Article by Shehab Al Makahleh and Maria Al Makahleh (Dubovikova)

As it is apparent now that Russia has succeeded to help the Syrian government to regain stability to the war-torn country by various military means and then politically through its capacities so far as successful mediator, Moscow continues to translate the accumulation of military achievements in the Syrian field at the table of political talks and within the circles of the regional and international powers, realising its political and military weight and influence to make the necessary moves at the Syrian level at suitable time to break through the stalemated Syrian political scene at all stages.

However, Moscow has used various tactics to manage the Syrian conflict by forcing political, economic and military pressure on the countries that were deemed architects for the demise of the Syrian government and the division of the country. Thus, Russia used its political manoeuvring to gain momentum and impetus to win in the battle before imposing itself as one of the key players in the Middle East region in spite of all pressure being exercised on Russia since the inception of its military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Moscow cannot ignore demands of its Syrian peace partners: Iran and Turkey who have concerns over the Kurdish participation in the meetings. This is why the Congress of Syrian peoples, or the Congress of national dialogue, which was planned to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on November 18, was postponed to a further notice, as Ankara voiced objection to the invitation of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the conference.

The decisions adopted at the seventh round of the Astana talks of the Russian initiative to hold a Syrian national dialogue conference  (Congress of the Peoples of Syria) to be held in Sochi hold the following messages:

First, the increasing role and influence of the Russian Federation in the complicated files within the map of the Middle East through proposals which formed alternatives to American ones which have failed in the region. As an indicative, this applies to the Syrian scene through flexible transition of Russia as a player from a warring party against terrorism to a peace dealer and guarantor. Such a conference is deemed a very important development as conflict in Syria is transitioning from military to political with the forthcoming defeat of Daesh.

Second, the approval of the guarantor states, Iran and Turkey, to adopt the Russian proposal, and the rush of Damascus without hesitation to announce its participation were quite indicative. Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, David Satterfield, have made a stunning move by asking the opposition to participate effectively in all meetings and make crucial decisions to reach political solution. This indicates the approval of the stakeholders and the parties to the Syrian conflict to adopt the Russian vision or perspective - at least - in principle, although some regional powers are still rejecting such initiatives proposed by the Russian side. Though some observers are not upbeat with the conference; others consider it as a bail out from the current situation where there is no win-win in the Syrian conflict especially in some cities including the southern western parts and the northern eastern region.

Third, for the first time, political streams and Syrian social and ethnic components were invited to participate in such a conference which Moscow mobilised for even before announcing holding the gathering in Sochi at least in terms of the momentum of participation, which was shown by the list of invitations of 33 political Syrian components to participate in such an entitlement due to the failure of the international envoy to Syria, Stephan de Mistura, to implement the preamble of Resolution 2254 as a result of the international pressure exerted upon him and which turned him into non-neutral in his mission. Also this is coming from the understanding that none political process is possible without national reconciliation and without regional and international involvement with good intentions. Though this would not lead to instant solution to the current issue, but it would pave the way for future talks about the draft constitution, transition, and the future of presidential elections.

Fourth, the prelude to launching the so-called Sochi conference is an implicit declaration that the war in Syria is almost over. Strategically, Moscow may seek to withdraw the surplus of its forces, which have ended their counterterrorism mission throughout this month. The progress of Syrian army eastward the country and their coordination with the Iraqi army through the Russian Military office in Iraq and in Hmeimim would help strengthen the stand of the Syrian government in the coming dialogues and negotiations.

Fifth, the announcement by head of the Russian delegation to Astana, Alexander Lavrentiev, that the Syrian leadership's approval of constitutional reforms, and the formation of a national government, the achievement of national reconciliation and the battle against terrorism may be the most important headlines on the agenda of the Sochi Conference. Yet, some observers voiced their pessimism of the outcome of such a conference as Russia is considered dishonest broker or mediator.

Sixth, the consensus of the Syrians of various political and ethnic spectrums to modify the name of the conference proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The congress of Peoples of Syria” refers to two parts: The consensus of most Syrians on the unity of their country and fear of division. The other part is the acceptance of the Russian leadership to amend the name of the conference means the fall of anti-Russian propaganda on charges of trust or occupation of Syria.

