Astana 6: Truce in Idlib Under Tripartite Observation… Opposition Against Iranian Participation

Idlib

Moscow, Beirut- Russian, Iran and Turkey, known as the guarantors of the peace talks in Astana have agreed Friday to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib, northwest of Syria and to deploy 1500 monitors along the border of the area to prevent any clashes between regime forces and opposition groups.

A joint statement issued following two days of meetings in Astana said that the three countries agreed on the deployment of observer units to control the de-escalation areas in the Idlib province with the aim to prevent incidents and clashes between regime forces and opposition groups.

According to the statement, the guarantor countries, therefore, agreed on creating a joint Iranian-Russian-Turkish coordination center for coordinating activities in the de-escalation zones.

Head of the Russian delegation at the Astana talks Alexander Lavrentyev said on Friday that the number of monitors might reach 1500 members adding that each of the three countries agreed to send about 500 observers to Idlib, amid reports that Turkish backed opposition factions might infiltrate in the area to fight al-Nusra.

Lavrentyev added that the announcement of a de-escalation zone in Idlib constitutes the final stage of the realization of the four de-escalation zones in Syria.

Meanwhile, the opposition delegation wrote on its social media account: “There will be no presence of any Assad forces or his militias in any spot or part of the de-escalation zones and those forces will not have any role in the liberated areas.”

The statement added that the Free Army rejects that Iran participates in the monitoring of the truce in Idlib.

The head of the Syrian opposition delegation Fateh Hassoun told Asharq Al-Awsat on Friday: “Our presence at the meeting (in Astana) does not mean that we accept all the details and decisions issued there. Our position from Iran’s participation is clear and public and would not change.”

He said the opposition delegation could not write its reservation on the agreement reached between the guarantor countries because “we are not part of the signing parties.”

For his part, Syria’s special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called to “bring the momentum of Astana” to broader talks on finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

Idlib Truce Dominates Astana Talks

Moscow, Beirut- The Syrian regime and opposition delegations held on Thursday bilateral meetings in Astana with representatives of the de-escalation zones sponsors and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

The sixth round of talks is expected to lead to an agreement on a safe zone in rebel-held Idlib province that is located in northern Syria.

Turkey will present on Friday its proposal on the de-escalation zone in Idlib, opposition sources said. Yasser Farhan, head of legal committee in the delegation, told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are still disagreements between the opposition on one side and the regime and backers on the other side.

He reiterated the opposition’s request in implementing a ceasefire in all regions, releasing detainees and preparing adequate conditions for the success of the Geneva negotiations.

Reliable sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that differences mainly lie on the issue of detainees and the force that will be sent to police the zone covering Idlib. The opposition rejects the participation of Turkey, Russia and Iran in the force, especially Tehran, which it sees as a main party in the crimes committed in Syria.

The opposition met on Thursday David Satterfield, the US acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, and representatives of France, UK, Turkey as well as de Mistura and his team.

Participating sources stated that Washington’s representative affirmed that the Syrian regime can’t achieve victory unless provided with an international cover, which is unlikely to happen. Representatives of France and UK also expressed their rejection to any role for Assad in the future of Syria.

Russia’s Ambassador to Syria Alexander Kinshchak hoped that the Astana meeting be conclusive on the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria.

Technical Consultations Precede Astana 6, Washington Participates as Observer

Astana

Moscow – Experts from the guarantor states held a round of consultations on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital to prepare for the 6th round of talks on Syria, which will be officially launched on Thursday and is expected to witness the signing of an agreement on the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib governorate.

The United States confirmed its participation as an observer in this meeting, but expressed concern over Iran’s presence in Astana as a guarantor state.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif arrived in Moscow on Wednesday, on an unannounced visit, to discuss the Syrian file with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.

Delegates from countries and parties involved in the Astana negotiations will take part in the talks, including the Guarantor States (Russia, Turkey and Iran), representatives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition factions, the United Nations represented by International Envoy Staffan de Mistura, as well as Jordan and the United States as observers.

David Satterfield, the US acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, will head the US delegation.

In a statement, the US State Department said Satterfield would “reinforce US support for all efforts to achieve a sustainable de-escalation of violence and provision of unhindered humanitarian aid.”

