Baladi News – (Turki Mustafa)
This paper discusses the de-escalation memorandum that was concluded in Astana on the 4th of May by the guarantors in Syria. The discussion will be preceded by a brief analysis of the circumstances that prevailed at the time of the agreement. It will also study the political and military dimensions of the agreement and how that is related to the aims of the conflict parties as well as the indicators of a US-Russian confrontation that it involves.
After that, we will review the text of the agreement and analyze it in terms of the parties, plans, interactions, and results. We will also deal with the aspects, mechanisms, and consequences of the Russian-Iranian alliance based on previous similar agreements as well as the observation of the developments and results of the current events.
It has been nearly two years since Russia intervened in Syria to support Assad’s regime after the failure of Iran and its militias to end the Syrian revolution. The current agreement in Astana was concluded after the failure of the ceasefire between Russia and the rebel factions, which was concluded in Ankara on 29 January 2016. One of the ceasefire’s results is the launch of a new political process in Astana by Russia to impose its point of view on the solution of the Syrian case. Every now and then, this process involves a ceasefire that grants Assad’s regime and Russia more time to strengthen their influence, reinforce their troops on the ground, and expand to new areas, especially in the vicinity of Damascus, which led ultimately to the total collapse of the previous agreement.
The Russian strong support for Assad returned when powerful offensives were waged in the eastern outskirts of Damascus and Hama northern countryside in mid-March in response to the Iranian and Assad’s regime manipulation and exploitation of the ceasefire as a cover for their crimes. On the 4th of April, Assad’s regime struck Khan Sheikhun in Idlib with chemical weapons, which killed 100 civilians, most of whom were women and children.
The crime that Assad, the animal as described by Trump, shocked the world and had international reverberations that increased in intensity due to the US missiles fired at Shayrat airbase in Homs on 7 April 2017 as a punishment for Assad’s regime for the breach of Assad’s regime of the Security Council resolution no. 2118.
The American missiles also sent messages to the Russians and Iranians that President Donald Trump matches words with deeds, unlike his weak predecessor Obama. Therefore, Putin’s administration hastened to reactivate Astana.
Text of the De-escalation Agreement
The de-escalation memorandum signed by the three guarantors, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, provides for a number of articles, including the following:
- The following de-escalation areas shall be created with the aim to put a prompt end to violence, improve the humanitarian situation and create favorable conditions to advance political settlement of the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic:
- Idlib province and certain parts of the neighbouring provinces (Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces);
- Certain parts in the north of Homs province;
- In eastern Ghouta;
- Certain parts of southern Syria (Deraa and Al-Quneitra provinces).
- Hostilities between the conflicting parties (the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the armed opposition groups that have joined and will join the ceasefire regime) with the use of any kinds of weapons, including aerial assets, shall be ceased;
- Rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access shall be provided;
- Conditions to deliver medical aid to local population and to meet basic needs of civilians shall be created;
- Measures to restore basic infrastructure facilities, starting with water supply and electricity distribution networks, shall be taken;
- Conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons shall be created.
Along the lines of the de-escalation areas, security zones shall be established in order to prevent incidents and military confrontations between the conflicting parties.
The security zones shall include:
- Checkpoints to ensure unhindered movement of unarmed civilians and delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as to facilitate economic activities;
- Observation posts to ensure compliance with the provisions of the ceasefire regime.
The functioning of the checkpoints and observation posts as well as the administration of the security zones shall be ensured by the forces of the Guarantors by consensus. Third parties might be deployed, if necessary, by consensus of the Guarantors.
The Guarantors shall:
- Take all necessary measures to ensure the fulfillment by the conflicting parties of the ceasefire regime;
- Take all necessary measures to continue the fight against DAESH/ISIL, Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL as designated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas;
- Continue efforts to include in the ceasefire regime armed opposition groups that have not yet joined the ceasefire regime.
The Guarantors shall in 2 weeks after signing the Memorandum form a Joint working group on de-escalation (hereinafter referred to as the “Joint Working Group”) composed of their authorized representatives in order to delineate the lines of the de-escalation areas and security zones as well as to resolve other operational and technical issues related to the implementation of the Memorandum.
The Guarantors shall take steps to complete by 4 June 2017 the preparation of the maps of the de-escalation areas and security zones and to separate the armed opposition groups from the terrorist groups mentioned in para.5 of the Memorandum.
The most dangerous article of the memorandum is that Fatah al-Sham shall be forced to leave the de-escalation areas alongside all the groups that did not join the agreement. This grants the Russians and Iranians to continue their aggression in the liberated areas under the pretext of uprooting Nusra front.
Astana and the Prospects of Russian-US Confrontation
The Syrian case is one of the top issues on the table of the US president. Trump requested the ministries of defense and the secretary of state to make a plan to establish safe zones within 90 days. Therefore, Russia hastened to put forward an initiative to bar the way to the movements of the US administration or search for a political settlement.
To understand the US viewpoint about the Russian scheme, Moscow sent its external minister to Washington, who had up his sleeves some issues hindering the implementation of Astana memorandum. These obstacles include Bashar al-Assad, who has become a burden for the international community due to his involvement in a lot of crimes in the past and present, including the chemical massacre. However, Assad is the cover for legitimizing the Russian intervention. On the other hand, the Iranian military presence in the area grew, and its strategic alliance with Russia could reinforce the achievement of the Shiite crescent, but the American stance is different as the United States views Iran as a destabilization factor in the region.
Accordingly, Trump’s administration included in its agenda uprooting ISIS, Assad, and Iran simultaneously.
Despite Trump’s diplomatic statements, the ambiance does not allow for a bilateral deal with Russia. There for, it would be difficult for the Russians to skip the American administration because they learned from the past that the United States can bury them in the Syrian sands in many ways, and particularly the provision of the rebel factions with advanced weapons that could drive Iran out, topple Assad’s regime, and put an end to the Russian airstrikes.
The US-Russian difference in viewpoints forced Moscow to resort to the Security Council in order to legitimize Astana agreement. However, Assad and Iran’s approval could be an indicator of further manipulations to circumvent the agreement by putting the military option into effect. What emphasizes such a trend is the exclusion of Fatah al-Sham from the agreement. In addition, the continued airstrikes and artillery shelling as well as the Iranian reinforcements suggest that a massive military offensive is about to take place, particularly in Damascus eastern countryside and Hama northern countryside.
Astana memorandum was received by Assad and Iran with a deceptive diplomacy while trying to advance in Damascus and Hama. However, the changes in the American policy will put an end to Assad and Iran’s deception.
Having reviewed the consequences of ceasefire and the goals of Assad and his Iranian allies to reinforce their influence and bringing fighters and ammunitions to expand to new areas, Russia is required this time to faithfully implement the article of the de-escalation memorandum in the framework of leading the political solution in order to avoid a confrontation with the unpredictable Trump.
Nevertheless, it seems that the memorandum carries within itself the seeds of failure, because the military means is the only option for Assad and Iran, and the memorandum is merely a cover for capturing new areas.
Regarding that, the political Syrian opposition ought to work in organized way to manage the political conflict by clinging to the principles of the Syrian revolution and observing the international resolutions in Geneva as the basis of any political solution.