These meanings and facts, which force themselves strongly on the political scene, face concrete obstacles. The first is the international infuriation expressed by the international envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura by refusing to participate in the regulatory measures, but only "accepting participation as an observer on conditions he presented to the Russian side”. The second barrier is the extent of seriousness of the Turkish guarantor to adjust behaviour and obedience to the Russian will in terms of countering and fighting against terrorism of Al Nusra Front in Idlib and increasing the stabilisation of the de- escalation zones, without vetoing on the participation of any Kurdish party or power in Sochi conference. The third barrier is the acceptance of Riyadh Conference members to participate in the Sochi meetings who will be adhering to the ethics of negotiations in line with the variables on the ground in Syria, which means they have to relinquish some of their demands as new results have become in favour of the Syrian government and its allies.

Lack of clarity of the conflict map in the northeastern region of Syrian geography may constitute a new obstacle if the United States continues to push Syria's Democratic Forces (SDF) towards more recklessness that may impose a de facto direct connection between the Syrian army and its allies with Washington and its alliance. The Kurds irk both Iran and Turkey who are guarantors in Astana talks and it would be a very thorny mission for the Russians to bring them to the table along with Iranians and Turks.

Whether Sochi Conference will be reaching a formula of Syrian national consensus in isolation from external interventions or not, what is certain is that former Kremlin initiatives succeeded in thwarting those of other countries which were held at conferences outside Russian geographical boundaries. Thus, such a conference sounds successful even before officially kick-off, with the number of attendees and the agenda which would lead to a transition government and the announcement of the draft constitution before being announced with amendments in Geneva end of November.

Article published in Valdai Club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/will-sochi-congress-be-the-way-out-for-the-syrian/

Published in Tribune
Friday, 28 July 2017 20:50

Syrian Conflict Moves Closer an End

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

Quiet meetings in Amman between the Syrian opposition and other parties are a step forward.

The Syrian conflict is moving closer to its end. Despite global expectations, the key settlement process is occurring on the ground and in closed talks, not in front of the media and, therefore, not manipulated by geopolitical players and games in Astana or Geneva. Such formats on the ground and in talks beyond closed doors prove to be more successful and fruitful than all the pomp covered by the media, which just recycles the message of “no outcome.” But through minor steps the greatest goals are achieved.

One of such talks was held recently in Jordan for three days between representatives of Syrian armed forces and officials from Jordan, the United States and Russia. The meetings discussed the logistics of the de-escalation zones in southwestern parts of Syria, and they demanded that Al Nusra fighters pull out from this area. This move would give the Syrian army and its allies, as well as Jordan and its allies, the impetus to control the eight-kilometer “pinnacle” that has been a thorny issue for the Syrian, Israeli and Jordanian armies.

The talks included 58 representatives of the Syrian rebel alliance, including the Free Syrian Army, who label themselves the “Southern Front.” The meeting also discussed moving some of these forces to Al Shaddadi Military Camp near Deir al-Zour in order to liberate it from the Islamic State (Daesh).

After the meeting with the Syrian opposition, Jordan has started to change its tone toward Syria and its regime. This fact can be inferred from the recent statements of Jordanian officials, stressing the kingdom’s great interest in southwestern Syria. Official statements on-record and off-record about the security and stability of this part of Syria show that the region is of strategic interest for Jordan and the whole Middle East — an implicit signal that there is no rejection of the current government or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A ceasefire control mechanism brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan in southwestern Syria is nearly ready, as Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said following the Amman meeting on behalf of the Syrian opposition.

The Jordanians know very well that such phrases are aimed at approaching the nearest possible distance from the logic of the Syrian regime, which today prides itself with so many victories on the ground — recapturing many strategic locations that are deemed major victories, especially the “dubious melting away” of Daesh and the suspicious absence of other Islamic factions such as Al Nusra, which are supported by regional powers. The recent breakdown of many factions has led the Syrian armed forces to gain the momentum and to spread its troops into many parts of Syria, with the aim of liberating the whole country before the end of the year.

Assad has refused to demarcate the southern border by delineating an area of eight kilometers in southern Syria that would secure Jordan and Israel as well near the Nasseeb border crossing point. In other words, the Syrian president rejected the opening of the crossing point that would serve both Jordan and Syria. However, with Eid Al Adha approaching, the opening of the border indicates a gateway for cooperation, according to sources close to the president.

RUSSIA, TURKEY AND ISRAEL

More importantly, Jordan is investing its relatively “sophisticated communications” with Russia. In a closed-door meeting at the royal palace a few days ago, discussion about President Vladimir Putin described the Russian leader as a “trusted friend” and a “credible man.” Until now, Jordan has tried to reopen the Nasseeb crossing point, but President Assad has been “dodging” the issue for the past few months. With the agreement, Russia provided an opening for the Syrian leader to voice willingness to reopen the crossing point under certain security arrangements that will guarantee the eight kilometers. The whole area that will be the demilitarized zone in southern Jordan will include a 30-kilometer-wide strip in Syria running parallel to the Jordanian border.

