Progress but questions remain after Washington and Astana
US President Donald Trump said the latest talks in Washington between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the US administration were “very, very good.”
After hosting his Russian guest at the Oval Office, Trump added that he and Russia were determined to stop the slaughter in Syria.
For the first time in more than six years that might be a real possibility. However, much depends upon the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump and whether the two leaders are able and willing to put their full weight behind the “de-escalation zones” agreed at talks in early May in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The deal hammered out in Astana partially reflects Trump’s long-standing demand for the establishment of Syrian safe zones, though with a linguistic twist designed to garner support in Damascus.
The agreement was signed off by the Big Three — Russia, Turkey and Iran — and was discussed by Putin and Trump during a telephone conversation May 2.
In its capacity as one of the guarantors of the agreement, Moscow would assume responsibility for ensuring that no Syrian warplanes and tanks access four agreed-to zones. The first of these would be the city of Daraa in southern Syria, followed by Idlib in north-western Syria. The de-escalation zones also apply to the northern region of Homs and the countryside to the east of Damascus, held by Saudi-backed rebels since 2012.
Exempted from the ceasefire in all four districts are Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria) and the Islamic State (ISIS). Government troops and Turkish-backed rebels would be expected to unite in eradicating both groups from the Syrian battlefield.
Russia’s second responsibility would be to ensure Damascus restores basic services, such as water and electricity, to areas within the zones where supplies have been stopped. Damascus would also be required to reopen schools, hospitals, clinics and police stations where required.
Should the ceasefire hold, it would be incorporated within a UN resolution, allowing millions of refugees scattered worldwide to return home. Local militias would be required to surrender their heavy arms and military equipment — a task that Turkey has said it would oversee, promising the armed opposition the opportunity to administer its cities and towns under the auspices of Damascus, with any weaponry being restricted to light arms.
If successful, the de-escalation zones would provide a model that could be expanded to the eastern countryside of Aleppo, which Damascus and Moscow retook last December, followed by the villages surrounding the port city of Latakia.
However, for that to happen, many things must occur. All sides need to agree upon the identity of the peacekeeping observers to police the ceasefire. Currently, suggested peacekeepers are limited to “non-controversial countries” such as Egypt and Algeria or members countries of BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
In a break with what many assumed to have been an official policy of resisting the deployment of peacekeeping troops upon its territory, Damascus has not torpedoed the suggestion. However, no indication has been given as to who would fund the peacekeeping mission to Syria or precisely what the troops’ mandate would be and when it would end.
Questions also remain over the future of pardoned rebels present within the territories and the freedom of movement extended to them. Likewise, the issue of how any potential conflict between the regime and the militias they will be required to work with might be resolved.
Ambiguities also exist over who might be responsible for guaranteeing the safety of returning refugees. Additionally, the Astana agreement says nothing about how the Big Three would respond to any breach of the ceasefire and does not specify what the monitoring mechanism would be.
Though it represents a serious compromise in their war aims, both Damascus and the opposition have approved the agreement as it stands. It is also certain that elements in both camps would stand to benefit should the agreement fail.
However, the only chance of that happening is if the Big Three disagree among themselves over who gets what in the Syrian battlefield or if concrete steps are not taken to transform the Astana agreement into a workable framework document, through a new election law and a new constitution.
Overall, there is the need to recognise that the political and administrative hegemony of Damascus cannot continue into post-war Syria. Different towns and cities need a new form of local governance — the right to appoint their own municipality and local chambers or parliaments — the right to get a share of their own natural wealth and to appoint their governors. Ultimately this would give them greater autonomy but stop short of independence. They would remain part of the Syrian Republic.
The only legal document that has ventured close to this is the Russian-authored constitution. If the Syrians decide to stick with their old form of government, then Astana will fail, just like the tens of similar ceasefire agreements reached since 2011.