Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Syria and the Hamburg summit

The recent G20 Summit resulted in a ceasefire agreement between Russia and the US on Syria that opens up new perspectives to the parties in the conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Syria and the Hamburg summit
Syria and the Hamburg summit

اقرأ باللغة العربية

At a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the crisis in Syria on 4 July, Russia, Turkey and Iran failed to agree on any part of a ceasefire. The meeting was boycotted by the armed Syrian opposition groups operating in the south of the country though the Russians had tried to pressure them into an agreement serving its interests.

While these three countries were trying to reach an agreement among themselves in Astana, however, it was at the same time becoming apparent the Astana Conference means very little. On 8 July, after US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in the German city of Hamburg, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that an agreement had been reached with the US on a ceasefire in southern Syria.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “this is the first sign that the US and Russia can work together in Syria,” and an agreement on Syria was a diplomatic achievement for Trump in his first meeting with Putin. Israel also cautiously welcomed the ceasefire, adding that it should be accompanied by an end to the military presence of Iran and its proxies in the country.

According to the deal, forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, pro-regime armed groups, and Islamist factions must all withdraw from frontline areas, while all pro-regime non-Syrian fighters must completely withdraw.

Regime security forces will deploy along the frontlines, while Russian military police will deploy in ceasefire zones in three southern governorates of the country to monitor the ceasefire and enforce the truce. Opposition forces will protect public buildings, prepare for the return of refugees from Jordan, and hold elections for local councils having extensive mandates.

The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pressure group, said that “there were no violations in the first few days of the ceasefire in southern Syria. It seems that Russia, the US and other parties to the agreement are serious about implementing it, and it is likely to succeed unless some other party does not want the region to stabilise or the refugees to return to their homes.”

However, for the Syrian opposition, the devil is in the details of the agreement. There are no guarantees that it will hold, and the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies have a record of using the reality on the ground to achieve political gains and even of manipulating a US administration still confused when dealing with Middle East crises.

It was notable that there was no mention of Israel as a key partner in the ceasefire. Israel is occupying the Golan Heights, part of Syria, and it wants to protect its border with Syria against any Iranian military presence, especially by the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah. Thousands of Hizbullah, Iraqi and Afghan militia fighters have infiltrated southern Syria and established independent bases, giving them more power in the area than the Syrian army itself.

Eyad Barakat, an officer in the opposition Free Syrian Army, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the inability of the regime and its Iranian allies to make progress in the south of the country, despite their use of thousands of missiles and barrel bombs and thousands of air strikes, has spoiled Russia’s plans. The deadline Washington had given Moscow to conclude matters on the ground in the south ended at the start of the G20 meeting on 7 July, forcing Russia to accept the US proposal of a safe zone in the south and Iran to remove its fighters from the Jordanian border and the Golan Heights.”

Trump and Putin reached their agreement at the G20 Summit, indicating a larger deal to divide up influence in the post-Islamic State (IS) period and keep Iran away from Israel and the Golan Heights.

The deal was a victory for Russia and confirmation by the US that Moscow’s military intervention in support of the regime has been successful. It changed the facts on the ground and forced Washington to make a pragmatic shift in working with Moscow rather than trying to marginalise or exclude it.

The US administration wants to undermine Iran and the militias loyal to it in southern Syria, especially in the border regions with Israel and Jordan. The agreement is thus a response to the Hizbullah presence in that area, and it will cleanse the southern region from radical forces leaning towards or linked to IS. These are smaller factions with limited power, but their elimination will satisfy the US, which is keen to justify its moves in the Syrian conflict as “combatting terrorism”.

Trump achieved what could become an important agreement in Hamburg, as not only does it bring about a ceasefire in part of Syria and protect the borders of Israel and Jordan, but it also launches a new dialogue between the US and Russia.

The Syrian opposition is satisfied with the agreement because it should save lives and stop the destruction, and Tillerson also stated that the US wants to see Al-Assad eventually step down from power and a transition to take place in Syria without the participation of the ruling clan.

However, the opposition is also sceptical because Iran is not the only reason why previous ceasefires failed. Russia has also been a factor because of its support for regime military operations. Russian forces have in the past attacked moderate opposition forces and participated in the destruction of Syrian cities, and the opposition does not trust Moscow to be a guarantor in ending the conflict. 

The Syrian regime may resist the agreement and Iran may try to sabotage it, but it should succeed if Russia is serious about enforcing it. If this happens, Russia can then act as a guarantor for similar operations and for the political transition in Syria after the war ends.

It seems likely that Russia will now sacrifice its special relationship with Iran in return for a regional understanding that takes into consideration its interests and those of the US, as well as demands by Israel, Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

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