Simultaneously, the Jordanian government held talks to reopen the Turaibeel crossing point between Jordan and Iraq. Turaibeel was closed after Daesh emerged in the eastern region of Iraq but now it is open, according to Jordanian officials. This fact is confirmed by Iraqi sources who said there are joint security and military operations nearby the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Private meetings helped to set the stage for the Turaibeel reopening where cooperation is essential. The Jordanian official spokesperson confirmed the talks publicly a few days ago with regard to the reopening of the Turaibeel crossing point.

Jordan is also focusing on Turkey’s recent public position that a “terrorist group” should not be allowed to have a base in northern Syria, as this factor would threaten other safe or de-escalation zones in the country. The Jordanians now strongly believe that Amman has great interest in Syrian unity, and they pin high hopes on the tripartite deal with the Americans and Russians for a “long-term ceasefire” in southern Syria.

The tripartite deal has neutralized Israel as this agreement serves Israeli security as well; yet Israel is pushed away from the Syrian battleground and any Israeli intervention in Syria remains a constant possibility. However, there are multiple hidden indicators that determine the mechanism of monitoring the ceasefire, which will be announced in its final stages very soon as the Syrian predicament is reaching its finale.

Amman is struggling behind the scenes to put in place a mechanism that would be mandatory for all parties concerned to adhere to for a Syrian truce. The Americans believe the truce will eventually lead to the formation of a “Daraa region” within a Syrian federal system that will determine matters in the future Syria. The so-called long truce is called “a wide, low-tension zone” by the Russians.

At present, the Syrian government sounds very “cooperative” and in line with Russian demands. Recent battlefield successes mean the Syrians are keen not to waste the army’s efforts, and they want to strongly invest manpower into rebuilding Syria and to avoid military attrition in southern regions of the country, instead focusing on a magnet for Daesh: Deir al-Zour.

Overall, Jordan seeks to stabilize Syria now and supports the de-escalation zones scenario not only in order for the region to prepare for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, but also to ensure Jordan’s share and role in any future regional and international arrangement in Syria’s south.

Jordanians believe they have the “winning card” as the closest and most connected to the bloc of Daraa tribes and to Druze tribes in Jabal Al Arab of northern Jordan. While it is possible to discern “differences” that must be monitored between all parties in any private and quiet arrangements in southern Syria, Jordan’s focus on a “ceasefire monitoring mechanism” is a realpolitik solution to secure the best possible military — and then political — truce by the borders of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Article published in Fair Observer: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/syria-bashar-al-assad-jordan-russia-iraq-middle-east-news-01214/

Photo Credit: OBJM / Shutterstock.com

Published in Tribune

Diplomats from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States have begun a fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana with the Syrian government and representatives of some Syrian opposition groups to help Syria move to the next phase of defusing tension in all area to restore the country’s peace and stability as the country has been locked in a vicious conflict since early 2011

In the middle of continued violence in Syria, the 5th round of the Astana talks is set to convene to further discuss the establishment of the four proposed de-escalation zones in Syria in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa. This Astana meeting was preceded end of June by meeting by talks in Jordan involving U.S., Russian and Jordanian officials discussing a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria on the border with Jordan.

The July discussions will define the boundaries of the de-escalation zones, implement mechanisms by the three guarantor countries—Russia, Turkey and Iran— and will lead to the establishment of a new Syrian National Reconciliation Committee, that would split the other Syrian opposition groups.

The success of this round of talks depends on whether Russia succeeds this time in committing the parties involved in the Syrian conflict on the ground to the cease-fire as without a sustained cease-fire, no pathway to conflict de-escalation in Syria would be seen in the near future.

Sources to the 5th round suggest that monitoring over de-escalation in Syria be conducted from 2 monitoring centers — Jordanian and Russian-Turkish. In other words, the first will be Jordanian-Russia-US due to the meeting held in June between Jordanian, Russian and American security officials in Northern Jordan. This center will be in charge of the southern de-escalation zone. The second center will be in on the Turkish Syrian borders and it will be Russian-Turkish. These two monitoring centers would exchange information and suggest measures to prevent violations, such as military disengagement and any further military escalation on the borders with Jordan and Turkey to avoid any direct clash or skirmishes between the armies of these three countries which would deteriorate the situation to expand to the Israeli front.

