Syria situation still complex as negotiations go on — and on !


READ IN:    العربية  – Anton Mardasov March 23, 2018 – Anton Mardasov is a military affairs expert and journalist focusing on Syria, Iraq and extremist organizations. He is also a non-resident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Article Summary  – Despite negotiations in Geneva and Egypt, and eight rounds of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the Syrian war entered its eighth year this month. March marks the seventh anniversary of the Syrian insurgence, but the war’s end remains elusive. While it has taken the offensive, Damascus can’t resolve the conflict militarily without foreign help, and instead is forced to pretend it is willing to consider political reforms.

On March 16 in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran summed up the results of their cooperation since January 2017, when indirect talks between Syrian rebel factions and government representatives took place. Representatives of the Syrian government and opposition leaders didn’t attend the Astana meeting this time. During a press conference, the foreign ministers — representing the three countries acting as guarantors of the Astana peace process — exchanged statements about maintaining cooperation, welcomed the progress made and planned the next round of talks for mid-May.

This meeting was designed to sustain the results of the Astana negotiation format by making a collective statement and preparing recommendations that will be presented April 4 in Istanbul and later in Tehran at a summit of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents to discuss Syria. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out, the parties will discuss new ways of implementing resolutions approved by the UN Security Council and actively supported by the Astana process. According to Lavrov, creating a UN-supported constitutional commission should become the turning point in alleviating political conflict in Syria. The decision to establish the commission was made at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, held in late January in Sochi, Russia.

Despite the efforts in Astana and Sochi, which were both designed to revive the UN-supported political negotiations in Geneva, the situation in Syria makes it clear that the Geneva talks have stalled and need an absolute reboot. The Syrian regime, backed by pro-Iranian factions, sees the peace initiatives as a way to divide and weaken the opposition. Turkey, which has gained control in Syria of Afrin and is eyeing Manbij, is tempted to play along.

According to the collective statement of the foreign ministers involved, all four de-escalation zones will continue to operate. These zones were designated in May to function for six months, but their operation was extended through this month. But Lavrov stressed that the zones may continue to operate depending on “the situation on the ground.”

Lavrov’s words do not shed much light on the future of three remaining opposition enclaves in the eastern Ghouta de-escalation zone. On one hand, their territory continues to shrink under the pressure of pro-government powers. Since March 16, more than 30,000 civilians have left the area using the humanitarian corridors. According to the Kommersant newspaper in Russia, as the guarantors were agreeing on the final statement, the Turkish delegation insisted on including a pro-US notion to immediately cease any fighting in eastern Ghouta — but Russia and Iran declined the proposal.

On the other hand, Russia’s Defense Ministry declared an end to fighting in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, which is controlled by the Islamist and Salafi coalition Jaish al-Islam. The daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat noted that Moscow intended to stabilize the situation in the area after pushing out and relocating small groups of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants, but Damascus and Tehran insisted on destroying all opposition pockets in the de-escalation zones. In any case, pushing Jaish al-Islam out of eastern Ghouta to Idlib is barely possible; this faction is present only in the southwestern area of that de-escalation zone — the zone agreed to by the United States, Russia and nearby Jordan — meaning that the United States would need to be consulted before any action is taken.

Moscow is pursuing a tough stance toward the Syrian opposition, fluctuating between issuing ultimatums and negotiating to conclude agreements in Cairo and Geneva. Yet the simplest of options — to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without compromise — can hardly be a viable resolution for Russia.

Assad and his government are members of the Shiite Alawite minority sect, while the country’s Sunni majority is primarily aligned with the opposition. Jordan, which shares part of its northern border with Syria, counts on the more moderate Sunni opposition to keep Shiite militias at a distance.

If the Sunni opposition enclaves near the Syrian capital are demolished, and especially if de-escalation zones stop operating, Damascus and Tehran are probably going to move the opposition and local civilians north to Idlib from Homs province, and later exert direct pressure on the opposition’s southern front, near Jordan, using the controversies between Russia and the United States. That action would complicate a Syrian resolution even more. On March 13, the regime exposed its intent to derail US-Russia agreements by bombing several cities in Daraa province. The United States followed up on the events by calling for an urgent meeting in Amman, Jordan, about the southwestern de-escalation zone.

“Considering that the constitutional commission will most likely include powers loyal to Assad, it is certainly possible that the role of this commission will have to do with pushing the reforms Damascus needs and at the same time will emphasize the illegitimacy of the international coalition’s presence in Syria in the official documents,” a source in Moscow with knowledge of details told Al-Monitor. According to him, in this case Iran will maintain its multifaceted presence in Syria while Moscow will obtain influence and, possibly, access to the eastern territories controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This will also open up a way to promote a kind of political resolution formally involving various ethnic groups and even the forces based in Damascus, which in public pretend to be dissidents.

A whole different question is what position Turkey might take in this situation. After the operation in Afrin is finished and Idlib is demarcated by creating monitoring bases and situating military groups there, Ankara may shift its focus from working as part of “the Astana trio” in Syria to fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party in Iraq. Turkey also will want to address the United States on the territories taken over by the SDF, a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the United States in fighting the Islamic State. Moreover, the discussion between Washington and Ankara about the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militants from Manbij is already in progress. In these conditions, Russia and Iran are eager to keep motivating Turkey to continue its cooperation in the trio by giving Ankara options for solving its Kurdish problem in eastern Syria. The United States, for its part, is interested in reaching a compromise with Ankara on the trans-Euphrates area, which the United States, as well as many Gulf monarchies, considers to be a foothold to confront Iranian influence.

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