Can Central Asia Be a Broker for the Syria Conflict?

Azerbaijani soldiers at a 2010 parade in Moscow.

Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan need regional stability and security in order to conduct necessary economic reforms.

Some mainstream media and expert communities in Western countries constantly fail to capture the essence and logic of political developments—especially the foreign policies of former Soviet countries—in the heartland of Eurasia. Media and experts in the West tend to divide the policies of former Soviet countries into simplistic categories as “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian,” without considering geographical constraints and regional and historical context. In addition to inconsistent attention to developments in the region, media and experts tend to describe the policies of nations in the heartland of Eurasia through a purely liberal worldview of human rights and democracy. However, the dynamics in the heartland of Eurasia are much more unrelenting and complicated, with a very fragile equilibrium of stability, a subtle struggle of regional power politics and aspirations of preserving national sovereignty.

A good international-relations theorist can find a very good case study that shows convergence and similarities in the foreign policies of two main countries in the Eurasian heartland: Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Since their independence, the two countries have been trying to prove themselves as sustained, livable nations and players in regional and international affairs.

Convergence of Interests and Policies

Although Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are not bound officially with any official alliance like the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), their regional and global policies converge and they support one another in their aspirations to maintain independent policies. In this context, Azerbaijan received a special visit from the president of Kazakhstan in the first week of April. Azerbaijan has been quite successful in building productive relations with members of EEU and CSTO countries without becoming a member of Moscow-led organizations, undermining Armenia’s expectations about its ability to gain allies. This success is reflected in how Belarus and Kazakhstan have not supported Armenia as their official ally in Eurasian institutions, but rather the principle of territorial integrity. Additionally, during last year’s burst of bloody skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a high-level meeting of the EEU, which was scheduled to be held in Yerevan, was cancelled because of Kazakhstan’s refusal to attend the meeting.

Thus, the visit by the president of Kazakhstan, whose country is a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, just like Azerbaijan, was a powerful opportunity for the two countries to synchronize future policies—not only in the region, but also globally. In fact, the natural convergence of interest and synchronization of policies go beyond the region and deal with more global problems for security and stability on the Eurasian continent.

The West does not seem to have a clear strategy for how to end the civil war in Syria, especially after the recent U.S. missile strikes on Shayrat Air Field; coming elections in important states in Europe allow for further instability. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have been making progress by hosting important forums aimed at finding common ground, so that the two countries can work toward resolving the conflict in Syria.

Convergence of Policies

On January 23, 2017, Kazakhstan hosted a meeting for trilateral negotiation among three key players: Russia, Iran and Turkey. Representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s government and delegates from twenty-eight fighting opposition groups attended the platform. The U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, joined the meeting as an observer. It was no coincidence that Astana was chosen as a neutral place for a such meeting, given that it has positioned itself as an alternative and/or complementary to the Geneva process, which has not produced any meaningful results. Kazakhstan’s leadership has been able to maintain good relations with Russia, Turkey and Iran. It has also gained the confidence and trust of not only the mentioned states, but other key international players with divergent interests. Kazakhstan has earned a reputation as a trustworthy mediator, especially after it helped mediate the normalization of Moscow-Ankara relations after the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian jet in 2015.