Russian-led talks on Syria ended with agreement Tuesday to bolster a cease-fire even as apparent tensions with Iran, a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threaten to hold up efforts to end the six-year civil war.
Russia and Turkey included Iran to set up “a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the cease-fire” established last month, the countries said in a joint statement at the end of two days of negotiations in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The three nations will set up a joint military monitoring center on Syria in Astana.
Russia, which has criticized Syria for breaking the cease-fire, called on Iran to honor its commitments under the new accord. “Our military who are in Syria are doing everything to ensure that these violations by government forces don’t happen,” Alexander Lavrentiev, the Kremlin envoy to Syria who headed Russia’s delegation at the Astana talks, told reporters. “Iran can help, especially now, as a guarantor of the signed agreements, it will be obliged to respect the obligations it has signed up to.”
Amid deteriorating relations with the Obama administration over a failed peace effort in September, Russia seized the diplomatic initiative after its forces helped Assad to expel rebel fighters from Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, last month — a turning point in a war that’s killed more than 300,000. Still, the cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey isn’t holding everywhere, with fighting continuing in particular outside the capital Damascus.
The effort by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the three countries with forces on the ground in Syria suffered a setback Monday when opposition groups rejected face-to-face meetings with government representatives at the Astana talks. They negotiated instead in separate rooms, through mediators.
Tensions are increasing between Russia and Iran, which have fundamentally different ambitions in Syria, said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Tehran is determined to push home Assad’s advantage while Moscow wants to scale down its military involvement, he said.
“The Iranian role makes Assad less dependent on Russia and able to act militarily, and this is very dangerous because it undermines the Kremlin’s efforts to promote some kind of political process in Syria,” Malashenko said.
The fact that government forces continue to break the truce means “it hasn’t been implemented,” Osama Abu Zaid, a member of the opposition delegation, told reporters on Tuesday.
While the chief rebel negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, said Russia was playing a constructive role, Abu Zaid stressed that the opposition wants to see “action.”
‘We welcome actions that sustainably de-escalate violence and reduce suffering in Syria,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday in a statement on the effort by Russia, Turkey and Iran.“We call upon these three countries to press regime, pro-regime, and opposition forces to abide by the cease-fire in order to create an environment more conducive to intra-Syrian political discussions.”
An early test could come in Wadi Baradi, an area outside of Damascus that is still the scene of a government offensive and is home to key water-pumping facilities that have been damaged either by fighting or sabotage, cutting supplies to some five million people, according to the United Nations. Russia is paying “especial attention” to improving the situation there as well as in Eastern Ghoutta near Damascus, though al-Qaeda linked fighters are active in the area, Lavrentiev said.
Bashar Jaafari, the head of the Syrian government delegation, said the offensive in Wadi Baradi would continue until water supplies are restored to Damascus. He hailed the Astana talks as a “success” and said Assad was committed to strengthening the cease-fire.
The Astana meeting was part of a joint approach announced in Moscow last month by Russia, Turkey and Iran. While Russia and Iran support Assad’s regime, Turkey — a key backer of the armed groups opposing the Syrian leader — helped to negotiate the truce accord signed by seven Islamist groups representing 62,000 fighters and the Damascus government.
The opposition accuses Iran, which backs militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah that are fighting alongside Assad’s forces, of continuing to support attacks in spite of the agreement to halt violence.
In a sign of Russian efforts to build bridges with the opposition, Russia handed a new draft Syrian constitution to the rebels that could help accelerate talks on a political transition.
There’s an “urgent necessity to step up efforts to jump-start the negotiation process,” and representatives of the Syrian armed opposition should take part in UN-led talks that are due to resume in Geneva on Feb. 8, Russia, Iran and Turkey said in their statement.
With the U.S left out of the latest peace effort, the American ambassador to Kazakhstan attended the talks as an observer. Russia had invited aides to new President Donald Trump, who has promised to work together on combating Islamic State.
Russia would welcome a “more active role” for the U.S. in the peace process, Lavrentiev said, though he added it was unclear if it could join as a guarantor. Previous cease-fire efforts in Syria, which collapsed in September, were led by the Obama administration with Russia.
There’ll be “some very hard bargaining between Russia and Iran” now over the truce, according to Malashenko, the Carnegie analyst.
“The Kremlin will put huge pressure on Assad, but in whose interests is the cease-fire?” he said. “The opposition needs a breathing space and Russia wants the truce, but for Iran and Assad it’s a threat.”
24 January 2017