Sponsors of Syria talks in Astana strike deal to protect fragile ceasefire

Astana - Tortuous efforts to install a credible international body to entrench and broaden the patchwork ceasefire in Syria have partially succeeded on the second and final day of talks in Kazakhstan.

Discussions ended with agreement among the three sponsors of the talks – Russia, Turkey and Iran – to set up a trilateral monitoring body to enforce the ceasefire that came into effect last month.

Under the agreement, the three countries will act together to try to minimise violations of the ceasefire, and use their influence to urge those responsible for breaches to desist. Details about the body, due to start work in February, have yet to be agreed.

Neither the Syrian government nor the Syrian opposition present at the talks in Astana signed the final document. The opposition said it would present alternative proposals. It the first time the rebels have been brought to the table since the civil war began more than five years ago.

The Syrian opposition now seems to have accepted that Russia, with Turkey, is seeking a peace deal in Syria since the fall of Aleppo. The Syrians do not make the same assessment of Iran’s role.

The opposition objects to Iran being involved in monitoring the ceasefire, arguing that its militia and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, were responsible for most of the ceasefire breaches in Syria. The Iranians in turn had objected to a call in the draft communique for foreign militias to leave the country.

However, Turkey urged the opposition, weakened after a crushing defeat in east Aleppo, not to block the trilateral body. Turkey insists the body could prove to be a viable Russia-backed way of forcing the Syrian government and Iranians to stop the breaches.

In a sign of a changing mood, Mohammed Alloush, leader of the opposition delegation, said: “The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor.” But he added: “They are finding a lot of obstacles from Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime.”

Iran accused Turkey of stonewalling and continuing to support terrorists by providing arms and keeping its borders open for jihadis. Tehran also opposes any deal that puts Assad under pressure to step aside within a fixed period.

If the deal manages to cement the ceasefire in the coming days it could bolster confidence before wider talks on Syria’s political future held in Geneva under UN auspices on 8 February. Russia handed to the Syrian opposition delegation – made up of armed groups – a new paper setting out a proposed future constitution for Syria, including a path to new governing system, a referendum and elections.

The agreed statement also expressed a determination jointly to fight Islamic State. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) was not included in the negotiations. Efforts would also be made to separate them from armed opposition groups covered by the ceasefire. Previous ceasefire bids have broken down due to al-Nusra being interspersed with rebel groups at the talks.

Russia insists that the Astana talks are designed to complement and not destroy the UN process. British ministers, not present at the talks, have wished the talks well, but fear they signify a wider Russian effort to pull a settlement away from the UN to regional players. But the UN’s special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who was present at the talks said he was satisfied all sides agreed the UN remained the primary mediator. 

De Mistura had backed the trilateral body, saying: “The chances of success will be greater if the parties here are able to agree on a mechanism to oversee and implement nationwide ceasefire. We didn’t have it in the past, that’s the reason why often we failed.”

Previous ceasefire monitoring in Syria failed partly because of a lack of trust and partly to differences over UN resolutions on distributing aid and on a political transition in Syria. Nevertheless, the joint statement urges the international community to support a political process.

Iran opposes any deal that would result in Assad being under pressure to stand aside, or to agree that he steps aside within a fixed period.

The UK prime minister, Theresa May, will visit Ankara on Saturday where the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will update her on the talks.

The outcome of the Astana talks is also significant since there now seems an acceptance in the Syrian opposition that Russia, in cooperation with Turkey, is seeking a peace deal in Syria after the fall of Aleppo. The Syrian opposition does not make the same assessment of the role of Iran.

Syria’s rebels at Astana, largely from northern Syria, are facing battles on the ground with JFS which was until July 2016 linked to al-Qaida. After months of tension and occasional clashes, the confrontation has escalated, with JFS surrounding the headquarters of the large rebel faction Jaish al-Mujahideen in Idlib province.

Other large factions, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, then mobilised to push JFS back.

The Guardian

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