The fourth round of talks on Syria in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana ended by an unexpected breakthrough and the adoption of a document paving the way for establishing peace in the war-torn country.
The countries-guarantors of ceasefire – Russia, Iran and Turkey – signed a memorandum on creating de-escalation zones in the Arab country in the presence of UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, observers from the US and Jordan, a delegation of the official Damascus and members of the armed opposition.
During the talks, many analysts noted the increased representation of Amman and Washington at the consultations. Nauaf Oufi Tel, political adviser to Jordan’s Foreign Minister, and US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Stuart Jones attended the talks. Besides, a delegation of opponents of the Syrian government was also present in Astana.
On May 3-4, many bilateral meetings were held and the issue on establishing de-escalation zones came to the forefront. The talks between Russian and Turkish Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 3 gave an impetus to the document’s elaboration.
The zones aimed at reducing tensions will be set up in four areas, namely in the Idlib province and some neighboring territories (Latakia, Hama and Aleppo) to the north of Homs, East Ghouta and some provinces in southern Syria (Daraa and Quneitra). On the borders of de-escalation zones security areas will be established where checkpoints are due to be set up for the passage of civilians and delivery of humanitarian assistance. Points of monitoring the ceasefire will be also arranged there.
Russian president’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said Moscow is ready to send observers to Syria to monitor the ceasefire in de-escalation zones. He said states that are not parties to the memorandum on de-escalation zones could also take part in the monitoring. This decision must be taken unanimously by the countries-guarantors of the ceasefire – Turkey, Russia and Iran, the diplomat said.
The memorandum on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria envisages a ceasefire in the designated areas from May 6. Any military activity, including flights of aircraft, will be banned. Russia, Iran and Turkey will do their utmost to combat terrorism in these territories and outside them. “As for the flights by aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces, we will naturally cease combat operations on this territory but only if no efforts are taken from the territory of de-escalation zones to destabilize the situation on the country’s other territories,” Lavrentyev said.
Ten days after signing the memorandum, the guarantor states will establish a joint working group, in particular for designating the borders of de-escalation and security zones. By late May, the maps of these areas will be drawn up.
The memorandum will be in force during six months and can be extended automatically for the same period. “In other words, in case of necessity, the memorandum (on de-escalation zones) may be indefinite,” the diplomat said.
Preserving territorial integrity
The Russian side believes that the decision made by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara will allow preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and will promote political settlement.
Damascus backed the Russian initiative confirming commitment to the December 30 ceasefire. The Syrian opposition did not directly oppose the memorandum but made it clear that it feels no sympathy for it. “The revolutionary forces delegation would like to reiterate that any agreement won’t be acceptable if it does not include the following points: Any ceasefire agreement should hold over the entire territory of Syria. The rejection of any Iranian role and its affiliated militias, and the rejection that Iran has a guarantor role or any other role, as it is an enemy country to the Syrian people,” the statement said.
Lack of diplomatic experience
The armed opposition’s delegation on May 3 suspended its participation in the talks due to the alleged bombing of two Syrian areas by Russia’s Aerospace Forces and the government forces. Russia’s General Staff refuted the allegations. Some delegates did not leave Astana and attended the plenary meeting, but a representative of the Jaysh al-Islam group, Mohammed Allyush, was not among them.
Some opposition members did not stay for long at the meeting. During the singing of the memorandum on de-escalation zones one of the opposition members started shouting: “Iran is a criminal, it has no place among the guarantors.” Then they left the hall.
Opponents of the official Damascus also called to limit the influence of Tehran and demanded the withdrawal of units affiliated with Iran from Syria’s territory.
Russia’s delegation explained this “demarche” by a lack of restraint and political and diplomatic experience. “I don’t think this will somehow affect further development of events in Syria,” Lavrentyev said.
The diplomat noted that it is early now to speak about the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces. He recalled that Shiite armed groups have repeatedly provided significant support for the Syrian government forces in fighting against terrorists.
Dialogue with US
Russia will continue working with the United States to look for appropriate mechanisms of interaction in Syria, Lavrentyev said. “The new US administration of Donald Trump has not yet defined its specific Middle East policy. Nonetheless, it was stated during the latest telephone talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the support for all the efforts in the war on terror and all the efforts for attaining peace on the Syrian land,” the head of Russia’s delegation said.
Regrettably, “Americans have ignored up until now the attempts to organize close military interaction,” Lavrentyev said.
In the envoy’s opinion, the work to establish this interaction “would be a step in the right direction that could help solve many problems.” “This work will be continued,” he added.
Talks in the Geneva format are expected to be completed by late May. Negotiators will again meet in Astana in mid-July and two weeks before that military experts will hold a meeting in Ankara.