Syrian crisis poses threat to stability of Central Asia and Caucasus

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Syrian crisis poses threat to stability of Central Asia and Caucasus

A second conference on a Syrian settlement, which has traditionally been attended by representatives of various parties and movements of the Syrian opposition, was held in Astana. The Damascus government has ignored the event. However, this meeting was of great interest, after Russia's direct intervention in the conflict. This, according to experts, aggravates the situation in Syria, carrying risks both for Russia and the countries of Central Asia and Caucasus.

Astana became a platform for talks on a Syrian settlement for a second time. The first conference was held in May 2015. It was attended by the same participants: representatives of the 'Movement for a Pluralistic Society', several opposition groups, independent opposition figures who found refuge in the West. However, this structure does not reflect the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition, which opposes the Damascus government. Moreover, according to experts, it is not the opposition who is ruling now, but the terrorist groups – Islamic State (banned in Russia and other countries), as well as Jabhat Al-Nusra (a pro-al-Qaeda group, which is adjacent to the other groups, including those composed of natives of Central Asia).

The declaration with recommendations to hold parliamentary elections in Syria in 2016 under international supervision, to organize a reform of the armed forces of the country, to create a united front to combat terrorism and to withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the country, adopted following the meeting, is not binding. It's clearly not them who will decide the fate of Syria.

Kazakhstan, which became the site for consultations in the resolution of international conflicts, can add another advantage to its asset. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has gained the status of mediator in the peace missions. He was able to bring the participants of the Ukrainian conflict together, but Astana did not become a site for consultations of the 'Normandy Quartet' – Minsk, which is geographically close to Europe, managed to seize the initiative and become a moderator in these negotiations. "Astana has achieved the main thing. The members of the Syrian opposition said they intend to appeal to the President of Kazakhstan with a request to act as a moderator in resolving the Syrian crisis," the director of the Kazakhstan Group of Risk Assessment, Dosym Satpayev, told Vestnik Kavkaza. However, according to him, the peace talks will not solve this conflict.

"This is a case where the collision of opposing forces in Syria has degenerated into a conflict with a zero-sum game, where one side can truly win only if others lose. And various external forces are standing behind every member of this bloody sparring. Direct military intervention of Russia in the Syrian conflict also creates difficulties for Kazakhstan, since the partnership between Kazakhstan and Russia in the framework of the CSTO and EEU initially represents Astana as a Russian satellite in the eyes of the pro-Western, pro-Arab and radical part of the Syrian opposition. In other words, we can't please the whole crowd in this," the expert said.

He recalled that during the talks in Astana, it was decided to create a special committee to visit the northern regions of Syria that are controlled by the Kurds. But it is unlikely that Turkey, which bombs not only the IS positions, but also Kurdish paramilitary organizations, will like such an initiative. "A thesis on the withdrawal of all foreign fighters, included in the Astana Declaration, concerns, among other things, the fighters of the Hezbollah movement, who are supported by Iran and engaged in military aid to the Syrian army. But this is contrary to the trend of a creation of a 'Russia-Iran-Bashar al-Assad' tripartite alliance in Syria, which will only consolidate the presence of foreign troops in the country," Satpayev explained.

This suggests that since the inception of the Syrian conflict, it is only expanding, covering new territories and increasing the number of participants. So it also carries risks in itself both for Russia and for the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. And a significant part of the North Caucasian militants, natives of Georgia (Pankisi Gorge, Adjara and Kvemo Kartli), as well as of Central Asian countries are already fighting in the ranks of IS. According to experts, Russia's participation in the Syrian conflict can cause a wave of terrorist attacks on the territory of the CIS.

Central Asia in this regard is the weakest link. According to some estimates, up to 5000 people from Central Asian countries are fighting on the territory of Syria. "Any terrorist group is a tool. And the activity of these groups indicates the direction of geopolitical aspirations of various parties," the Director of the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies, Yerlan Karin, said. According to him, the Syrian conflict has provoked a clash of interests of a number of regional players – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – which have already competed, but now they do it openly, for example, in Yemen. It is also starting to affect the situation in Afghanistan, although I must say that the IS presence there is exaggerated a little. It is not yet present physically, only as a factor. Afghanistan's long border with Turkmenistan is strengthened significantly worse than the border with Tajikistan. And this means a high probability of a breakthrough in the Turkmen section. Ashgabat understands this and is trying to strengthen its border.

It is known that the authorities have pulled up to 70% of combat-ready equipment and weapons of land forces to the borders, and the battalion tactical groups of border guards, stationed in the south of the Mary and Lebap regions, are reinforced with additional artillery, air defense, support services from other, more quiet regions of the country. According to a Turkmen officer, who wished to remain unnamed, "they have enough forces and resources to ward off any attempt by the militants to infiltrate the territory of Turkmenistan. However, the military leadership of the country, with the consent of the President, made a decision about sending new reserves from other regions to the border."

Yerlan Karin is sure that a very big source of conflict is forming in the Middle East, which involves the major powers, as well as various regional players, which leads to more intense competition between them. "When these kinds of powers enter into conflict, some of them lose, so they try to win back losses and defeats elsewhere. I hope Central Asia will not become a so-called compensation field tomorrow," Yerlan Karin noted.