Can a deal in Astana wind down the six-year Syrian war?

Aron Lund

Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor

On Thursday, the envoys of Russia, Turkey, and Iran sat down to sign an agreement about Syria in the Kazakh capital of Astana. As the signing process commenced, they were suddenly interrupted by a cry from a member of the Syrian opposition: “Iran is a criminal, it has no right to be among the guarantor countries.” Opposition delegates then angrily marched out of the hall. The three government negotiators seem to have shrugged it off and proceeded to sign the agreement, thereby endowing Syria with yet another ceasefire deal to end its six-year war. So what does it say?

The three men who signed the new Astana agreement were Russian presidential envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, deputy undersecretary Sedat Önal from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari. The agreement itself builds on a now nearly five-month-old ceasefire declared on 30 December by their three countries – partly a response to the fall of the opposition enclave in eastern Aleppo that helped sway pro-rebel Turkey to seek an understanding with its pro-government rivals in Russia and Iran.

Talks about a long-term ceasefire were tacked onto the truce from January onwards. Since then, the Astana meetings have functioned as a complementary negotiating track to the main, UN-led peace process in Geneva. Russia has tended to lead the way with energetic diplomacy, even as Iran at times seemed to drag its feet, while Turkey seemed uncertain about its current priorities but eager to be at the table. Unsurprisingly, the 4 May agreement’s proposed evolution from a truce to a long-term de-escalation plan appears to have originated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Four areas for de-escalation are mentioned in the agreement: the Islamist-controlled opposition enclave in and around Idlib in northwestern Syria; the Rastan-Talbiseh enclave north of Homs; the Ghouta enclave east of Damascus; and rebel-controlled areas of the Houran and Golan regions near the Jordanian border. In effect, the agreement amounts to a truce between President Bashar al-Assad and the internationally supported segments of the Syrian opposition, while simultaneously leaving Turkey free to pursue its war on hostile Kurdish factions and allowing all parties to wage war on the so-called Islamic State.

The deal stipulates that al-Assad’s government will stop all flights over the de-escalation regions, from Saturday, when a six-month renewable truce will also begin. Russia has said it will continue overflights but refrain from air strikes, if violence actually ends. Humanitarian aid will be allowed by al-Assad’s government into rebel-controlled areas, and public services like water and electricity will resume where they have been cut. In the meantime, political talks will continue in both Geneva, possibly in May, as well as in Astana, in mid-July.

International reactions

“We as guarantors – Turkey, Iran, Russia – will do everything for this to work,” Putin said after a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian city of Sochi. Erdogan, for his part, has boasted that the agreement will solve half of the Syrian conflict, apparently considering the other half to consist of Turkey’s problem with the Kurds.

Both Russia and Turkey – but less so Iran – have persistentely tried to draw the United States into the Astana process. The United States has held back, both out of disenchantment with Russia’s failure to restrain al-Assad during earlier ceasefire attempts and in protest at Moscow’s undermining of a US-Russian deal on chemical weapons in Syria – but also because the Americans remain unconvinced by the Astana track’s chances for success. However, the Russians seem to be hoping that the new de-escalation areas may appeal to President Donald Trump, whose rather vague Syria policy includes both a desire to scale back US confrontation with al-Assad and to establish some form of safe zones into which refugees can be repatriated. The 4 May agreement specifically mentions refugee return as one of the purposes of the four de-escalation areas.

The US attended the talks only in an observer role, but a US State Department spokesperson gave the Astana deal a cautious welcome, saying the United States appreciates Russian and Turkish efforts and adding that Washington has “encouraged the Syrian opposition to participate actively in the discussions despite the difficult conditions on the ground”. However, the US statement also warned of severe difficulties.

An intransigent government

The most obvious problem is that the 4 May agreement was signed by Lavrentyev, Önal, and Ansari – a Russian, a Turk, and an Iranian. No Syrian has put his or her pen to the paper, despite the fact that it was written to end what remains, for all its international involvement, a civil war between Syrians.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates in Damascus had previously voiced support for the Russian plan, but it remains to be seen whether al-Assad’s armed forces will fully abide by its terms. Compliance with previous deals has been spotty on all sides, yet it bears noting that it is the pro-Assad forces who somehow keep ending up with more territory for every new ceasefire. In fact, one of the opposition demands during the Astana meeting was that the government must hand back the areas it has captured since the truce was declared on 30 December. It got no traction.

Even if the fighting stops, there are other potential snags. Under past ceasefires and local truce deals, it has often been impossible to get the Syrian government to abide by signed agreements to release prisoners and allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas. The rebels have certainly also been truculent and unreliable negotiators, but the government’s behaviour is far more consequential since it holds most of the prisoners, is in charge of most of the sieges, and can control UN and Red Crescent access. When al-Assad doesn’t want to play along or doesn’t care enough to enforce discipline in the ranks, agreements invariably fail.

Russia and Iran have considerable leverage over the Syrian government and are now expected to try to pressure al-Assad to do his part. But that may only work up to a point, and any successful strong-arming of the Syrian regime likely depends on both of its main allies, Russia and Iran, acting in concert. During previous failed ceasefires, Iran has sometimes appeared to encourage al-Assad’s intransigence, even at the cost of undermining Russian hopes of drawing the Americans into a deal.

A divided opposition

For Russia and Iran to ensure the compliance of the Syrian government seems difficult, but Turkey may have an even harder time trying to make the Syrian rebels fall in line with the deal. Some of them do not want to be part of it and others aren’t allowed to be.

The Astana agreement stipulates that the signatory nations and their Syrian allies must ”take all necessary measures” to fight UN-sanctioned jihadis like the self-declared Islamic State and Tahrir al-Sham, a successor to the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front in Syria, both “within and outside the de-escalation areas”. As it happens, the geography of the Syrian conflict has cordoned off IS in eastern Syria, where it battles al-Assad’s army or the US-backed Kurds and will be largely irrelevant to the implementation of the Astana deal – but Tahrir al-Sham is nestled among the rebels inside each and every one of the four proposed de-escalation zones. In northwestern Syria, it is even the dominant group.

This leaves Tahrir al-Sham with every reason to rally opposition to the Astana deal and to torpedo it through bombings and other provocations. It also seems likely to provoke clashes between the jihadis and those rebels who intend to abide by the Astana plan, which could in turn tempt the al-Assad government to seize new opportunities for advancement.

In eastern Ghouta, a pro-Astana Islamist group known as the Islam Army has already launched an attack on Tahrir al-Sham, on 28 April. While the attack has a complicated background and cannot necessarily be reduced to an Astana-inspired preemptive strike, the outraged jihadis have sought to portray it as linked to “the Russian proposal”.

Boots on the ground

To stabilise the situation, the three guarantor nations have suggested deploying armed monitors along the front lines that are to be frozen, and perhaps calling in third-party nations for support. The opposition has protested any peacekeeping role for Iran, which fights alongside al-Assad’s forces on the ground. But apart from this, those rebels who accept the Astana talks seem amenable to the idea, presumably realising that having Turkish and Russian observers placed in harm’s way may be the opposition’s best protection against renewed Syrian government attacks.

“Russia is ready to take part by sending its observers to the so-called safety line zones to participate in monitoring compliance with the ceasefire and to fix violations,” said Lavrentyev.

It would however be a dangerous job, and it seems unlikely that sufficient numbers of troops could be deployed in a peacekeeping role without a proper implementation mechanism and prior assurance from all sides. Problematically, the 4 May Astana agreement seems to lack any detailed structure to enforce its provisions and resolve conflicting claims or interpretations. A Joint Working Group between the three guarantor nations is supposed to be formed before 18 May, but that leaves two weeks of brewing trouble, and details are scarce for how it would work in practice.

As things stand, it seems unlikely the Astana agreement will meet with unqualified success. It may dampen violence and improve the humanitarian situation in some regions, but if or when it starts to crumble it could also lead to destabilising recriminations among the three signatories and their allies. So while the deal is unlikely to end the Syrian conflict, it may help shape its future – for better and for worse.

(TOP PHOTO: The destroyed neighbourhood of Khalidiya in the Old City of Homs, Syria. UNHCR/Andrew McConnell)

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