As for the final declaration of the meeting, it will entail the formation of the National Reconciliation Committee of representatives of the Syrian authorities and local respected people, elder statesmen and opposition leaders. The commission would focus on all domestic issues, including security. It is expected that the committee would lead to the division of the Syrian opposition outside Syria.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations secretary-general's special envoy on Syria, who is taking part in the meetings of Astana, keeps calling on all parties to reach ceasefire and this would be a very good chance to bring peace to the war-torn country.

The meetings of Astana have paved the way for further deployment of Russian military to police the borders of de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalizing a deal with Turkey and Iran.
The details of the deal will be agreed upon by the three countries: Russia, Turkey and Iran in spite of some concerns about Iranian role in this process as voiced by the opposition.

In these talks there will be many Syrian opposition representatives

According to Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, there will be nine representatives of Syria's armed opposition at the talks on July 4.

The meeting will be attended by Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hoessein Jaberi Ansari, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, and the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East affairs bureau, Stuart Jones.

The fourth meeting in Astana in May was a breakthrough, as the three ceasefire guarantor states signed a memorandum on the establishment of four de-escalation zones in Syria without demarcation of these zones. Monitoring over the de-escalation zones is now the main topic on the agenda of the fifth meeting in the Kazakh capital.

The Astana meeting sounds to put an end to proxy wars in Syria as external military intervention—including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops threaten to lengthen the conflict.

The Syrian Army, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Kurdish armed groups that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including the People's Protection Unit (YPG), are fighting Daesh and Al Qaeda fighters to control more territory in Syria. The Astana meeting would help define the lines that each of the fighting parties would reach in this conflict before a final political settlement is set inspire of Russian and Iranian support to the Syrian government. The main objective of such conferences including Astana and Geneva are to reach ceasefire and then to avoid any direct confrontation between neighboring countries armies on one hand and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.

The ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements and extremists to increase their influence and pose hiking threats to countries neighboring Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Israel.

The first round of Astana talks were held on January 23-24, 2017 brokered by Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia and Iran, which support Bashar al Assad.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, more than 400,000 have been killed and more than 11 million displaced and fled the country to Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey seeking shelter.

Photo credit: AFP

Published in Tribune

The next round of Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, scheduled for July 10, will coincide with a fresh round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. These diplomatic efforts come as the situation on the ground is becoming more tense, with Russia and the US close to direct confrontation in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Turkey hope that a deal signed on May 4 to set up four safe zones in Syria will lead to a comprehensive cease-fire. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has proposed three issues to be discussed in parallel: Constitutional amendments, general and presidential elections, and the type of government. Yet none of the parties concerned are interested in the proposal, and they are continuing military action to gain the upper hand in any future talks.

At the end of April, Russia, Turkey and Iran established a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the proposed safe zones. As Daesh and Al-Qaeda lose territory in Syria, the government is gaining more, changing the political and military balance on the ground.

Decisive moments in Middle East history lie in the hands of three major powers: The US and its bloc, Russia and its bloc, and Turkey, which has strategic plans in Syria. With speedy efforts to liberate Mosul from Daesh, the main momentum will be in the belt extending from the Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi borders in the southeast to Raqqa governorate, Daesh’s stronghold.

As the race to take over this area heats up, the outcome will determine the future of any independent Kurdish state there. The recent withdrawal of German forces from southeast Turkey to Jordan indicates that the Western alliance is trying to empty the region to make way for an independent Kurdish state. Ankara is striving to abort this project.

The deployment of Turkish special forces near the border with Syria a few days ago indicates that Ankara has a spat with the West over this region and its future. Meanwhile, Tehran’s recent mid-range missile strike against Daesh sites in Syria is a message that it will not allow any Kurdish state that encompasses part of Iran and thus endangers its national security.

So both Tehran and Ankara have a common enemy in the Kurds, and they will do their utmost to deprive them of an independent state between Iraq and Syria along Turkey’s borders. Meanwhile, the upcoming Astana meeting will discuss the four zones that will be free of armed conflict. This will pave the way for a settlement of the Syrian conflict, which has so far killed 400,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

The major difference between American and Russian efforts against terrorist groups is that Washington does not want to relinquish liberated areas to Damascus. Russia and the US are intensifying their competition in Syria despite their coordination over airspace to avoid clashes or accidents. Russia issued a warning after the recent US downing of a Syrian jet, calling it an aggression and a violation of the deal between Moscow and Washington.

