Latest Syria Agreement Sparks Fears of Partition

BEIRUT — The resolutions of the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg took the Syrian political elite by storm, although the handwriting had been on the wall for weeks. The two presidents settled what had been postponed at the July 4-5 round of Astana talks — the creation of a de-conflict zone in southern Syria, encompassing the cities of Daraa and al-Quneitra and the countryside of Sweida in the Druze Mountain. Although not part of the Astana talks, the Hamburg Agreement certainly complemented what Syrian negotiators failed to agree upon in Kazakhstan.
The new zone is the latest territorial arrangement agreed upon in Astana by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Four de-conflict zones will now see the light: North of Homs, east of Damascus, in Idlib in north-western Syrian and in southern Syrian.
Syrians from both sides of the conflict are terrified by the latest agreement, seeing it as a soft partition of the country, establishing long-term pockets of regional and international influence that will be difficult to dismantle in upcoming years.
The Iranians are demanding that they get to help police and man all four de-conflict zones, something that has been fiercely vetoed by all other stakeholders in the conflict, including the Syrian opposition. Jordan and Israel refuse to accept any Iranian influence on the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Israeli borders, insisting that Hezbollah gets pushed away by 55km into the Syrian heartland. For the past two years, the Israeli Army has been bombing truckloads of Hezbollah arms entering the Golan Heights and targeting Hezbollah figures hovering dangerously close to the borders.
Iran will be forced out of the border area and left to reign in its existing pockets of influence in Syria, namely in the Qalamoun Mountains overlooking Lebanon, the Damascus-Beirut Highway and at the Shia shrines in Damascus.
Instead of the Iranians, the Russians will be mandated to control the southern zone through military police from Chechnya, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, similar to the 600 Russian troops deployed to Aleppo last December. Everybody, including US President Donald Trump and the Syrian opposition, seems to accept Russian boots on the ground.
The Turks are asking that they get their share of the divides, running the city of Idlib with Moscow, which fell to an assortment of Turkey-backed Islamic rebels in 2015. Damascus has firmly objected to the suggestion, although the Russians are seemingly not too upset with it, seeing that Turkish troops are very capable of reigning among military groups who have been on Ankara’s payroll since 2011.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been cutting very successful deals over Syria for the past year. Last August, Putin allowed his Turkish counterpart to invade and occupy the border cities of Jarabulus and Azaz, then let the Turks march on the city of al-Bab, 40km north-east of Aleppo.
The Russians signed off a Turkish safe zone in northern Syria, aimed at freeing the border area from Kurdish and Islamic State (ISIS) presence, hoping that once it is 100% secure, millions of Syrian refugees could be resettled in the three cities and what lies between them. In exchange, Putin was given a green light to retake Aleppo in December. Erdogan looked away as his Syrian proxies on the battlefield were expelled from Aleppo by the Russian Army.
In June, Putin surrendered the Kurdish city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, to Turkish ambitions, letting Erdogan bomb Kurdish military positions and eradicate the presence of militias that Ankara regards as “terrorist organisations.”
Details on who will control what are to be outlined by the big three in August. It has been mutually agreed that Russia will patrol southern Syria, while the United States will control its skies, something that the Syrians also do not like but are in no position to halt.
For the four de-conflict zones to see the light, a new formula of governance needs to be reached by Syrian negotiators at the UN-mandated Geneva talks. Running them through the centralised authority of Damascus will no longer work. The Russians are proposing giving the four districts greater self-rule, while keeping them within the Syrian political and geographic framework.
According to a Russian-authored charter, the new four zones elect their municipality leaders with their own governors, without waiting for appointment or endorsement from Damascus. They will also get a share of their region’s wealth and will be given the right of voting for their own members of local parliaments, which would rule side by side with a central one in Damascus.
The Russian Army is to make sure that these four zones are demilitarised and made off-limits to government troops, tanks and warplanes. Damascus will get to reopen schools, police stations and the border crossings with Jordan and Iraq, which remain in the hands of the Syrian Army. They will also get to raise the official flag of the Syrian government but would have to share local authority with the rebels and coordinate efforts to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, the ISIS branch in the countryside of Daraa.
The four zones will not succeed if not backed by a new constitution, explaining why this was the only pressing topic at the Geneva talks. All previously urgent issues have therefore been put on hold, ranging from the creation of a transitional government, on to early presidential and parliamentary elections, including the fate of the Syrian president.
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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