By Jim W. Dean
The Astana agreement seems to have come out of nowhere, a big surprise for everyone. As the details begin to emerge, we are seeing a carefully crafted effort, with Moscow at the helm, working quietly behind the scenes with no leaks to line up all the key players to make such a deal feasible.
On the first day of the Astana conference, the High Negotiating Committee (HNC) did its usual deal-wrecker stunt by walking out, claiming it would not negotiate while Damascus was still “shelling civilians”. The HNC spokesman, Mr. Alloush, must have forgotten that the Damascus shelling was in support of efforts to recapture northern Hama territory that was lost in the last jihadi and opposition offensive there, where they used a lot of US TOW missiles to destroy Syrian armor.
But on day two the HNC showed back up as the Russian, Iran and Turkey Tripartite group rolled forward with their new “safe zone” plan, comprised of four key areas that were chosen to solidify the struggling ceasefire and breathe new life into the stalled political settlement talks in Geneva.
The Free Syrian Army gang walked out on day two, yelling that they would not be part of any agreement where Iran was a guarantor, but they had showed up at the conference knowing that Iran was just that. So whoever is funding the FSA stage-managed their walkout for the cameras. Since their scam was a flop, it was ignored by all, including the media.
The most impressive part of the safe-zone plan is how the Russians were able to get all the key players on board. By that I do not mean having all of them as active participants, but at least to have them not shoot the plan down from the outset. Putin appears to have personally been the master craftsman, getting Trump onboard by phone, and meeting with Erdogan in Sochi to work through Turkey’s complicated involvement in the Syrian war.
The big carrot for Erdogan is he will now have an official capacity in helping to police the Idlib groups, some of whom he has been supporting for a long time; but this new Astana agreement restricts him in no way with the Kurds along the Turkish border. I suspect that Putin must have worked out a quiet arrangement with Erdogan to restrain from offenses against the Kurds, otherwise that situation would remain a time bomb ticking to go off whenever Erdogan saw a benefit.
The biggest surprise was learning the Saudis came aboard, and even Jordan was offered a role in the demarcation monitoring. This was not an easy thing to do, and all must have gotten something for their cooperation, but we may not know those details until later on, if ever.
The agreement, in effect as I type, is a precarious one, since it will take a month to get the details worked out for what is nothing more than a working concept agreement. The exact demarcation lines have to be mapped out with proper buffer zones, and the locations of checkpoints and who mans them.
Endless arguments and disagreements could ensue here, but there is a big carrot. Infrastructure aid is being offered to get utilities up and running, plus humanitarian aid and the return of refugees is planned. Those benefits will have their own instant political constituency, so the various groups on the ground will want to take credit for making that all happen.
A tougher problem will be how to enforce the no fighting requirement, as the term used was, “no use of arms”, meaning that weapons are not going to be collected. That means arms and ammo depots will remain in the hands of opposition fighters, which leads us to the real big problem. Official terrorist groups are mixed inside these areas, so who is going to disarm them? If attacks are made by unhappy opposition people or officially designated terrorists, who makes the call on who is blamed and how are they punished?
Russia has unilaterally stopped all flights into these safe zone areas since May 1, but openly stated that it reserved the right to make strikes against ceasefire violators. Damascus has also agreed to stop air strike missions. But much to the chagrin of the US, the Russian General Staff has formally made the new safe zones “no fly zones” for the US Coalition planes.
Although not a signatory to the agreement, Damascus is supporting it. One of the most important benefits to the SAA will be its being able to pull its best offensive units out of the current conflicts with the so called “moderate opposition” and redeploy them against ISIS and al-Nusra.
I had noticed that the SAA counteroffensive in Hama had seemed to have stalled, and alllowing time for the jihadis to rearm and regroup. We now know that before the ink was dry on the Astana agreement, the SAA’s Tiger Force was already being redeployed to the east of Palmyra on the road to Deir-Ezzur. Russian bombers were already pounding ISIS positions there.
Let’s take a quick look at the safe zones. Although the Idlib one, which includes part of Latakia borders Turkey, Erodgan did not want the responsibility of controlling the whole zone, so he welcomed Russian and Iranian involvement. Please note that all three have agreed to take all needed steps to fight terrorism in Idlib and beyond.
The other three safe zones are basically encircled by SAA forces and eventually doomed to defeat, but at a huge price to the SAA, which would rather save its forces for fighting ISIS; and in addition, civilian casualties are suffering through the continued destruction of these areas.
In Eastern Gouta the jihadis have lost 90% of the territory they once held. But Damascus wants the citizens of Damascus to experience what it is like to not hear constant shelling on the outskirts of the city. When I was there as an election monitor in the 2014 Presidential election, while we had the windows open for the cool night breeze in the Dama Rose business office where we were filing our stories, we listened to the constant thunder of the guns in the background. It took a little getting used to.
In Derraa and Quneitra provinces, there is a population of roughly 500,000 being held hostage by 15,000 opposition forces and jihadis. It borders Lebanon and is mostly a Shia population, so Iran will be monitoring this area with the help of Hezbollah, which is on both sides of the border.
In Northern Homs, the problem area is smaller but more complicated due to religious and ethnic rivalries set loose during the war. A military resolution would continue to kill more civilians and make future reconciliation even more difficult.
The hope for all those with good intentions in this current agreement is that once the fighting has stopped and conditions can be improved, the population will not want to go back to endless fighting; and the superior number of the civilians can give them more political power over the much smaller numbers of fighters. For example, in northern Homs, you have 3000 of them holding a city of Ar-Rastan hostage with its 100,000 souls.
A successful implementation of these safe zones will be a big morale boost for the Army and the respective populations; and especially so if conditions evolve to where refugees can begin to return, and if there is enough rebuilding funding to provide jobs. That is what will build a consensus for a political settlement among the people.
But the wildcard still remains over what the backers of both the opposition groups and the jihadis would do when they see Syria slipping back under the control of the Syrians. What do they gain from that? That is what has the peacemakers worried.