Sixth round of Astana Syria talks initially planned for the last week of August is now postponed for the mid-September. The recent negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital which took place on July 4-5 did not produce any result as parties still had some technical differences with regard to the practical implementation of the de-escalation zones plan.
Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are the three sponsors of the format, did not sign a single agreement defining the practical parameters of the four de-escalation zones that were proposed in May. However, reports about Russia, Turkey and Iran constantly discussing de-escalation zones could be found easily.
Surprisingly, right after the fifth round of negotiations in Astana the United States and Russia brokered the new ceasefire deal on July 7, establishing a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria which included areas of Quneitra, Suweida and Deraa.
The deal was signed in the framework of Amman format by Jordan, Russia and the United States and came as a result of months-long preliminary talks between the parties. It was announced July 9 after presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met in Germany on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. This naturally puts necessity and effectiveness of Astana format into question.
Interestingly, that agreements on functioning the other two de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs were also struck outside of the Astana format – in Cairo by the end of July. During the recent visit of Egyptian foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to Moscow, Lavrov praised Cairo’s constructive role in establishing de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta and Homs in Syria.
Egypt hosted several rounds of talks between representatives of Russia’s defense ministry and different Syrian opposition groups which resulted in establishing two more de-escalation zones.
Moreover, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman, two major Islamist opposition groups operating in eastern Ghouta, also signed agreements with Russia’s defense ministry joining the ceasefire and de-escalation regime outside Astana format. It happened on July 22 and August 18 in Cairo and Geneva respectively. Thus, Astana format was sidelined again.
One of the key questions about all these above-mentioned agreements signed outside of the Astana format is whether they are holding effectively. So far, they all are holding pretty well.
Regardless of every good thing Astana format has produced, postponing the next round of talks is just another confirmation that the parties still did not reach a consensusAlexey Khlebnikov
Lines of contact
The southwestern de-escalation zone agreed by Russia, the United States and Jordan, is holding effectively. On July 21-22 Russia deployed its military policy units along the approved lines of contact (Jordan, US, Israel were informed in advance) near the southwestern de-escalation zone.
Moreover, on Aug. 23 Russia announced the launch of joint Russia-US-Jordan monitoring center in Jordan’s capital Amman. The center’s main objectives are to monitor the ceasefire regime in the southeastern de-escalation zone, secure humanitarian access and provide medical and other assistance to the population.
The other two de-escalation zones also seem functioning successfully. On July 24, Russia deployed its military police units to east Ghouta zone and on August 4 to northern Homs zone to monitor the ceasefire regime and ensure access of humanitarian and medical aid to the devastated areas.
That were also negotiated during talks in Cairo. According to the Russian defense ministry 14 humanitarian convoys of the UN and International Committee of Red Cross have entered de-escalation zones including 10 convoys in August.
As a result, Russia comes out as the sole force so far that monitors three existing de-escalation zones in Syria (not counting joint monitoring center in Amman). Iran with its significant number of forces on the ground and rising influence in the country seems to be effectively sidelined by Russia in order to appease the US, Jordan and Israel.
Growing Iranian influence
The southwest de-escalation zone deal with the US and Jordan took into account Jordanian and Israeli concerns about growing Iranian influence in Syria, especially in its south as both countries share border with it.
Most likely Moscow made Iran to pull out its forces deployed close to the southwest de-escalation zone and Russian military police posts along the zone’s border keep Iranian forces in check, thus, making Jordanians and Israelis satisfied. It is logical to assume that Moscow made some trade off with Iran.
But it seems that Moscow decided to go further with its own approach of excluding Iran and Turkey from the talks on functioning of de-escalation zones which holds certain risks for Russia.
If Moscow had offered Iran a stake in other two central de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta and Homs after it ignored its interests in southwest Syria, that would have been a fair trade. But eventually, Russia did not do that, instead getting control over the central de-escalation zones (east Ghouta and Homs) where Iranian forces intended to gain momentum.
As a result, the last de-escalation zone in Idlib province has left. But that area is already under Turkey’s interest. Thus, such situation ultimately makes it way more difficult for Moscow, Ankara and Tehran to compromise, especially given that Syria’s north has other forces – Syrian Kurds and the US. In addition, it can also push Iran closer to Turkey threatening Russia’s interests in Syria.
On Aug. 16, Iran’s armed forces chief visited Turkey for the first time since 1979 to discuss with Erdogan and his defense minister ways of boosting bilateral defense ties, and reconciling the two countries’ policy differences in Syria and Iraq.
They also discussed Russia-sponsored de-escalation zones mechanism. Ankara and Tehran have no agreement on the checkpoints to be established inside Syria to ease the access of humanitarian aid and the return of Syrians to their lands. It sends Russia a signal – Turkey and Iran might unite to oppose Russia if it is needed.
As a result, it complicates functioning of the Astana format and makes its guarantors to postpone the next round. This format remains to be important for all three actors as it legitimized their status of the most important actors in Syria, allowed them to create conceptual framework for the ceasefire and de-escalation zones, and demonstrated their effective approach internationally.
The only drawback appeared when subsequent talks on de-escalation zones details were conducted outside of the format. This is why if Russia, Turkey and Iran fail to compromise on the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib and demonstrate workability of Astana format it might soon cease to exist, paving the road for alternatives in Amman and Cairo.
All recent reports coming from the Russia’s foreign ministry and its partners say that Russia, Turkey and Iran are currently working on setting up the final de-escalation zone in Syrian Idlib province. But regardless of every good thing Astana format has already produced, postponing the next round of talks is just another confirmation that the parties still did not reach a consensus and have nothing to come with. In the end, it adds nothing to the Astana format effectiveness.
Therefore, the main challenge which Russia, Turkey and Iran need to address over the next three weeks is whether they are ready to compromise and prove Astana format to be successful.
Alexey Khlebnikov is a MENA expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He used to work as a consultant to various think tanks and institutions in the US, Middle East, and Russia. During his Master’s and Ph.D. studies, he has made several research trips working and studying in Syria, Israel, Egypt, and Hungary. He has been published on international relations topics in particular on the Middle East in academic journals and media sources in Russia, Europe, US, and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter @AleksKhlebnikov.