
Viewed as a guarantor of stability at home, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has projected himself similarly abroad, remaining close to Russia while engaging with the West, China and the Middle East.
In December 2014, at the height of tensions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, he arranged a visit by French President Francois Hollande to Moscow to meet with an isolated Putin.
He is also said to be a key figure successfully mediating between Moscow and Ankara after their bitter dispute over the 2015 downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish airforce near the Syrian border.
Nazarbayev’s diplomatic outreach initiatives are a way for the 76-year-old leader to bolster his image in the face of international scrutiny for rights abuses and crackdowns on freedom of information.
In more than 25 years in power, Nazarbayev has worked hard to convey an image as a “bridge builder”, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“This is not something he has only recently discovered,” Vatanka told AFP. “This is the fruit of many years of attempting to convince others that this is something he can do.”
Vatanka added that when Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, hosted world powers for talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2013, the country “didn’t have to do that”.
It was yet another attempt to come across as a helpful mediator to an international audience, ultimately hoping to reap benefits from opening its door to the world.
“Kazakhstan is a large country that happens to be landlocked,” Vatanka said. “President Nazarbayev’s multivector foreign policy has really been about overcoming this geographic handicap.”