The establishment of four “de-escalation zones,” agreed between Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan, as part of the latest peace efforts to end the Syrian civil war, is a crucial milestone on paper, but can this lead to elusive peace?
The deal would end Syrian air supremacy in the de-escalation zones.
The zones were a long-time demand of the Syrian opposition and the likes of Turkey, while earlier this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad labeled such initiatives as “not a realistic idea at all.”
This key concession was largely met with skepticism by the Syrian opposition, who lamented Iran’s role in the deal, and along with the regime, were not signatories to the agreement.
The main Syrian opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, criticized the plan as vague and lacking in legitimacy, deeming it a deal “concluded without the Syrian people.”
Owing to the highly complex landscape of the Syrian civil war, such deals leave more questions than answers.
In theory, there is already a cease-fire in place since the end of 2016. However, much like a host of previous truces, its implementation has been built on a lack of trust and shaky foundations, and prone to violations.
The deal is to be enforced by troops from Russia, Iran, and Turkey as guarantors, immediately opening potential flashpoints with neighboring countries.
How would Israel react to Iranian or Hezbollah forces stationed in Quneitra, adjacent to Golan Heights, or Jordan with an Iranian force on its doorstep in Dara’a?
A much larger multi-national force is needed to give the plan any sense of neutrality.
Also, it remains to be seen how many troops will be stationed and where across these large zones.
Syria has stated they will abide by the safe zones but simultaneously vowed to continue to hit “terrorists,” a term they loosely apply to all armed opposition.
How will guarantors enforce Syrian air force compliance? For example, will attacks on hard-line groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, commonly submerged with other rebel ranks, continue by Russian and Syrian warplanes?
Furthermore, there is no clear mechanism to resolve violations, a fact that has quickly soured previous ceasefires.
Each of the guarantor nations has their deeply-entrenched strategic priorities in Syria.
Iran and Russia have been key backers of Assad to boost their regional goals, and a long-term peace settlement in Syria will hinge on both countries.
Meanwhile, for Turkey, a long-time backer of the opposition, their focus has shifted from removing Assad to a focus on curtailing Kurdish aspirations.
As a guarantor in Idlib, their eyes will remain firmly on this priority.
The fact the latest round of peace talks has centered in Kazakhstan is a testimony to the influence each of the guarantors holds versus Western powers.
Turkey, in particular, has aligned more closely with Russia in recent months, as Ankara’s relations with the EU and US have soured.
The US was not completely unware of the proposal for de-escalation zones. After all, US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke before the Astana talks, with the symbolic presence of a top US diplomat in Astana.
However, with the details of the safe-zone agreement unclear, and suggestions US-led coalition airplanes would be barred from flying in such zones, it is clear Russia remains in the driving seat in Syria.
Adriane Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told Kurdistan24 the US was “not a direct participant in the negotiations,” thus, it was “not a party to the agreement.”
The US State Department gave a cautious welcome to the deal, but expressed reservations, especially over Iran’s involvement, who they deem as fuelling the violence.
The statement added, “We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”
The four safe-zones highlight just how fractured the Syrian war has become. Syria is far from opposition forces versus Assad.
Any long-term peace plan must adequately cover all of Syria, including the issues of growing Kurdish autonomy, which is a ticking time bomb to any eventual agreement.
For the US, the fight against the Islamic State (IS) remains their ultimate priority. As safe-zones were agreed, the offensive against IS was in full flight.
The battle against IS centers heavily on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who Trump has stuck with to spearhead the attack on Raqqa, at the expense of relations with Turkey.
As the Kurds have become more empowered and their influence has grown, their autonomy has solidified, adding another flashpoint between major powers in their approach to incorporating Kurdish demands.
Opposition groups fear the safe-zone deal may push towards the disintegration of Syria.
However, with so many stakeholders and varying interests, a loose federal system appears the only solution to elusive peace.
First Published: Kurdistan 24