But it said Washington “remains concerned with Iran’s involvement as a so-called ‘guarantor’ of the Astana process.”

The State Department went on to say that Iran’s “activities in Syria and unquestioning support” for President Bashar al-Assad’s government “have perpetuated the conflict and increased the suffering of ordinary Syrians.”

The Kazakh foreign ministry said that Thursday’s talks were expected to focus on the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib and the strengthening of the cease-fire in other areas.

The Kremlin said in a statement that talks between Putin and Zarif have touched on the situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf region, and the fight against terrorism.

For his part, the Russian foreign minister said following his meeting with Zarif that discussions have focused on the situation in Syria and Iraq, expressing hope that the current round of Astana negotiations would be successful.

Assad Receives Russian Minister of Defense

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus

Moscow- Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad received Tuesday Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the instruction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

“During the meeting, the issues of military and military-technical cooperation were discussed in the context of the successful actions of the Syrian government troops with the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces aimed at the complete destruction of ISIS in Syria,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Shoigu and Assad also discussed issues of stabilization of the situation in Syria, the functioning of de-escalation zones, and humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said Tuesday that the representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the upcoming sixth round of the talks on the Syrian settlement, which will be held in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.

“Representatives of the Syrian armed opposition have made official requests to Kazakhstan’s consulates asking for entrance visas. This means that representatives of the Syrian armed opposition will actively participate in the next round, like the last time,” the Foreign Minister told reporters.

According to Abdrakhmanov, groups that represent the Southern Front will participate in the sixth round, as well as other groups, which had been part of the Astana talks since their beginning.

“The Jordanian side will also participate as an observer and will be represented by highly placed officials from their external affairs departments,” the Minister said.

The establishment of the fourth and the last zone of de-escalation of violence in Syria, namely in its northern Idlib province, is going to be in the spotlight of the upcoming high-level international meeting on Syria in Astana.

The talks, attended by high-ranking officials from the three ceasefire guarantor states — Russia, Iran and Turkey — as well as representatives of the Syrian government and armed opposition, will be held on September 13-15.

So far, three zones of de-escalation have been established: in the south along the border with Jordan, in Eastern Ghouta and to the north of Homs. Consultations on the fourth and most problematic de-escalation zone in the Idlib province are ongoing.

In July, Russia, Turkey and Iran, with help from Jordan and the United States as observers, tried to coordinate a whole range of specifics on the establishment of the four safe zones, but could not agree on all the details and sign the package of documents as a whole.

Since July, three out of four zones were coordinated and announced outside of the Astana framework.

Erdogan Confirms Turkey, Russia, Iran Share Same Stance on Syria’s Idlib

Idlib

Ankara – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed on Tuesday the importance of the sixth round of the Astana talks on Syria that will focus on the future of the region of Idlib.

He told reporters as he returned to Turkey from a trip to Kazakhstan: “The operation in Idlib is ongoing according to a previous agreement with Russia. We have no dispute with Russia over this. We also have no dispute with Iran over this.”

“I believe that the fruitful contact between these three countries will continue after Astana,” he added.

“I can say that the sixth round of Astana will witness many positive developments, especially over Idlib,” he stated in reference to efforts to expel al-Qaeda affiliates from the Syrian district.

The sixth round of talks is set to kick off on Wednesday.

Turkish military sources had revealed on Monday that Turkey’s preparations for a wide military operation in Idlib had reached their final phases.

Russia also backs this operation, which could also include Afrin that is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that are affiliated with Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

Diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are in agreement over the Idlib operation.

In addition, Turkish television on Monday reported on the training of Free Syrian Army factions and Turkish forces in northern Syria that will take part in the Idlib and Afrin operations.

Separately, Erdogan denied claims that he had met in Kazakhstan with Syrian regime head Bashar Assad.

He told reporters: “I did not meet Assad and I have no intention to meet him either.”

OIC Summit on Science & Technology Concludes in Astana

The First Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Science and Technology concluded its proceedings in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday, 11 September 2017, with the adoption of Astana Declaration.

The Declaration stipulated that the second S&T summit would be held in Uzbekistan at a date to be announced later. This indicates that holding a summit on S&T by the OIC member states has become periodic.

