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Chasing peace in Syria
Posted:May 10, 2017
 
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The so-called de-escalation agreement reached among Russia, Turkey and Iran last week in Astana is the latest in a series of attempts to bring the six-year-old Syrian civil war to an end. Previous ceasefire plans have either failed to take off or collapsed soon after, given the continued hostility between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and rebels. Still, the latest agreement is significant for a number of reasons. 
 
First of all, any attempt to cease violence is welcome given the destruction the war has wreaked in Syria. More than two million people are estimated to be living in rebel-held territories (barring areas controlled by the Islamic State) in terrible humanitarian conditions and under constant fear of aerial bombing. For them, an end to the Russian-Assad regime strikes is a great relief. Second, the agreement involves the three main external players in the civil war. Russia and Iran are the key backers of the regime, while Turkey supports some rebel groups. 
 
Under the agreement, Syria and Russia will stop bombing rebel-held areas, divided into four zones in Idlib, Homs, Damascus suburbs, and southern Deraa and Quneitra towns, to de-escalate tensions. The regime will also allow “unhindered” humanitarian supplies to rebel-held areas and provide public services. In return, the rebels should stop fighting government forces. Third, this appears to be a more focussed, phased attempt to end violence. The agreement was reached barely weeks before a two-track political process was to begin. In June, the government and rebel representatives will meet for negotiations in Geneva, while the Russia-led talks of external actors will continue in Kazakhstan in July. If the de-escalation plan holds, it will be a big boost for the political process.
 
But implementing the agreement itself will be a major challenge given the complex nature of the civil war. For the deal to hold, Russia and Iran will first have to rein in the Assad regime. In the past it has shown little interest in a political solution. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s comment that the regime would not allow UN monitoring of the implementation of de-escalation is not in the spirit of the agreement. 
 
A bigger challenge for all actors involved is how to tackle the threats from al-Qaeda-linked groups. The Astana agreement is clear on that — Russia and Syria will continue to attack them. In Idlib, the Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham is the main anti-regime militia. In Homs and the Damascus suburbs, they have joined hands with other groups. So if the government continues to attack them, it could drag more rebel groups into the fight, risking an end to the ceasefire. Ideally, the regime should exercise restraint and the non-jihadist rebels distance themselves from Qaeda-linked organisations, while allowing Russia, Turkey and Iran to play the role of facilitators. To take the political process forward, everyone has to act more responsibly, keeping in mind the humanitarian situation.
 
The Hindu, May 10, 2017
 
 
 
 
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