By Maria Dubovikova
Negotiations over Syria are back on track following last week’s meeting in Sochi, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. It was the 10th round of the Astana format, and was attended by UN special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Jordanian officials.
The UN is getting more involved in the Astana process as the Geneva process has been at a standstill for almost six months. Jordan’s presence in Sochi signals increased cooperation between Amman and Moscow over Syria. Another particular trait of the meeting is that it covered a broad range of topics such as Syria’s constitution, humanitarian aid and the refugee crisis, instead of the traditional Astana agenda of military issues and cease-fires.
In this sense, the UNHCR’s participation is particularly meaningful. During the talks, UNHCR representatives stressed its commitment to helping Syrian refugees and internally displaced people return to their homes voluntarily, something that Russia is focusing on in cooperation with Jordan, Lebanon and the UN.
Nonetheless, there were divisions in Sochi. Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari warned Turkey that its army would be expelled from Syria if it did not withdraw, and said Ankara is not a trustworthy participant in the Astana process. There is also an enormous level of mistrust between the Syrian opposition and the government, with both sides eager to play the blame game rather than discuss ways to end the fighting.
For example, the opposition uses any chance, including a recent Daesh attack on civilians in southern Syria that government forces failed to avert, to repeat that there will be no peace in the country without regime change as the government is failing to protect its own citizens.
One outcome of the Sochi meeting is a list of candidates to form a constitutional committee. The list is not final and will be debated further. De Mistura said he had productive talks with the guarantor countries of the Astana process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — and consultations with them about the committee will resume in September in Geneva.
Another result is an agreement to start the process of freeing political prisoners. This issue has been a priority for the opposition throughout the conflict. The most problematic issue, over which a breakthrough seems unlikely, is the future of Idlib. The Syrian government says it intends to restore its control over the whole country, by force if the remaining rebel areas do not surrender. Damascus rejects any compromises over Idlib.
If Damascus launches an assault on Idlib, it will risk its previous gains and give the West more reasons to stop the political process and resort to military intervention
Jaafari has said the cease-fires in de-escalation zones have time limits that cannot be extended without the government’s approval. If Damascus launches an assault on Idlib, it will risk its previous gains and give the West more reasons to stop the political process and resort to military intervention, especially with hawks in Washington.
An assault on Idlib would create a humanitarian catastrophe, an enormous civilian death toll and a refugee exodus. As such, attacking the province is not in the interest of any players, including Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow has succeeded in getting UN peacekeepers to return to the Syrian-Israeli border.
At the end of August, Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders will meet in Tehran, though the dates are not fixed yet. Autumn and winter might be very intense seasons in terms of international diplomatic efforts to improve the situation in Syria. A lot depends on the sanity and flexibility of Damascus, though recent years have revealed its reluctance to negotiate.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme