Lina Khatib
Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Far from a breakthrough, the Astana agreement is a thinly veiled pretext to increase Russian and Iranian influence.
5 May: Senior Russian military commander Sergei Rudskoi briefs on the situation in Syria. Photo: Getty Images.

Although the agreement on the establishment of ‘de-escalation areas’ in Syria, signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran on 4 May, appears positive at face value, it is unlikely to be a first steps towards peace. The Assad regime and its Russian backers have shown little seriousness about reaching an agreement with the opposition – this agreement seems instead likely to pour fuel on the fire.

Similar agreements have often been used by Russia and the Assad regime to hurt the credibility of the Syrian opposition and of rebel groups, whose continued participation in peace talks while the regime bombardment of civilians goes on makes them appear disconnected from the situation on the ground. And the inclusion of Iran as a ‘guarantor’ caused the Syrian rebel groups participating in the talks to storm out in frustration at its role.

The media have reported on the agreement as being about the establishment of ‘safe zones’, but ‘de-escalation areas’ are not the same thing. Safe zones would not be run by any of the parties participating in the conflict. The de-escalation zones, on the other hand, allow for Russia and Iran to set up checkpoints and observation posts ‘to ensure that the provisions of the ceasefire regime are implemented’.

And although the agreement says that the ‘guarantors’ (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would ‘call upon the conflicting parties to stop using any kinds of weapons in the de-escalation areas’ (thus ignoring that Russia and Iran are themselves two of those conflicting parties), the agreement later says that the guarantors ‘shall undertake all necessary measures to force out of the de-escalation areas the groups of ISIL [ISIS] and Jabhat al-Nusra [now also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham], as well as other groups that have not joined the ceasefire regime’.

The inclusion of this clause is important. Visualizing how the de-escalation areas would operate, one can imagine areas encircled by Russian and Iranian (and Turkish) troops, who use their observation posts to monitor the movements of armed groups inside the areas. Russia and Iran would continue to engage in military activity inside those areas under the pretext of forcing out ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The increased intermingling of Jabhat al-Nusra with other rebel groups means that those groups will be regarded as legitimate targets for Russia and Iran under the signed agreement. This might in turn push rebel groups to engage in military confrontation with Nusra.

These scenarios can then be used by Russia and Iran to argue that it is not possible to ‘deliver humanitarian assistance’ or ‘ensure the movement of unarmed civilians in the areas’, as the agreement postulates, putting the burden squarely on the rebel groups. This would be especially the case in the Idlib governorate, which has a high concentration of rebel groups and a presence of Nusra fighters.

Idlib is also where Iran-backed militias have comparatively less access than other areas mentioned in the agreement, namely the region north of Homs, eastern Ghouta and southern Syria. The plan to establish a de-escalation area in Idlib could therefore be a way for Iran to infiltrate this region ‘legitimately’.

The agreement’s timing also comes after a change of stance by Russia towards local councils in Syria, as Russia included a role for the local councils in a draft constitution for Syria that it presented in a previous round of talks in Astana. The likely explanation for this change is that Russia is hoping to absorb the local councils into the Syrian state under the auspices of a settlement agreement. Since local councils operate in some of the regions listed in the agreement on de-escalation areas, Russia’s plan seems to be to use the de-escalation areas as the first step towards neutralizing the local councils.

None of these outcomes would have the effect of de-escalating the conflict. Instead, they would continue a well-worn strategy to use agreements as a pretext for advancing the interests of the Assad regime and its backers. Don’t be fooled.

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