Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Not a good deal

Russia, Iran and Turkey have signed a ceasefire agreement on Syria, but the opposition believes the deal will do more harm than good

Not a good deal
Not a good deal

The fourth Astana Conference on the Syrian crisis concluded on 4 May with an agreement creating “de-escalation zones” signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran on behalf of the Syrian regime and opposition and as the “guarantor” nations of the ceasefire deal signed at the end of 2016.

This three-way pact raises questions about its viability, with commentators now trying to understand its pros and cons and decipher the mystery surrounding it.

The deal stipulates the establishment of four areas in Syria for “military de-escalation,” namely Idlib, northern Homs, the area around Damascus, and the south of the country. It aims to end “hostile actions” between the regime and the opposition, end the use of military weapons, including air strikes, create security checkpoints, prepare for the return of refugees, improve humanitarian conditions, fight terrorist groups and create the climate necessary for a political solution.

The deal is effective for six months and is renewable with the approval of the guarantors.

The agreement uses the term “de-escalation zones,” a Russian-Iranian expression to counter the “safe zones” the US has been suggesting and the opposition demanding. It does not differentiate between “de-escalation zones” and “safe zones,” however, and it does not give details of implementation mechanisms or the criteria for choosing these areas.

Although the US was present at the Astana Conference, it is not a signatory to the agreement. Spokesman for the US defense department Adrian Rankin-Galloway said the deal would not impact the air campaign of the US-led International Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the US was well-informed about the deal, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the deal took into consideration previous US suggestions.

The Russian military leadership specified measures that could be taken against violators of the agreement. “First, there will be a thorough investigation. Then, there will be decisions on the measures to take against the violators,” said Stanislav Haji Mammadov, deputy head of the operations department at the Russian General Staff.

“It is not unlikely that they will be put down using military means,” he added.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad supports the Russian-Iranian-Turkish proposal to create “de-escalation zones,” including by not shelling these areas. However, it has said it will continue to battle “terrorist groups,” which according to the regime includes the majority of Syrian armed opposition factions.

Most of the Syrian opposition has rejected the deal. The Higher Negotiations Committee has described the agreement as “surreptitious” and “illegitimate,” and the Coalition of Revolutionary Forces doubts it can succeed, insisting that Iran is part of the problem in Syria and cannot be part of the solution.

The opposition is also suspicious of Russia’s intentions and has criticised its violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and its failure to support the original cease-fire agreement in Syria. It objects to the division of Syria into zones and the agreement’s failure to impose a blanket ceasefire across the country.

Other criticisms include that the agreement pre-empts another round of talks in Geneva scheduled for later this month, implying that the balance of power on the ground has changed. It undermines the idea of creating proper “safe zones” or “no-fly zones,” which is a permanent demand of the opposition and the countries supporting it, and it appears to be the precursor to carving up Syria into four geographical zones under the control of guarantors closely allied to the regime.

Moreover, the opposition says the agreement acts as a safeguard for Russia and Iran. The former is bombarding the armed opposition in areas under opposition control, and it has protected the regime by using its veto power in the UN Security Council. The latter has partnered with the regime, supports it with militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and has linked its regional influence to the Syrian regime remaining in power.

The deal paves the way for dividing up areas under opposition control into sectors controlled by military forces, whether armed opposition factions or regime militias and the regular army. This would give free rein to warlords on both sides to control these areas, the opposition says.

It also stipulates that the opposition must cooperate with the regime to fight terrorist groups, making this its main goal and not that of fighting the regime and Syria and Iran. It does not require any commitments by the Syrian government towards areas under opposition control, which means it could block water, electricity or fuel supplies to them and easily put them under siege.

According to the deal, the definition of “safe zones” and “armed opposition” remains open to interpretation, putting the opposition under threat if it does not comply with Russian and Iranian criteria. It also does not cover areas in the north and east of the country under Kurdish control, which implies the basis of the accord is to divide up the country into spheres of influence under the control of regional and international powers.

The deal embeds an Iranian presence in Syria as a permanent guarantor. Iran has also announced it will continue to send military advisers to Syria to support regime forces, not only in planning but also on the battleground. The agreement also ignores UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) and the 2012 Geneva I Agreement on an interim phase led by a transitional body with a full mandate.

Despite these negative aspects, there are two positive points in the agreement for the opposition. First, it could lead to a ceasefire and a gradual return to normal life in some areas of the country, even if this would only apply to the four enumerated zones. Second, it could usher in a greater US role in Syria, especially if Russian claims that Washington approved the agreement beforehand are true.

This would mean US intervention could begin in the form of a joint US-Russian solution to the crisis in Syria, which would be certain to be against the presence of Iran.

Although the Russians succeeded in finalising the deal despite objections by the Syrian opposition, it is unlikely that any military solution can replace a properly political resolution. While military solutions must succeed in bringing about a ceasefire, they must also pave the way for a political transition based on the relevant Geneva I and UN Security Council Resolutions.

Russia has started to look for solutions to the crisis in Syria because it understands that it could become permanently entangled in the Syrian war. Meanwhile, for the opposition Moscow will never find an appropriate solution as long as it insists on keeping Al-Assad in power during the transitional phase.

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