Any development in southern Syria will be monitored by Israel, which will not allow terrorist groups near its border to be replaced by Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters, as evidenced by its recent attacks against Syrian government forces near the Golan Heights. Military achievements will determine the composition of a future Syrian government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1121631

Photo credit: Reuters/ Yazan Homsy

Published in Tribune

Few days ago Russian president Putin stated Russia’s readiness to supply Turkey with advanced S-400 air defense systems. Turkey’s spat with the EU and growing discord with the NATO may be reason behind Turkey’s demand for Russian weapons. For its Arab neighbors the key question is whether this move is aimed against the newly proposed ‘Arab NATO’ or just a Turkish self-defense response following Washington’s arming of Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan may fear meeting the fate of his neighbors in Iraq and Libya, both former US allies, and preparing for the plan B ― turning eastward.

A number of factors, including its growing alliance with Russia and Iran, may have forced Turkey to look to boost its defenses independent from its traditional Western, NATO allies. Diplomatic spat with Germany over refugee deal, strained military relations over Incirlik base, last year’s failed coup, recent American arming of the Syrian Kurds ― all are seen by Turkey as Western moves against its sovereignty. Disliked as he is in the West, with current set of circumstances surrounding his country, Turkish president is wise to strengthen ties with Russia, a country with which the country shares borders and many interests, and most importantly, a reliable ally as witness in Syria and Iran. This is especially important considering that despite Turkey’s being an extremely important Western ally, Erdogan himself is considered a political persona non grata in the US ― the fact that only pushes him further into Russian arms.

While some Arabs may consider the move as targeting the recently announced ‘Arab NATO’, the move actually has different aim. The Arab NATO for now exists only on the paper, and even on the paper not all its signatories are in agreement on all of its stated goals. Moreover, the actual formation timeline is questionable and depends on the pace that Trump administration and Pentagon would take to deliver the weapons they have just sold to the Saudis, and the internal dynamics of the alliance in the making, and its individual members that have widely different military capabilities. As the NATO itself seems to be in disarray, the formation of its Arab equivalent is even more quizzical ― especially as a Trump project.

Erdogan is buying Russian S-400 because he fears that should the war in Syria and Iraq escalate, and the US pushes for the Kurdish state, Turkey itself would be subject to territorial loss. The shifting alliances and abandoning of allies is not a novelty in the American foreign policy, on the contrary ― it is something of a rule rather than the exception, and Erdogan seems to have grasped the possibility of this scenario being replayed with him at the helm of Turkey, and is trying to avoid ill fate of his neighbors.

At this stage Turkish president probably fears the destiny of Iraq’s long time ruler Saddam Hussein whom America first supported against Iran, then labeled dictator and finally deposed in the most gruesome way.

Erdogan has been already widely described in the Western media as a villain and a dictator. There was an attempted military coup last year, which he believes was directed (and likely aided) by the US. From this vantage point, Erdogan is justifiably cautious.

Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Turkey’s Patriotic Party (Vatan), believes that the Erdogan “got caught on the hook” by Washington.

In an interview with Russian Sputnik Turkey, he said “An attempt to divide Syria or Iraq would mean an attempt to divide Turkey. Moreover, this is also an attack aimed to shatter Erdogan’s power. Washington’s tactic is to isolate Erdogan in the international arena”. The only way for Turkey to “avoid a territorial division” is to “develop cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran,” he believes.

The pressing question then is, if Turkey is seriously reconsidering its alliance with the West and turning towards Russia and Iran led regional block, what is the future of NATO Incirlik base? What role would Turkish base in Qatar play? What with the US base in Qatar, should Qatar too change priorities and form alliances with Russia and Iran?

Amidst a serious and deepening rift between GCC countries and Qatar, Turkey’s key ally in the Gulf, there’s a possibility that the announced purchase of Russian systems might end up in the Gulf peninsula nation should the US decide to move its base, and Turkey decides to fill the void, as it already has a military base in the country.

International isolation and campaign of demonizing both Turkey and Qatar seem to have counter-effects. Instead of pushing them apart this strategy is pushing two once major Western allies firmly and inevitably into the Russian embrace.

Trump’s truly big (arms) deal with the Saudis has so far only managed to divide the Arab Gulf states. The security the deal promised to deliver seems further now than ever. Was it a genuine mistake by the inexperienced Trump administration, lack of strategic forethought or something more sinister, and who are the real villains in the Middle East?

Article published in Geostrategic Media: http://geostrategicmedia.com/2017/06/russia-ready-to-supply-turkey-with-s-400-but-why-does-turkey-need-it/

Photo credit AFP

Published in Tribune

By Maria Dubovikova and Shehab Al Makahleh

After shuttle visit of some officials from Syria and of Jordan to a number of capitals along with meetings in Sochi between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Rejeb Erdogan in the aftermath of a tripartite meeting of ministers of defense of Syria, Russia and Iran in Moscow early April, 2017, the prospects to establish safe zones under the supervision of three guarantors of a truce in Syria - Russia, Turkey and Iran are at stake as chances of success are in the offing to cease the 6 year long war in the country, which incurred a death toll of 400,000 and displacement of more than 11 million people.

