Kazakhstan aims to raise its international profile to a new level this year. The Central Asian nation will host the Winter Universiade - an international sporting event for university students - and the EXPO 2017 World’s Fair dedicated to “Future Energy”. It will also launch a financial services hub, namely the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), which is to be run as a free zone with special economic perks and a legal regime based on English common law.
Astana will push all these events as evidence that Kazakhstan is a successful breakout nation and to burnish the image of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This push will start on January 23 with an international “front page” curtain raiser when Astana mediates the Syria peace talks.
At first glance, you might assess Kazakhstan’s stake in the Syrian conflict as being somewhere near zilch, even though, embarrassingly, there are apparently 300 Kazakh nationals fighting for the so-called Islamic State (IS). Several terrorist attacks were perpetrated on the territory of Kazakhstan during 2016, but nobody has ever confirmed a direct link to the IS, let alone Syria.
Yet that did not stop Nazarbayev from volunteering for the talks as Kazakhstan took on a non-permanent membership role in the UN Security Council – something that will be promoted as another facet of the country’s big 2017 PR campaign.
To nobody’s surprise, Kazakhstan’s role as mediator has so far been widely dismissed as inconsequential. The talks were arranged by Moscow and will include officials from Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United Nations. An invitation was extended to the US by Russia, despite Iranian objections, but the incoming administration of President Donald Trump said it was too busy to attend.
Analysts don’t expect Astana to get much of a look-in, with the real business to be handled by the tripartite of Moscow, Ankara and Tehran. But independent Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev says it might not be correct to completely reject Nazarbayev’s role in the talks.
No newcomer to mediation
“The talks are not the first time Kazakhstan has endeavoured to act as a mediator in the Syrian conflict,” Satpayev reflects, referring to two meetings between Syrian opposition forces that were hosted by Astana in May and October of last year. “The Syrian opposition leaders representing pro-Western political groups were against attending talks in Moscow due to their standpoint that Moscow is backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”
It was during the second meeting that some opposition leaders recommended that Kazakhstan should take on the role of mediator, Satpayev noted. Though the groups present at the talks were some of the less significant opposition forces – led by the Movement of the Pluralistic Society, a “patriotic opposition” group which advocates that the political transition in Syria should involve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and which has found favour with the Kremlin – Satpayev argues that the proposal was influential in the eventual choice of Astana for the peace talks.
“In addition, Kazakhstan was credited by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan with helping Turkey and Russia work out their differences in 2016 thanks to Nazarbayev’s good relations with both Putin and Erdogan,” Satpayev says. What’s more, it can be suggested that Astana is the perfect destination for the tripartite given Kazakhstan’s previous role as a mediator in 2013, when it was the location for talks between Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany, or the “P5+1” countries, on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Neutral player or tool of the Kremlin?
Kazakhstan is to all appearances equally friendly with the three initiators of the talks, meaning, according to Satpayev, it can “simply provide a neutral platform, without taking any active participation in the talks themselves”. The analyst says he personally did not believe Kazakhstan would openly support Russia’s interests.
But despite the advantage of Kazakhstan’s stated neutrality, Satpayev does not anticipate that much would result from the negotiations. A key obstacle is that not all parties in the Syrian Civil War - which grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring and has killed, by some estimates, towards half a million people - will be present at the talks.
Those absent will include Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Movement of the Free People of the Levant), a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units that is one of Syria's most prominent rebel forces. The group has, nevertheless, stated that it would support any decisions that might be negotiated by other rebel groups “in the interests of the nation”.
Other major opposition forces, including Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), the Free Syrian Army, the Fastaqim Kama Umirt Union (the Be Upright as Ordered Union) and Kurdish rebels have agreed to attend. Nevertheless, it is the three global players whose interests will matter most at the talks, and that is where Kazakhstan could potentially tip the balance.
“Kazakhstan's role as a mediator is likely to help sway the talks in Russia's favour even though Kazakhstan is officially neutral and has emphasised its foreign policy independence from Moscow to the international community,” independent political analyst Samuel Ramani tells bne IntelliNews. “But these displays of independence have often been symbolic shows of neutrality - on the most critical issues like the opposition to Islamic extremism or on opposition to regime change missions, Kazakh policymakers have typically mirrored the Kremlin line.”
“[Kazakhstan], like [Russia], views Syria as offering a critical gas shipment point if Syria can stabilise, due to its proximity to the Mediterranean coast and strategic location between Europe and Asia,” Ramani says. “Kazakhstan's support for this evaluation of Syria's strategic importance is evidenced by energy sector investments that were signed by Nazarbayev during his meeting with Assad in Damascus in 2007.”
Kazakhstan’s interests lie in ultimately supporting stability in Syria under Assad’s regime, Ramani argues. “If Nazarbayev buys the case that Assad has recaptured Damascus and Aleppo - integral to Syria - and is on the ascendancy, backing Assad is a wise choice,” he says. Kazakhstan's position would be further consolidated by Turkey's recent decision to soften its opposition to Assad.
Kazakhstan’s convergence with Assad can be viewed as further magnified by the country’s close energy cooperation links with Iran, Assad's principal ally. “The strategic calculus on Nazarbayev's part may well have been different if the opposition had momentum, but for now a convergence with the likely dominant actor in Syria is a clever strategy to protect Kazakhstan’s gas interests, as gas sales require less violence against pipeline sites and political stability to maximise revenues,” Ramani concludes.