In addition to the Astana Declaration, the Summit also adopted the OIC Science, Technology and Innovation Agenda 2026 in which the leaders identified priority areas including managing energy requirements by calling for the use of renewable energy and initiating peaceful application of nuclear technology in power and non-power sector among other recommendations.

The Summit also called in the Agenda for nurturing the “Thinking Mind” by building a culture of science and innovation– making people employable through developing their education and skills; and improving the quality of higher education and research in addition to focusing on mathematics and physics, biology and biotechnology, and the chemical sciences.

OIC Secretary General, Dr. Yousef A. Al-Othaimeen, said in a ceremony held on the sidelines of the Summit, on Sunday, 10 September 2017, in Astana: “Convinced of the importance of acknowledging and commending Muslim scientists and researchers for their outstanding contributions to their areas of specialization, today, the OIC will be honoring a group of them with OIC S&T Achievement Award. These prominent scientists have charted with their knowledge and excellence for the advancement and progress of their societies and countries”.

Among the honored scientists, a Moroccan lady, Prof. Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli, who holds two PhDs in nuclear physics from Joseph Fourier University in France and Mohammed V University in Morocco, and has several achievements in nuclear physics in her country. Tribute was also paid to Prof. Yusuf Yagci from Turkey, who established a chemical laboratory of polymer, a meeting point of scientists from around the world.

Prof. Alouini, from Tunisia, specialized in electrical engineering and telecommunications, who worked in the University of Minnesota, and who currently works at the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, as well as Prof. Assan Jaye, from the Gambia, who is a prominent scientist and the Head of Research Training and Career Development at the Medical Research Council in the Gambia, were also honored during this ceremony

Lack of Agreement on Idlib Delays ‘Astana 6’ Talks

Astana

Moscow – The next round of talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran on settling the Syrian civil conflict has been pushed back from late August to mid-September, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said on Tuesday.

Kazakhstan hosts the talks which have in the past few months focused on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

“According to the information we have received from Russia, the guarantor states, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran plan to hold a technical meeting before the end of August where they will agree on the agenda and exact dates of the next Astana meeting,” Abdrakhmanov told reporters.

“A preliminary plan is for mid-September.”

At the most recent Astana meeting in July, the three nations failed to finalize an agreement on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria after Ankara raised objections.

The situation in Astana 6 seems to be similar to what took happened in the Astana 5 meeting, when the guarantor countries were forced to postpone the meeting more than once, which was why experts from those countries failed to reach an agreement on the details of the implementation of de-escalation zones.

After Astana 5 talks, Russia was able to conclude agreements on three of the de-escalation zones, all without the participation of Turkish and Iranian guarantors.

This way, de-escalation in Idlib remains the main subject of the consultations during the technical meetings at the level of experts from the guarantor states, and setting the date of convening the Astana 6 meeting is linked to progress in those consultations.

“It is no secret that the situation in the Idlib is very complicated as there are many disputes over regional and international issues and interests,” an informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He stated that there are major points being focused on, which are “the countries that will be responsible for monitoring and guaranteeing a ceasefire in that region, organizing relations between Syrian opposition forces within the de-escalation zone and helping them resolve their differences and defining mechanisms for dealing with extremist groups.”

A Moscow-Based Overview for Changes in Syria

Syria

“Tangible change has been recently witnessed concerning Syria’s ongoing crisis.”

– Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vitaly Naumkin

Syria’s course of negotiations was recently split into a three-way axis: Geneva, Astana and Amman—with Geneva emerging as the sole platform for comprehensive dialogue.

Similarly, talks held in Astana and Amman chiefly revolve around military and security discussions. However, the two differ in terms of outlining terms and conditions and contributing partakers.

From a present overview, it is evident that two troikas of three are being forged. The first group encompassing Russia, Turkey, Iran, and many other participants sponsoring the Astana talks. The second group being Russia, the United States and Jordan alone. The three paths complement each other.

Each of Geneva, Astana and Amman’s initiatives very much complement each other in terms of achieving a settlement for the Syrian crisis. Putting it even more carefully, the Astana-Amman platforms lay the foundations for upcoming Geneva negotiations.

De-escalation zone areas became a reality with the help of international mediators. But the argument stands on issues relevant to safe zones not being resolved.