Some regard that the agreement, signed by the representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey in the city of Astana which provides for the establishment of areas of "easing the escalation" in Syria in implementation of a plan presented by President Vladimir Putin after a phone call with American President Donald Trump to restore Geneva roadmap to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, would be fruitful if the concerned parties are committed and if the memorandum is applied literally. This would be successful to uncover those who are against reaching a real and true peace truce in the country which are Daesh and Al Nusra or the so-called Al Sham Liberation Organization (Ahrar Al Sham).

After the approval of the Astana memorandum to set up four 'security areas' or what is geopolitically known as safe and buffer zones - in Syria, the implementation depends on the areas that will be included as per the map which will be announced by June 4.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

Though the opposition members have not approved the document and walked out of the meeting, the three guarantors, mainly Turkey which has very close ties with both Daesh and Nusra fighters will help set up these zones in Syria to pave the way to restore peace and stability before the major air-strikes on Daesh in Eastern parts of Syria and Western parts of Iraq start this summer at a comprehensive level.

The memorandum stipulates that there should be four safe zones with check points and points of observations near the borders of low-tension zones or buffer zones which are labelled as ''de-escalation zones''.

The most important point in this document is the literal text, which stipulates that "the three guarantors of this agreement must assist the Syrian government forces and the armed opposition in organizing and supporting the armed forces and their affiliates, as well as forming a working group within five days to establish the safe areas."This paragraph means that the "moderate" armed factions are to join the Syrian armed forces efforts in combatting and fighting Daesh and Ahrar Al Sham. This is a major political and military makeover in the Syrian crisis, which gives credit to the Syrian regime.

Some Jordanian sources believe that the Astana memorandum provides for a halt to hostilities between the military opposition and Syrian armed forces in these 'safe zones' where ceasefire will be effective as of May 6, 2017. The memorandum is valid for six months, extendable for another six months.
The four 'safe zones' encompass province of Idlib and some parts of Lattakia, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, Reef Damascus or the so-called al Ghuta or Damascus Vicinity, Dera’a and Quneitra by the borders with Jordan. The inclusion of Dera’a and Quneitra was the main one as it is of great concern to both Jordan and Israel due to the intensive presence of terrorist fighters in these two areas along with Hizbollah and Iranian forces.
The signs of the success of this memorandum were uttered by UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura who called the memorandum ''important, promising and positive, a step in the right direction to deescalate the conflict''. The chances of success of the agreement are reasonable because alternative options are disastrous, and the Syrian people are looking forward for a sigh of relief and a breakthrough for their conflict after six years of killing and destruction. However, there are chances to "sabotage" the agreement through a continuum of arming and funding these terrorist groups.

Published in Tribune
Sunday, 12 February 2017 15:33

Moving towards Geneva: Giving peace a chance

Syria is moving to the fourth round of the Geneva talks. Two days of inclusive talks in Riyadh, bringing to the negotiation table the expanded Syrian opposition, including the Astana delegation and the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, finished yesterday. 

The opposition was harmonizing its positions on the threshold of the new Astana round, setting the priorities for Geneva Talks and discussing the outcomes of the previous Astana meeting.

The Astana meeting did not replace the format, but became a supplementary in-strument, a back-up tool for the Geneva negotiations. Astana permitted the realiza-tion of ceasefire, and the first round of talks resulted in the elaboration of trilateral monitoring mechanisms of the ceasefire regime in Syria, guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

On February 15-16, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry will host another round of talks, welcoming delegations from the Syrian government and the rebel side, along with the UN Special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistoura, and the delegations of three guarantors.

Jordanian and the US delegations are also invited to take part in Astana II.  

Resolving problems 

The Astana format is set to solve the problems preventing the Geneva format from being a success, by instituting the communication process and resolving ground is-sues, mostly related to the military sphere, and paving the way for political resolu-tion and the long-awaited and inevitable transitional process. 

The Geneva talks are set to be held on February 20. A lot has changed since the previous round. The third round practically did not leave hope for a political solu-tion. The Opposition, both moderate and otherwise, was so much fragmented, that it could not come to any agreement even within its own ranks. The International community was supporting separate opposition groups, thus somehow fragmenting them even more and politicizing the whole negotiation process, putting it in the framework of global geopolitical rivalries. 

