Latest Syria agreement sparks fears of partition

Sunday 16/07/2017
Seeking new formula. Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syrian chief negotiator and ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of Syria to the United Nations, speaks to the media, during the Intra Syria talks, in Geneva, on July 11. (AP)

Beirut- The resolutions of the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg took the Syrian political elite by storm, although the handwrit­ing had been on the wall for weeks. The two presidents settled what had been postponed at the July 4-5 round of Astana talks — the crea­tion of a de-conflict zone in south­ern Syria, encompassing the cities of Daraa and al-Quneitra and the countryside of Sweida in the Druze Mountain. Although not part of the Astana talks, the Hamburg Agree­ment certainly complemented what Syrian negotiators failed to agree upon in Kazakhstan.

The new zone is the latest terri­torial arrangement agreed upon in Astana by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Four de-conflict zones will now see the light: North of Homs, east of Da­mascus, in Idlib in north-western Syrian and in southern Syrian.

Syrians from both sides of the conflict are terrified by the latest agreement, seeing it as a soft par­tition of the country, establishing long-term pockets of regional and international influence that will be difficult to dismantle in upcoming years.

The Iranians are demanding that they get to help police and man all four de-conflict zones, something that has been fiercely vetoed by all other stakeholders in the conflict, including the Syrian opposition. Jordan and Israel refuse to accept any Iranian influence on the Syrian- Jordanian and Syrian-Israeli bor­ders, insisting that Hezbollah gets pushed away by 55km into the Syri­an heartland. For the past two years, the Israeli Army has been bombing truckloads of Hezbollah arms enter­ing the Golan Heights and targeting Hezbollah figures hovering danger­ously close to the borders.

Iran will be forced out of the bor­der area and left to reign in its ex­isting pockets of influence in Syria, namely in the Qalamoun Mountains overlooking Lebanon, the Damas­cus-Beirut Highway and at the Shia shrines in Damascus.

Instead of the Iranians, the Rus­sians will be mandated to control the southern zone through military police from Chechnya, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, similar to the 600 Russian troops deployed to Aleppo last December. Everybody, includ­ing US President Donald Trump and the Syrian opposition, seems to ac­cept Russian boots on the ground.

The Turks are asking that they get their share of the divides, run­ning the city of Idlib with Mos­cow, which fell to an assortment of Turkey-backed Islamic rebels in 2015. Damascus has firmly objected to the suggestion, although the Rus­sians are seemingly not too upset with it, seeing that Turkish troops are very capable of reigning among military groups who have been on Ankara’s payroll since 2011.

Russian President Vladimir Pu­tin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been cutting very successful deals over Syria for the past year. Last August, Putin allowed his Turkish counterpart to invade and occupy the border cities of Jarabulus and Azaz, then let the Turks march on the city of al-Bab, 40km north-east of Aleppo.

The Russians signed off a Turk­ish safe zone in northern Syria, aimed at freeing the border area from Kurdish and Islamic State (ISIS) presence, hoping that once it is 100% secure, millions of Syrian refugees could be resettled in the three cities and what lies between them. In exchange, Putin was given a green light to retake Aleppo in December. Erdogan looked away as his Syrian proxies on the battlefield were expelled from Aleppo by the Russian Army.

In June, Putin surrendered the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, to Turkish ambi­tions, letting Erdogan bomb Kurd­ish military positions and eradicate the presence of militias that Ankara regards as “terrorist organisations.”

Details on who will control what are to be outlined by the big three in August. It has been mutually agreed that Russia will patrol southern Syria, while the United States will control its skies, something that the Syrians also do not like but are in no position to halt.

For the four de-conflict zones to see the light, a new formula of governance needs to be reached by Syrian negotiators at the UN-man­dated Geneva talks. Running them through the centralised authority of Damascus will no longer work. The Russians are proposing giving the four districts greater self-rule, while keeping them within the Syrian po­litical and geographic framework.

According to a Russian-authored charter, the new four zones elect their municipality leaders with their own governors, without waiting for appointment or endorsement from Damascus. They will also get a share of their region’s wealth and will be given the right of voting for their own members of local parliaments, which would rule side by side with a central one in Damascus.

The Russian Army is to make sure that these four zones are de­militarised and made off-limits to government troops, tanks and war­planes. Damascus will get to reo­pen schools, police stations and the border crossings with Jordan and Iraq, which remain in the hands of the Syrian Army. They will also get to raise the official flag of the Syr­ian government but would have to share local authority with the rebels and coordinate efforts to fight Jab­hat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, the ISIS branch in the countryside of Daraa.

The four zones will not succeed if not backed by a new constitution, explaining why this was the only pressing topic at the Geneva talks. All previously urgent issues have therefore been put on hold, ranging from the creation of a transitional government, on to early presiden­tial and parliamentary elections, in­cluding the fate of the Syrian presi­dent.