More so, de-escalation zones are a temporary solution given that all forces at play recognize the importance and necessity of preserving Syria’s sovereignty and unity, both the land and people.

Although it is important to form “de-escalation zones” areas, as a temporary solution, many analysts wonder whether they will later on develop into a tool for dividing Syria. Temporary things have a habit of sticking around.

It is up to the international community to prevent that from happening at any cost.

Russia, for instance, continues to send military teams largely composed of the North Caucasus servicemen: Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan to Syria.

Available data shows the number of Russia-deployed troops soon reaching 1,000—most forces will be distributed over northern Syria and Aleppo, but also near de-escalation zones in the southwestern borders. Most likely they will take camp in the governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and Swaida.

On that note, recent remarks made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could also further complicate the situation in the south, after he refused to accept the Russian-US agreement of forming a fifth “de-escalation” zone. However, how that that plays out, remains unclear.

According Netanyahu, a fifth de-escalation zone would serve as an excuse for a well pronounced Iranian military presence in Syria.

As far as battleground developments go, ISIS ultra-hardliners lost lands previously held to their credit. Yet to properly address the situation at hand, it is better to focus on reducing ISIS’ territorial hold even further, rather than speaking of ultimately exterminating the terror group.

To start with, ISIS was built on the hopes of establishing a brutal and barbaric caliphate—swaths of land are a central mean to their end. Losing Raqqa, the group’s Syria stronghold, will serve as a crippling blow.

Caught in such a situation, it is expected that the group would then resort to its worldwide offshoots in Africa, Europe, Eurasia and Southeast Asia. Despite shrinking support for ISIS, there are still those who are willing to join this monstrosity.

Even in Russia, there have been registered attempts of some citizens planning to travel to Syria in hopes of joining ISIS ranks. A number of which have been arrested in Turkey, including a woman with her children.

Events recently taking place on the southern Philippines island, Mindanao, show that there are Chechen fighters who infiltrated the local population who had been sent there under ISIS orders.

Just like all the other 80 countries whose citizens have joined ISIS ranks in Syria, Russia is extremely concerned with post-battle fallout and where those extremist fighters will escape after losing their stronghold.

A large number of the abovementioned countries prefer to put down those terrorists during battles in Syria, although rehabilitation is still on the table for those who have not committed heinous crimes.

Combating terrorism has become an undisputed number one priority to most of the world’s superpowers. Especially with the US under a Trump presidency and Emmanuel Macron taking office in France.

There is an opportunity to launch a US-French cooperation, along with Russia, built on the grounds of confronting terrorist groups. Nevertheless, a full-blown French-Russian-US troika is not very likely.

It is natural that the US and France together blacklist groups condemned by the United Nations Security Council—take say ISIS and the ex-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, regardless of the latter’s attempt to rebrand itself.

Despite all that, there have been quite a few successes in providing a mechanism for ceasefires. A truce nowadays receives a plausible level of commitment in general, but with some violations. Humanitarian access is improving. Syrian refugees began to return from abroad to liberated cities, particularly Aleppo. Russian soldiers are actively participating in reintroducing life to the city.

More on international coordination on Syria, The Friends of Syria Group whose co-presidents – Russia and the United States – has seen a sizable decline even though both counterparts upheld steady and undisclosed talks hosted by Amman.

A few days ago, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was not yet time to reveal information about the US-Russia agreement for a new truce, but there was no doubt that it is underway.

Multinational armed forces are currently operating on Syrian territory, without an official request by the Syrian government, and without UN clearance. It is still unknown what future plans these foreign players have for their presence in Syria.

Last but not least, it is worth taking into consideration that the Kurdish factor has increased substantially. The rapprochement between Syrian Kurds and the US, which now joined forces with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), cannot be hidden as an essential component for forces that are fighting for a “push” against ISIS on the ground.

This collaboration is being carried under a clearly drawn agreement. Analysts point to the possibility of a change in Turkey’s attitude towards the Kurdish YPG—but till this very moment Ankara still views the group as a terrorist organization.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus’ statement was well noted when saying that Turkey “will not declare war on the YPG”, but will reserve its right to respond if it perceives any threat.

It is natural that all this describes the dynamic scene of the process in general, as this brief explanation is not enough to understand what is going on, and no doubt can follow this sequence.

