BEIRUT — Due to the rising presence of non-state players in southern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the United States and Russia have been toying with the idea of establishing a de-conflict zone along the border area, aimed at clipping the wings of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State (ISIS) and Hezbollah.
The idea was supposed to see the light at ceasefire talks July 4-5 in Astana but was put on hold until August.
Instead, the three big stakeholders in the Syrian conflict — Russia, Iran and Turkey — decided to go ahead with such a formula in hotspots north of Homs, east of Damascus and the city of Idlib in north-western Syria. Technical committees are to meet in Tehran in August to decide on the parameters of these de-conflict zones, how to monitor ceasefires, who would run their day-to-day affairs and who would maintain security.
Undaunted by the delay, Russia is going ahead with its own arrangements for southern Syria, building a military base that will act as a buffer between warring Syrian factions, making sure that heavy arms are moved out of the zones in Damascus, Homs and Idlib, while humanitarian aid is brought in and distributed equally to all besieged towns and cities.
Ultimately the task is to make sure that the Syrian government and its opponents unite efforts in the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and ISIS, something that both sides also pledged to do at Astana.
The Russians also have to clear the terrain from leftover landmines, reopen schools and police stations, usher the return of refugees and create professional checkpoints to keep the peace and confiscate illegal arms. Apart from the Russian and Turkish military presence, the de-conflict zones will be off-limits to tanks, soldiers and warplanes from either side of the conflict.
What made the latest round of talks more successful than others, from the point of view of Moscow and Damascus, was the almost complete silence of the US participant, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones. He was more-or-less mute throughout the conference, letting the Russians do the bargaining and deal-cutting with Iran and Turkey, mostly at the expense of the ten-man delegation of the armed opposition.
This was a far cry from peace talks under the Obama administration, at which then-Secretary of State John Kerry sat in on all the talks and actively engaged the Russians for the start of a transition period.
Also noteworthy was the absence of Mohammad Alloush, commander of the Saudi-backed Islamic Army that has controlled the main city of Douma in al-Ghouta since 2012. Alloush, a civilian turned rebel commander, headed the opposition delegation in the four previous rounds of the Astana talks but was left out this time in an attempt at sidelining Saudi Arabia from the talks, due to present tension between Riyadh and Ankara over the snowballing feud with Qatar.
Alloush was replaced by a former Syrian Army officer named Ahmad Berry, who serves as chief-of-staff of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). A protégé of Ankara, he showed a willingness to cut deals with Damascus, unlike Alloush, who was written off by the Russians as a hardliner and a “terrorist” no different from al-Qaeda or ISIS, the Kremlin said.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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