The agenda for the next round of Syria talks in the Kazakh capital Astana was determined in an Aug. 7 meeting in Tehran of the three guarantor countries — Turkey, Iran and Russia — amid expectations that the Astana conference will be held in the last week of August. What is expected from this meeting between the Syrian government and opposition representatives?
The answers lie in the two de-escalation zones that have been effective so far. The first was announced in early July in the southwest, covering Daraa, Suwaida and Qunaitra. The second was announced on Aug. 2, covering northern Homs, including Al-Waer neighborhood. The expectation is that there will be a push for de-escalation zones in other parts of Syria.
Negotiators will also discuss a proposal shared by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. It contains the “four baskets” of transitional governance, a constitutional process, elections and counterterrorism. The conference will discuss which topic to handle first; the Syrian government insists on counterterrorism.
The outcome will have a long-term impact on regional stability, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees. The meeting could help stop the spill-over from Syria into these countries, provided that Russia and the US continue to cooperate to expand de-escalation zones. The Astana meeting will also call on all countries not to interfere in Syrian internal affairs and focus on how to rebuild the country.

Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Despite the failure of previous Geneva talks to stop fighting in various parts of Syria, the government and opposition have agreed 15 evacuation deals that have allowed opposition fighters to safely leave besieged cities and towns for Idlib.
A cease-fire in three southwestern governorates was announced on July 10 shortly after long meetings between Russians and Americans in Jordan, which helped bridge the gap between them. Under the deal, Russian officers are monitoring the cease-fire.
To many analysts, things are moving faster than expected in Syria due to coordination between both superpowers, and a belief among the government and opposition that there has been more than enough fighting. Both parties acknowledge that now is the time to stop the war and open a new page for all Syrians to rebuild their country.
Some opposition leaders have started echoing the government in saying a solution cannot be imposed on Syrians by other countries, particularly since the US said it will no longer push for Bashar Assad to be removed from power. Previous Astana meetings have successfully bridged some gaps between the Syrian government and the opposition. Let us hope that the upcoming one will do the same.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1142776/columns

Photo credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

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

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 

Published in Tribune