With such a dynamic nature to the forces at play and the Syrian crisis in and of itself, the above simplification of the conflict remains insufficient to grasp the situation on the ground and remains open to ever-changing events.

*Vitaly Naumkin is head of the Center for Arab Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies.

Astana Falters…Opposition Worried About ‘Separation of South’

A general view shows the fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana on July 5.

Moscow, Beirut- The fifth round of the Astana talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict concluded on Wednesday without making any progress, but only approved to transfer all disputed issues to a joint working group.

Russia’s chief negotiator at the Astana talks, Alexander Lavrentiev said: “We have not yet managed directly to establish the de-escalation zones,” which he said exist de facto.

But, he added: “We have finally succeeded in adopting the regulations on the joint working group. Now it has all the powers to tackle the current issues.”

During the meeting, the Syrian regime objected that Turkey participates with the other guarantor countries, Iran and Russia, in monitoring the “de-escalation zones” in Syria, while the opposition rejected Iran’s involvement in supervising those same zones.

Last May, Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed on a ceasefire deal that calls for the creation of four de-escalation zones; one in the Idlib province, one in Eastern Ghouta, one north the city of Homs and another in southern Syria.
However, those guarantor states were still discussing the delimitation or mechanisms needed to enforce the deal.

A delegation of Syria’s armed opposition said on Wednesday it informed Stuart Jones, the acting assistant US Secretary of State, their “refusal to transfer the ceasefire issue into two detached agreements to separate the southern and northern fronts in Syria, a development that could threaten the unity of opposition factions.”

Lately, the three guarantor states had agreed on separating the “southern front” that includes Deraa, Quneitra and the countryside of Sweida from the deal.

For his part, Syrian chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari blamed Wednesday Ankara for the failure of the Astana talks.

“The Turkish delegation objected the adoption of any documents related to the implementation of mechanisms of the agreement on the de-escalation zones,” he said.

However, a source from the Syrian opposition said it was not reasonable to hold Turkey alone responsible for the failure of Astana’s fifth round of talks.

The source confirmed that the armed Syrian opposition rejects Iran playing any role in the deal.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Beri, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, accused the US of hampering the negotiations and said Washington has banned the “Southern Front” factions from attending the talks.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting at the Kazakh capital, the guarantor countries also agreed to hold the next round of the talks during the last week of August, and that Russia, Turkey, and Iran would meet in Tehran on August 1-2 in an effort to settle the outstanding disagreements on the zones.

Seven US Bases In Syria’s Kurdish Zones

Syria

London- Kurdish sources confirmed on Tuesday the presence of seven US military bases and airports in the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) areas, eastern Syria.

Commander of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) Sipan Hamo told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US army established military bases, airports and centers in seven locations controlled by the SDF and the YPG, east the Euphrates River, mainly in Kubani, where a large and developed airport was already built.

The list also involves two airports in Hasaka, an airport in Kamishli, two others in al-Malikiya and one in Tel Abiyad at the Turkish border, in addition to a military contingent in Manbij, in the countryside of Aleppo.

At those bases, there are around 1300 fighters from the US-led Coalition deployed to combat ISIS.

Separately, Hamo said that Turkey launched a military operation in Afrin in the countryside of Aleppo that would negatively affect the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS.

He spoke about “complicity” planned under the table between the Syrian regime, Russia and Turkey.

“Russia and Syrian regime forces, which claim protecting the border and sovereignty of the country, were allowing Turkey to infiltrate, enter and attack the countryside of Aleppo without making any clear positions on what is happening,” Hamo said.

Meanwhile, the fifth round of the Astana talks on Syria kicked off Tuesday in the Kazakh capital.

Russian Presidential Special Representative for Syrian Settlement Alexander Lavrentyev said on Tuesday that Russia might deploy its police to monitor the borders of the planned de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalizing an agreement with Turkey and Iran.

Russia had established a new base at the Khirbat Ras al Wa’r, in eastern Damascus, in addition to Moscow’s two other bases in Tartus and Hmeimim.

Also on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron telephoned the head of the High Negotiations Committee that represents the Syrian opposition in the international political process, Riyad Hijab, who had warned from “the threats caused by Iran and its linked militias’ escalatory measures and their plans to push towards division in Syria.”