On May 4, Russia, Turkey and Iran signed an agreement in Astana, Kazakhstan, establishing four “tentatively designated de-escalation zones” in Syria, where the three will act as guarantors to stop hostilities for six months, extendable if all parties agree. The two-day meeting between the Syrian government and opposition groups led to Moscow, Tehran and Ankara agreeing to establish the zones in northern, central and southern Syria.
The agreement is an important step in the peace-building process, and has great potential to end six years of Syrian bloodshed. The zones will provide refuge and humanitarian aid to many displaced Syrians.
But the agreement is not quite clear about how the guarantors will monitor the zones; this is its Achilles heel, like all previous initiatives. Thus many doubt the zones will be a successful move toward resolving the conflict. Some believe such zones will be targets of increased violence, and will limit the military action that could pave the way for a comprehensive cease-fire and a political process.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the agreement “is an important, promising, positive step in the right direction.” This signals that it has been given the green light by the UN as a last chance to stop the bloodshed.
But representatives of the armed opposition stormed out of the meeting, rejecting the agreement because it “fails to guarantee the unity of Syria.” Syrian unity remains a key issue. All proposals that could lead to the division of the country have been continuously rejected by all parties to the conflict.
Russian negotiator Aleksandr Lavrentyev said his country will send observers to the safe zones, and all parties involved should “work more closely.” He voiced hope that the US and Saudi Arabia will cooperate to achieve peace in the region. Apparently both countries support the idea of safe zones.
Lavrentyev said the Syrian government will honor the agreement, which has been in effect since May 6, as long as armed groups do not attack the zones. But the US believes his statement has a “loophole which allows violations in these zones.” The high level of mutual distrust explains the skepticism over the zones’ prospects.
Within 10 days of the signing of the agreement, the guarantors will set up a joint working group to monitor the zones and their borders. By late May, maps will be drawn to help implement a lasting cease-fire between the Syrian government and the armed opposition.
Safe zones could bring about reconciliation and peace-building in Syria, but only if given a chance by all the players, who need to put aside their ambitions and geopolitical egoism.
The zones are in Idlib province and some adjacent territories, including Latakia; Hama and Aleppo to the north of Homs; Eastern Ghouta; and Daraa and Quneitra provinces in the south, by the border with Israel. Checkpoints will be set up at the zones’ peripheries to ensure security, safe passage of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid.
As soon as the agreement was made public, the US State Department said: “The United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of ISIS (Daesh) and other terrorists, and create the conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict.”
But it added: “We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor.’ Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.
“In light of the failures of past agreements, we have reason to be cautious. We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”
Will US-Russian distrust lead to the agreement’s failure? This depends on Turkey, which is a gatekeeper for NATO but has close ties with Russia and is deeply involved in Syria, supporting certain opposition groups and fighting Kurdish forces. For the time being, the US wants to continue dialogue with Russia to end the Syrian conflict, and strongly supports the UN-led Geneva process.
Building trust, in Syria and among the global and regional players involved, is a must under the current circumstances. The number of guarantor countries should be extended to include the US and Saudi Arabia, considering the latter’s influence on certain opposition groups. Another right thing would be for joint international observer groups, with a UN mandate, to monitor implementation of the agreement.
Observer groups operated by one guarantor will lack credibility. International observer groups with a UN mandate would be more significant and credible. Peace in Syria should be guaranteed by more countries than just Russia, Turkey and Iran, the most dubious player in this situation. Global cooperation should prevent escalation in Syria and among the foreign players involved.
Safe zones could bring about reconciliation and peace-building in Syria, but only if given a chance by all the players, who need to put aside their ambitions and geopolitical egoism. Unless there is regional and international will to solve the roots of the conflict, the problem will persist militarily and politically. Ending the Syrian conflict has become a global concern.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). She can be reached on Twitter: @politblogme.