After Astana, rebel clashes threaten Syria peace push
Beirut - Heavy fighting between rebel groups in northern Syria threatens to undercut Russian-led peace talks that Moscow hopes will pave the way to a political settlement to end the bloodiest conflict in the Middle East.
The clashes between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which is linked to al- Qaeda, and other Islamic factions led by Ahrar al-Sham, erupted as the January 23rd-24th talks in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, ended with an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey to cement a shaky ceasefire declared on December 30th.
The trio has the muscle and firepower to enforce a cessation of hostilities unlike previous ceasefires that were sponsored primarily by the United Nations.
That capability is facing an immediate challenge with the intra-rebel fighting. At least six rebel factions have joined Ahrar al-Sham, which has distinct nationalist leanings, against the jihadist extremists under JFS in a showdown that could dramatically change the complex political lineup in Syria.
Still, the ground-breaking commitment by Russia, Iran and Turkey to jointly monitor — and presumably enforce — the faltering ceasefire appeared to be a step forward in a peace process that has so far failed to overcome the regional and political complexities of the Syrian conflict.
“We should give them a chance,” said UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, who attended the Astana talks. “I’m convinced that the very fact they’ve decided to have a mechanism makes it very different from the past.”
It remains to be seen whether Astana marks a turning point but it was significant because it was the first time that officials of the Damascus regime and rebel leaders met face-to-face since the war began in March 2011, although negotiations were indirect and no binding agreement was signed.
It was also the first time the warring parties got together after the war was transformed by Russia’s hard-hitting military intervention, which began in September 2015 and saved the faltering regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And this time many rebel groups were represented by their military commanders rather than their political leaders.
That heightened the impression that the Russian-led peace effort, supported to varying degrees by Iran and Turkey, which also have armed forces engaged in Syria, could be the most serious push yet to end the seemingly intractable conflict in which more than 400,000 people have been killed and much of Syria devastated.
Although many rebel groups, badly mauled by 17 months of relentless hammering by Russian air power, attended the talks, several major factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and JFS were excluded.
The deep divisions between rebel forces and emerging differences between Iran and the strengthening alliance of Russia and Turkey over their strategic objectives in Syria remain serious impediments to meaningful progress in peace efforts that will now move to UN-sponsored talks in Geneva in late February.