The major changes in the global sphere, the focus of the US on presidential elections first and then on the cataclysms in face of Trump’s administration, with the West watching the goings on in Washington, together with changes on the ground in Syria have significantly changed the situation and prospects of the negotiations. 

The foreign states have cut their financial support to the rebel groups, and there are practically no more voices calling to topple the Syrian regime by force. 

As was stated by prominent Syrian dissident Louay Hussein, “the armed conflict for the state is over”, and the majority in the opposition are going back towards a political struggle. Even though Hussein’s conclusions are premature, his words have a grain of truth.

 

The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. 

Maria Dubovikova


The Syrian opposition has become more united and amenable. However, the Islamist fractions, that have formed a new alliance recently, are reportedly going to launch new attacks on the government’s positions. But most likely from the general perspective, such a decision is counterproductive primarily for themselves. Such attempts to disrupt negotiation and political process do not correspond to the expectations of the majority of the rebels and opposition forces. They alienate themselves from the political process, lose credibility, drifting to the terrorist Islamist formations in the company of which they have all chances to end up their fight. But this will hardly inflict significant damage to the negotiation process. 

Assad’s stubbornness 

What can be done about the stubbornness of the regime in Damascus. Russia’s in-fluence on the regime is overestimated than real. Damascus will keeps listening to advice as long as that that corresponds to its own expectations and vision. 

Iran has more influence on Damascus than anyone else, taking into account the strong Iranian support of the ruling regime. Iran is not interested in transition and in toppling Assad. Iran is interested in guaranteeing its influence on Syria in the post -war scenario. That is Tehran’s main priority. And during the negotiation process, Iran will do its best not to let anyone kick it out from the post-war political system rebuilding in Syria. 

Nothing is guaranteed for the outcome of the Fourth Geneva round. However, the sides attending it are far more organized than ever, and the opposition is looking forward to these talks with more enthusiasm and hope, than before, when the for-mat was considered mostly useless for them. 

There is a high risk that Damascus and Tehran can sabotage the talks with their stubbornness, as their positions are poles apart on many issues to the expectations of the opposition. Even in case of success there are many issues that will have to be faced during the political process and that will provoke at best tough debates. One such issue is the Kurdish matter.

While all the sides are seriously getting ready for talks, Syrians are looking to the future with hope. Reportedly, people have started to return to Syria, mostly to the ruins of their past, but they are strongly motivated to restoring their country and homes with their own hands. 

Life is returning even to ruined East Aleppo. Peace got a chance it did not have before, during all the long years of the bloody war.

Initially published by Al Arabiya English: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2017/02/12/Moving-towards-Geneva-Giving-peace-a-chance-.html 

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IMESClub MESClub vice-president Nick Soukhov took part in the live dialogue on the France 24 Arabiya on January, 19, 2017: Syria - what the equation after the Astana?

 

مفاوضات مرتقبة في أستانة بشأن الصراع السوري مقررة يومي الاثنين والثلاثاء القادمين. جولة أخرى من المحادثات السورية السورية لكن هذه المرة كل شيئ اختلف في الميدان السوري كما على الساحة الإقليمية والدولية. مهندسو أستانة مختلفون عن مهندسي جنيف، وشاغلو مقاعد طاولة مفاوضات أستانة مختلفين عن من جلسوا إلى التفاوض في جنيف. الروسي والأتراك سيرعون المفاوضات والأمركيون مدعوون لكن لم يعرف بعد إن كانوا سيحضرون أو من سيرسلون ولا بأي نية سيشاركون. سيكون على الطاولة إيرانيون وسيغيب عنها الخليجيون. فهل سينجح مؤتمر أستانة حيث فشل آخرون ؟

 

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Right after the Russian fighter jet was downed by the Turkish F16 over Syria, most of the commentators expressed confidence that Moscow would not go to escalation over the incident.

The reasons they gave were simple. Turkey did not join the Western sanctions following the Ukrainian crisis. Russia depends a lot on Turkish imports, and trade was rising. Russia needs Turkey to avoid gas transit to Europe through Ukraine. Turkey was the number one destination for Russian tourists, and the two countries have a lot of projects in the economic, industrial and energy spheres.

The only point they missed in their analyses, however, was that Russia stopped being properly rational some time ago.

Deterioration of relations

Russia and Turkey had been developing their relations over two years, despite their disagreement over the situation in Syria and future of Bashar al-Assad.

The first signs of a deterioration in relations came right after the launch of Russian airstrikes in Syria. Four days before the downing of the fighter jet, Ankara demanded the immediate cease of operations, and threatened serious consequences in case Russia ignored its warnings.

