On December 16, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the newest round of peace talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition representatives could take place in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Moscow’s proposal received an enthusiastic response in Kazakhstan. Two days after Putin’s declaration, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev released an official statement, which expressed strong support for Putin’s initiative.
Russia’s decision to entrust Kazakhstan with a mediation role in the latest round of Syrian peace talks can be explained by two main factors. First, Kazakhstan has a long-standing strategic partnership with the Syrian government, and is likely to facilitate the implementation of a settlement that does not undercut Russian leverage in Syria. Second, Nazarbayev is likely to support Russia’s attempts to marginalize Islamist Syrian opposition factions, as Islamic extremist movements pose a threat to Kazakhstan’s security and political stability.
The Strategic Interests Binding Kazakhstan to Baathist Syria
Although the Kazakh government has remained officially neutral in the Syrian civil war since its onset in 2011 and invited 30 Syrian opposition members to Astana for diplomatic negotiations in 2015, Kazakhstan continues to maintain important strategic linkages with the Assad regime. Kazakhstan’s energy sector and security linkages with the Syrian government are the product of Nazarbayev’s November 2007 visit to Damascus. In spite of the chaos inflicted by five years of civil war, this visit’s legacy continues to shape Kazakh policymakers’ approach to the Syrian conflict.
Since the mid-2000s, Kazakhstan has viewed a strong relationship with Baathist Syria as an essential pillar of its strategy to expand its diplomatic presence in the Middle East. As Syria is strategically located on the Mediterranean Sea, many Kazakh policymakers have viewed Syria as a potential gateway to the Middle East’s energy markets. In 2007, the Kazakh government announced its intention to invest in Syria’s oil industry, and create a Kazakhstan-operated pipeline in Syria. While these projects have been suspended, the cessation of hostilities on Assad’s terms could give Kazakhstan an unexpected opportunity to revitalize this pipeline proposal.
Embracing a tacit pro-Assad position could also provide a welcome boost to Kazakhstan’s international trade flows during a period of economic malaise. Kazakh involvement in the Syrian conflict on Assad’s behalf could mollify Russia’s displeasure with Kazakhstan’s increasing disengagement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and further strengthen the burgeoning Astana-Tehran economic partnership. These economic opportunities could convince Nazarbayev to use his mediation role to strengthen Assad’s position and thus improve Kazakhstan’s relationships with Assad’s leading international allies.
In addition to these economic incentives, Putin’s decision to pick Kazakhstan as a mediator in the Syrian conflict is rooted in Nazarbayev’s strict support for national sovereignty. As Nazarbayev supported Assad’s argument that Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is a violation of Syrian sovereignty, and vociferously opposed partition efforts in Iraq, Russian policymakers are confident that Kazakhstan will oppose external regime change efforts in Syria.
As Kazakhstan maintains close relations with Turkey and in 2017 will hold a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Nazarbayev’s support for Russia’s territorial integrity argument in Syria could increase international support for Putin’s cause. Given that Kazakhstan wants to expand its array of international allies, Kremlin policymakers believe that Nazarbayev will present a normative argument for his handling of the Syrian crisis. If Nazarbayev can successfully advance Astana’s sovereignty principles in Syria, he will be able to highlight Kazakhstan’s soft power on the world stage and advertise Astana’s effectiveness as a mediator during international crises.
Why Kazakhstan Wants to Contain Islamist Movements in Syria
Even though the Kazakh government has not officially endorsed Russia’s conflation of Syrian opposition movements with Islamic extremism, Nazarbayev’s anti-Islamist agenda likely contributed to Putin’s choice of Kazakhstan as a mediator in Syria. While Kazakh policymakers have viewed Islamic extremism as a major security threat since the 1990s, concerns about the diffusion of terrorism from Syria have risen since the June 5 Aktobe attack.
On June 14, Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov released an official statement implicating a Syrian imam for the incitement of jihadist violence in Kazakhstan. The terror attack also led to an escalation of Nazarbayev’s crackdown on Salafists in Kazakhstan. While this move was officially aimed at preventing more Kazakhs from joining the 300 Kazakh nationals fighting for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, it has also strengthened Nazarbayev’s grip on power by rallying Kazakh nationalists against a common Islamic extremist enemy.
As Kazakhstan shares Russia’s view that the Islamic State’s presence in Syria is an imminent national security threat, Russian policymakers hope that Kazakhstan could use its mediation role to convince anti-Assad countries to scale back their support for regime change in Syria. In October 2015, Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov reached out to Qatar on the need to implement a political settlement in Syria. In an attempt to soften Qatar’s belligerent opposition to Assad, Idrissov emphasized that the struggle against Islamic extremism is a common objective shared by Kazakhstan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Turkey has also expressed strong support for Kazakhstan’s mediation role in Syria. This support is partially attributable to the instrumental role that Nazarbayev played in reducing tensions between Russia and Turkey after the November 2015 jet shoot-down crisis. While some Russian politicians decried Kazakhstan’s neutrality during the Russia-Turkey standoff as a show of disloyalty, Nazarbayev’s favorable relationship with Ankara could make him a highly effective diplomat in the Syrian context.
Kremlin policymakers also hope that increasing Kazakhstan’s diplomatic involvement in Syria will help bridge the chasm between UN peacekeeping efforts and the efforts of Arab states. In particular, Kazakhstan could use its UN Security Council position to engage the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the resolution of the Syrian civil war. Kazakhstan was one of the earliest advocates for OIC arbitration in Syria, as this policy proposal was articulated by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry during ex-Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov’s August 2011 visit to South Korea.
While Kazakhstan is unlikely to abandon its official neutrality policy in Syria, Astana’s economic and security interests strikingly mirror those of Russia. This synergy provides a compelling explanation for Putin’s decision to nominate Kazakhstan as a mediator in the Syrian conflict. If Islamic extremist movements further expand their presence in Kazakhstan, and Assad’s position continues to strengthen, Nazarbayev could play a surprisingly important role in cementing Russian leverage in the Syrian conflict in the months ahead.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post, amongst other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.