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A Moscow-Based Overview for Changes in Syria - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“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.