After Astana, rebel clashes threaten Syria peace push

Sunday 29/01/2017
UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

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.