More than 2.6 thousand fighters in the valley of Wadi Barada (30-40 km from Damascus) put down their arms. Those who refused to return to the peaceful life were evacuated to the Idlib province. Government troops regained access to the large water intake and solved the problem of water supply for the capital and other cities. Experts believe that the release of Wadi Barada is the first significant outcome of the talks in Astana, held on 23-24 January.
“Locals are returning to civilian life in the valley of Wadi Barada. Activities of the first phase of a comprehensive plan for the reconciliation of the area are carried out at the moment… Those militants who are ready to settle their legal status, replenish the units of self-defense forces “, told the representative of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the warring parties in the SAR, Colonel Alexander Blinkov.
He added that some of the rebels did not accept the proposed conditions, hid in the mountains and continue to fire the settlements. Reconciliation Center strives “primarily ideological orientation” to persuade the rebels to cease their resistance and return to the peace talks. However, about 500 militants are unwilling to take concessions”.
Wadi Barada is an oasis in the middle of the Syrian desert, which before the war was a major tourist destination. The water intake is located in the area that supplies water to Damascus and other cities. The dominance of the militants led to constant interruptions in the water supply. Until 2012, the capital received 300 thousand cubic meters of water from Wadi Barada, now only 50.
The valley was invaded by the “Syrian Free Army” in February 2012. All subsequent years, government forces could not fight off such a strategically important territory, despite the fact that the rebels were in the enclave.
A successful attack on the Wadi Barada area began in late December 2016 after the final liberation of Aleppo.
On December 29, a truce has been declared in Syria, the guarantors of which became the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran. SAR authorities tried to negotiate with the militants on their voluntary withdrawal. Rebels opinions were divided and most decided to continue resistance. By mid-January the Syrian army and the Shiite militia occupied the commanding heights and several villages.
Around the same time there were reports that “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” (formerly “al-Nusra Front”, is banned in Russia – ed.) and “Ahrar al-Sham” agreed to start a dialogue, but the negotiations have killed Brigadier General of the Syrian Army Ahmad Gabdan. Government troops were forced to intensify the onslaught, but the conflict was finally solved in a peaceful way.
Wadi Barada valley is one of the few “entraps” (areas surrounded by government troops), located near Damascus and Homs. Tens of thousands of Syrian troops and militia are forced to hold trench war in these enclaves.
As a result, the government forces don’t have resources deal a major blow to the “Islamic State” (the structure is banned in Russia – Ed.), who settled in Palmyra and leads an offensive in Deir ez-Zor.
The largest rebel hotbed is located in the province of Idlib – about half of the territories occupied by militants.
Obviously, the most viable option to eliminate “entraps” and liberate Idlib won’t be violent clashes but negotiations on returning of rebels to civilian life in exchange for amnesty.
Damascus can also take advantage of the contradictions in the militants camp. According to a number of think tanks, clashes between Islamist groups have begun in Idlib. “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”, “Jund al-Aqsa”, “Nur al-Din al-Zina” started a fight against “Ahrar al-Sham”, “Faylaq al-Sham” and other groups.
Astana’s “bear fruits”
The release of the valley of Wadi Barada was the first in this year’s success of Damascus on the military front. The Syrian authorities with the support of the Center for Reconciliation combined power and diplomatic methods, like it was in Aleppo. Productive talks allowed to persuade the militants, who are radically minded, to leave the held positions. As experts point out, talks which took place in Astana on 23-24 January, had the positive impact on the process of national reconciliation. Representatives from Russia, Turkey, Iran, the SAR Government, armed opposition groups, as well as the special envoy of the UN Secretary General Staffan de Mistura, and the US ambassador in Astana George Krol had attended the talks in the Kazakh capital. However, not all the rebel forces arrived to Astana and the rebel delegation was headed by one of the leaders of “Jaish al-Islam” Mohammad Alloush, which caused a lot of skepticism though. Nevertheless tense negotiations brought results.
“After long discussions was produced a mechanism which will ensure that a new truce, unlike the previous ones, will not ripped off”, said de Mistura. He noted that the meeting in Astana helped to improve the political climate and has become an important prelude to the round of negotiations in Geneva, which is scheduled for February 8.
On January 24, the Russian delegation handed a draft new of new Syrian Constitution to the opposition. Alloush called this Moscow’s step a “proof of confidence”: We welcome the fact that Russia is moving from a direct role in the fighting into the role of a guarantor that has an impact on Iran and Syria. It is a positive event for us on the road to the settlement”.
Despite the absence of specific agreements, releasing of Wadi Barada can be considered as a “fruit” of “Astana format”. Chief editor of the “Problems of National Strategy” journal, orientalist Ajdar Kurtov believes that there is a clear link between the release of Wadi Barada and talks in Astana.
“Representatives of the armed opposition sat at the negotiation table, they have taken a decision on the cessation of hostilities and the continuation of the truce. Accordingly, they had ordered the combat units to obey and operate properly”, said Kurtov.
According to him, other groups that continue to fight against Bashar al-Assad, couldn’t not to see the results of the negotiations. “It can be assumed that the rebels have started to draw conclusions, that the prospects for the continuation of military operations are becoming more vague. But it’s too early to speak if his influence would be embodied in the final transition from military operations to political settlement”, added Kurtov.
The expert believes that Syrian path to peace will be long, but the exemption scheme which was applied to Aleppo and Wadi Barada, proved to be effective and is likely to be applicable to the whole territory. “We shouldn’t forget that there is a civil war in Syria. Therefore, the question of national reconciliation should not be solved by military means”.
“Despite the contradictions, Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have created a workable format. However, the final success of the peaceful liberation of Syria will depend on Trump’s position. Currently, the new US Administration is waiting. If the true goal of Washington is to defeat the IS, then a green light should be given to the rebels reconciliation with the government”, summed up the expert.