The first successful attempt to bring the ‘armed opposition’ into a common peace process with the Syrian government began on 23 and 24 January in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana. Further talks ensued on 6 February and continued on 15-16 February. These talks, brokered by Russia and unfolding in the wake of the liberation of Aleppo, have already agreed ceasefire terms.
At the first round of talks, Russia, Turkey and Iran issued a joint statement, affirming amongst other things their commitment to the “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian and democratic State.” They decided to “establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire” (Joint statement, Al Jazeera, 23-24 January 2017).
The talks are necessarily complex and fragile, involving as they do an ‘armed opposition’ which has raised guns against the legitimate government but which now professes itself to be distinct from Islamic State and al-Nusra and declares its readiness to enter talks. How seriously these declarations should be taken remains to be seen. On the eve of the talks’ resumption on 15 February, Mohammed Alloush, a member of Jaysh al-Islam, who earlier led the delegation to Astana, was already raising difficulties, complaining he had not had a formal invitation. The difference this time round, though, is that both Islamic State and al-Nusra are on the back foot, Syria and Russia have firmly seized the initiative, and a massive question mark hangs over Trump’s appetite for pursuing Obama’s regime-change agenda and keeping the jihadi mercenaries in a permanent job. Jaysh al-Islam and their fellows will be feeling a cold breeze behind them.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura postponed the next Geneva talks from 8 February to 20 February, allowing time for the 15 February round of Astana talks to lay the groundwork on which Geneva could build. Kazakhstan’s foreign minister suggested that the Astana process is “a serious preparatory stage for the resumption of the Geneva talks” and that the 15 February talks in Astana were expected to adopt a document establishing a task force overseeing the all-Syria ceasefire (‘Astana talks on Syria lay groundwork for Geneva’, Sputnik, 14 February), which they have now in fact done.
More ambitiously, on the table for talks at Astana, which will reconvene next month after the Geneva meeting, is a new draft constitution for Syria. In addition to the Syrian government and the ‘armed opposition’, the US, Jordan and Staffan de Mistura are attending. Behind all the diplomatic niceties around Astana and Geneva, it is obvious to all the participants that what is really to be discussed are the terms of surrender of those forces which have, at the behest of imperialism, pitted themselves against the legitimate government of Syria – and lost.
‘Safe zones’ revisited
As the balance of forces moves in favour of Syria’s national resistance struggle, familiar words start to acquire a different resonance. ‘No fly zones’, ‘safe zones’: in the mouth of Clinton, these were universally understood to be transparent euphemisms for war. In the case of Libya, ‘no fly zones’ were the trigger for war against Gaddafi; in the case of Syria they were to be the trigger for war with Russia – had Clinton won the election. So now when Trump announces, “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people”, it is reasonable to suspect that he is treading the same much-worn track. Indeed, Russia’s own first response was understandably cautious. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed that the US had not consulted Russia about the plan, noting that “It is their sovereign decision.”
On further consideration, however, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that on certain conditions Russia might support the plan, which would first of all require close cooperation with the UN and the approval of the Syrian government. Lavrov explained: “If this is about the people who were forced to leave their homes by the conflict… getting their basic needs covered… then I think that the idea to create areas within Syria for those internally displaced could be discussed with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations.”
How far if at all this accords with Trump’s own ideas is another question. It sounds more like the kind of painstaking incremental local ceasefire and reconciliation arrangements long since practised by Syria and Russia and coordinated through the national reconciliation centre. But Lavrov was willing to give the Trump plan the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that it might be different from earlier versions. He told a press conference in Abu Dhabi: “We understand that Donald Trump’s administration is yet to specify its approach. The idea of safe zones was discussed in the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Then they wanted to repeat ‘the Libyan scenario,’ announcing the creation of a safe zone, where the anti-government forces were located. I do not see that Washington attempts to follow the same path now” (see ‘US-proposed Syria safe zones not an attempt to repeat Libyan scenario’, Sputnik, 1 February 2017).
In the politest possible way, Trump is being told that maybe he can have his ‘safe zones’, provided that (a) they are stripped of all the regime-change and proxy war baggage; (b) they conform to international law; and (c) they are endorsed by Syria. In the political climate created by the Syrian Arab Army’s advances, that is the only kind of ‘safe zone’ on offer. (Whether Ankara understands this yet is a moot point.)
The war in the north
Whilst talks in Astana and Geneva go ahead, the war continues. In theory the common enemies are Islamic State and al-Nusra; in reality the rival agendas are many and shifting. Whilst Damascus, Moscow and Tehran have throughout been in deadly earnest about rooting out and destroying the terror networks which have plagued the country for six years, US imperialism wants to control Islamic State and the rest, not destroy them, and is also seeking to manipulate Kurdish national aspirations to further its own interests. Ankara too, for all that it is now ready to sign up to the territorial integrity of Syria, was only yesterday a mainstay for Daesh and remains an uncertain quantity. Its warming relations with Russia are the product of a particular set of circumstances and are of uncertain duration.
Some of these tensions and contradictions are manifest in the push towards Raqqa, regarded as the last real bastion of Daesh on Syrian soil. Currently the fighting is concentrated around the key city of al-Bab, the last IS stronghold in the north before Raqqa. Early in January Russian jets were able to destroy key Daesh positions, killing and wounding dozens of jihadis. Syrian Arab Army forces have been attacking from the south, whilst the Turkish army is attacking from the north. It is unclear at present whether this constitutes a coordinated pincer movement, or whether Ankara plans to raise obstacles to the Syrian army’s reassertion of Syria’s full sovereign rights. This could be an early test of Ankara’s good faith, having so recently affirmed Syria’s territorial integrity at Astana.
Victory to the Syrian president, government, army and people!