The 20th round of talks in the Astana format was held on June 20 and 21, 2023, between delegations of the regime and the Syrian opposition, with the presence of the guarantors of the process, Türkiye, Russia, and Iran. This round is considered unusual as it is the first to be held after the regime's return to the Arab League and the resumption of relations with most Arab countries. Additionally, this round is considered exceptional due to the launch of the normalization process with Türkiye.
On the sidelines of the Astana talks, a quadrilateral meeting was held at the level of deputy foreign ministers to discuss the draft roadmap for normalization between Damascus and Ankara, proposed by Russia after the previous meeting held at the level of foreign ministers in Moscow on May 10, 2023.
The concluding statement of the Astana talks, in addition to the protocol-related issues concerning combating terrorism, ceasefire, prisoner exchange, return of refugees, the political process, and others, included new issues that were not mentioned in the final statements of the previous rounds, the most prominent of which are:
- Progress made in preparing the roadmap for restoring relations between Türkiye and Syria. It is noticeable that this item is being prioritized over others, in an attempt by Russia and Iran to indicate the priority of this path over Astana.
- Countering the separatist agenda, cross-border attacks, and infiltrations, including those being launched from areas west of the Euphrates. This is a phrase that has not been previously mentioned in the final statements, indicating its priority for Türkiye in the upcoming phase.
- Agreeing on holding the 21st round of talks in the second half of 2023, without specifying the location as Astana, as was customary in previous rounds.
It seems that the announcement of a new round in the Astana format came as a response to Türkiye's position, which did not accept the termination of the process. However, due to the non-specification of the location, the possibility of not holding a new round elsewhere during the second half of 2023 remains; in light of Russia, Iran, and the regime's insistence on prioritizing quadrilateral meetings and resolving contentious issues with Türkiye through meetings as such, in addition to focusing on the Arab normalization path and bilateral relations with Arab countries.
Conversely, the regime's rigid stance during the quadrilateral meeting regarding the issue of the withdrawal of Turkish forces, especially from Idlib, likely reflects its desire to end the reason for which it agreed to their intervention in Syria to ensure a ceasefire under the de-escalation memorandum (2017), thus emptying the Astana process of its content and focusing on resolving other issues bilaterally or through a format modified from Astana.
Likewise, the regime's rigid stance reflects the emerging situation after Arab normalization and its regaining of its seat in the League. The regime considers the procedures through which the opposition delegation is treated as a second party representing the Syrian people to be "outdated". Therefore, the regime seemingly believes there is no point in continuing the Astana process with the undermining of the opposition's legitimacy derived initially from the decisions of the Arab League.
In contrast, there was a hardening of Turkey's position; it refused the withdrawal of its forces from Syria before a credible political process is achieved in Syria..
Despite the diverging positions between the regime and Turkey, the regime's insistence on continuing its engagement in the quadrilateral meeting indicates its readiness for full normalization of bilateral relations, but in a manner similar to Saudi normalization, i.e., without offering commitments towards the Syrian opposition and a political solution in accordance with Resolution 2254.
Finally, the announcement of the end of the Astana process, despite the possibility of its continuation in a different form later on, appears to be an attempt by the regime and its allies to empty the talks of their content and exert pressure on Turkey to address the issues that the process encompassed through the quadrilateral meetings. These issues include terrorism, withdrawal of foreign forces, refugee return, and others. Additionally, there is a clear desire to exclude the Syrian opposition from the military and security scene, parallel to the efforts of the regime and its allies to marginalize the opposition role in the political landscape by reducing it to a mere party in a national reconciliation process that deviates from Resolution 2254 (2015). This can relatively explain Turkey's position, as it seems to still cling to the process as a tool to maintain the presence of the opposition despite the regime's attempts to undermine its military influence.