The Turkish “stab in the back” came with the downing of Su-24, when the deterioration reached its apogee. The red line was crossed. From this point the relations between the two countries degraded, putting the world on a very dangerous path.

Economic interests

It was wrong of political experts, politicians and world leaders to expect Russia to forgive the death of its pilot and the downing of its jet for the sake of economic interests.

Following the huge economic losses as a result of the sanctions imposed on it by its Western counterparts, Russia has started a very risky play on the international stage. What really matters for the Russian leaders now is to defend the image of a powerful, mighty and uncompromising country, ready to bear losses in defending its rightfulness and vital national interests. It is a luxury that not all countries can afford.

 

From the Russian side the most vital thing in the current situation is to save face and to respond to the Turkish slap in the face. It’s a matter of honor and thus irrational.

Maria Dubovikova

Russia took steps to punish Turkey. It effectively banned outbound tourism to Turkey, which is likely to cost Turkey billions of dollars per year. Many mutually profitable projects across many spheres will be suspended. Russian companies will be banned from employing Turkish citizens from Jan. 1. Many Turkish organisations, including cultural ones, will be closed or their activities will be highly limited by the Russian authorities, and the process has already started.

The cultural ties were the first to feel the blow of the Russian reaction to the Turkish provocation. Many of the measures also cause considerable damage to the Russian economy and interests. Turkey’s move to create difficulties for some Russian ships passing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles is not in Russian interests at all. However from the Russian side the most vital thing in the current situation is to save face and to respond to the Turkish slap in the face. It’s a matter of honor, and thus irrational.

Fight against ISIS

Among other things, Russia accuses Turkey of not playing fair in the fight against ISIS. After the accusations were officially announced, many international journalists from some of the most powerful news agencies – including The Guardian, Financial Times and New York Times – agreed that the accusations were not groundless.

It is globally acknowledged that Turkey is a jihadi hub, and a gateway that provides ISIS with new recruits from all over the world. Calls for Turkey to close its Southern border remain unheard by Ankara, despite Moscow’s accusations.

Turkey prefers to shunt the attention on to other subjects, such as its right to defend itself, as if Russia was menacing Turkey. Nevertheless, the Russian calls for a deeper investigation into the matter remain unheard, and the European Union earlier this week promised Turkey visa-free entrance for its citizens, in return for Turkey helping stem the flow of refugees into Europe. The West cannot afford the luxury of being principled, as the military bases and aerodromes are far more precious than any proof of Turkey's involvement in the ISIS business.

However, the escalation can go too far and can threaten not only the international fight on ISIS, which has just shown the first signs of coordination following the Paris attacks and efforts of the French president, but also global stability and peace. Russia's deployment of its sophisticated S-400 air defence system in Syria, and the presence of Turkish submarines near the Russian cruiser Moskva, have put the world one step away from a full-scale war.

The problem with Turkey for Russia and the international community is its NATO membership. And even if Turkey itself put the world on the doorsteps of the World War III, in case of the further escalation the NATO members will have to take its side.

Such escalation is extremely undesirable for all sides. However the risk of dramatic mistakes from the confronting sides is extremely high. And the risks are becoming even greater, taking into account that now there are too many NATO-member forces involved in the fight against ISIS, and not all of them are going to coordinate with Russia.

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During last week’s G20 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that according to his country’s intelligence, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is financed by private individuals from 40 countries, some of them G20 members.

He highlighted the scale of the illegal trade in oil and petroleum products. “The motorcade of refuelling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon,” Putin said, comparing the convoy to gas and oil pipeline systems.

Turkey is using its involvement in the fight against ISIS to hit the Kurds, whose militias are among the most effective forces against the group in Syria. Turkey’s weakly controlled 565-mile southern border is the main gateway for foreign extremists from all over the world to join ISIS. In Turkey jihadists get all they need, even fake ID cards and passports.

 

Ankara violated international law, as the jet should have been escorted away from Turkish airspace, not shot down

Maria Dubovikova

Ankara apparently does little to stop these dangerous activities. The passports of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were fake and made in Turkey. Turkish businessmen make deals with ISIS oil smugglers, providing the group with billions of dollars.

After the G20 summit, Russia launched a true war against ISIS’s oil infrastructure and the caravans of trucks transporting oil to the Turkish border. This has made Ankara nervous. Last week, following intense Russian bombing in Syria along the Turkish border, Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador, warning that bombing Turkmen villages could lead to “serious consequences,” and urging Moscow to “to immediately end its operation.”

The whole article is available herehttp://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/2015/11/25/Turkey-s-downing-of-a-Russian-jet-is-a-grave-error.html 

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