Astana and Geneva unlikely to yield immediate end to war

Sunday 02/07/2017
Focus on de-escalation zones. Syrian regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari (C) attends the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, on May 4. (AFP)

Beirut- The next round of Syrian ceasefire talks is set for the Kazakhstan capital of Astana in early July, at­tended by a select assort­ment of armed groups and diplo­mats from the three patron states: Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Major stakeholders in the Syria war, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain and France, have been sidelined from the Astana process and the United States has been given a ceremonial observatory role with no real say over talks that are being handled mainly by top diplo­mats from the Russian Foreign Min­istry.

Unlike the UN-mandated Geneva talks scheduled for later in July, which will be attended by govern­ment delegates from Damascus, the Astana negotiations will not dis­cuss politics or anything related to the transitional period but, rather, only the technicalities of imple­menting the “de-conflict zones” in Syria, agreed upon in May. The agenda includes deciding on the final borders and numbers of these de-conflict zones, along with the important question of who will man them and how each zone will func­tion at a governance level and coor­dinate with others to eradicate the presence of non-state players such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and the Islamic State (ISIS).

The de-conflict zones were a creative way of implementing no-fly zones in Syria, without naming them as such, coming in response to US President Donald Trump’s constant demands for such a for­mula, aimed at protecting civilians. The idea is generally believed to be the brainchild of Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin, signed off on by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Technically, the de-conflict zones would see the return of a Syrian civ­il authority to hot spots in the coun­tryside of Damascus and Homs and the rebel-held city of Idlib in north-western Syria. Syrian tanks, soldiers and warplanes would be off-limits in the designated areas.

The Syrian government would get to reopen police stations and schools in the zones, while rais­ing the Syrian flag, but would have to pardon armed rebels and allow them to keep light arms and co-ad­minister towns and villages, even­tually teaming with government forces to fight al-Nusra and ISIS.

Russia would guarantee that its proxies in the Syria war abide by the ceasefire and allow access to hu­manitarian aid and Turkish officials would make sure that the rebels stop attacking government troops and cities. Both Damascus and its opponents — under heavy pressure from Moscow and Ankara — reluc­tantly approved the Astana process in May.

A new de-conflict zone in south­ern Syria — stretching from the Syrian-Jordanian border to the city of Sweida in the Druze Mountain, including al-Quneitra, the princi­pal town in the Golan Heights, and Daraa, a former incubator for the Ba’athists where the first anti-re­gime protests started in March 2011 — was recently put on the table.

A new Russian military base is being erected approximately 50km from Damascus, aimed at oversee­ing the southern Syria zone. This military installation would be Rus­sia’s third in Syria since entering the war in September 2015.

One sticking point is who would monitor the de-conflict zones. The original plan was to invite “non-controversial countries” — from Arab countries such as Algeria and Egypt and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) — to do the job.

The Astana talks will have to de­cide how to raise money for such a peacekeeping force and decide who its final participants would be and what their mandate would entail. Would they get to carry arms and separate the warring factions, fir­ing at whoever violates the cease­fire? Or would they just be asked to monitor breaches and violations and report them to Turkey, Russia and Iran?

Also on the table is the exact pa­rameters of the de-conflict zones. Will rebels pardoned in those zones be allowed to commute across the country or would they be confined to the borders of their cities and towns? The Jordanian government is asking that all non-state players (Hezbollah included) are pushed into the Syrian heartland of 30- 50km from Jordanian borders and in exchange is willing to reopen the al-Nasib Border Crossing, restoring full bilateral trade relations with Damascus.

If not brought in as peacekeepers, the title of the troops would be “ob­servers.” One idea is to let Turkish and Russian troops “observe” the ceasefire in Idlib, while Tehran and Moscow keep the peace in Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus. Its main town, Douma, is in the hands of the Islamic Army, a rebel group set up with Saudi funds in 2012 and taking part in the Astana talks.

As for southern Syria, the idea is for the Jordanians to provide ground troops as monitors and for the US Air Force to supervise the ceasefire from the skies.

The Turks asked that their troops be deployed in all conflict zones, a proposal that was quickly debunked when Iran demanded a similar right — something that was automatically vetoed by the United States.

Once through with the technical talks, Syrian delegates from both sides of the conflict are to meet in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations, aimed at debat­ing the Russian-proposed constitu­tion for Syria and the creation of a power-sharing formula, or cabinet of national unity that supervises parliamentary and presidential elections.

Neither the Astana nor the Gene­va processes are likely to yield im­mediate results for Syria and more rounds of talks are to come, await­ing a regional deal signed off by all stakeholders to end the war.