[Published here on January 24, 2017]
Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) – Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed Tuesday to bolster a fragile truce in Syria but rebels and Damascus made no progress towards a broader settlement to end the war after two days of talks.
The three main sponsors of the negotiations in Astana announced the creation of “a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire” in place since late December.
Moscow, Tehran and Ankara — all key players in the conflict — also agreed armed rebel groups should take part in a new round of peace talks set to be hosted by the United Nations in Geneva next month.
“There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and… it can only be solved through a political process,” said the final statement by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
However the final declaration was not signed by the rebels or the regime, whose negotiators did not hold face-to-face talks.
– ‘No notable progress’ –
Russia — the driving force behind the meeting — has become the major powerbroker in Syria after changing the tide on the ground with its military support for leader Bashar al-Assad.
But while the Kremlin has succeeded in sidelining the West with its new drive to play peacemaker, there were signs Moscow will struggle to transform military gains into wider progress towards peace.
The latest diplomatic initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria that has cost 310,000 lives comes one month after regime forces, aided by Russia and Iran, dealt a crushing blow to the rebels by retaking full control of the country’s second city Aleppo.
The meeting was expected to see the first face-to-face negotiations between the regime and the battered armed opposition since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011.
But the defiant rebels refused and mediators were forced to shuttle between the two sides. Rebel negotiator Mohammad Alloush told AFP the “intransigence of Iran and the regime” was responsible for “no notable progress” in the negotiations.
A ceasefire brokered by Russia and rebel-backer Turkey has been in place since late December but both rebels and Damascus have complained of repeated violations.
The rebels — who insisted they would use the Astana talks to push Damascus to respect the truce — refused direct talks with the regime on Monday because of its continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint outside the Syrian capital Damascus.
– ‘Achieved the goal’ –
Regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari said after the end of the talks that the meeting “succeeded in achieving the goal of consolidating the cessation of hostilities for a fixed period paving the way for dialogue between Syrians.”
But he insisted that operations will continue against key flashpoint Wadi Barada, an area 15 kilometres (10 miles) northwest of Damascus, where rebels have demanded the regime stops attacks.
There were few details about the proposed ceasefire monitoring mechanism and it was unclear what impact it will have on the ground.
The Kremlin’s envoy at the talks Alexander Lavrentiev said it will involve experts from Russia, Turkey and Iran meeting in Astana.
The rebels had earlier opposed Iran’s involvement in monitoring the ceasefire as it sees Tehran and the militias it controls as a main source of the violence.
– Reduce suffering –
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said his organisation was ready to assist in developing the mechanism and “ensure that it helps strengthen the quality of the ceasefire.”
As a further reminder that the conflict is far from over in Syria fighting continued to rage Tuesday with major jihadist groups not covered by the truce.
Rebels were battling former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front in the country’s north, a monitoring group said.
As the talks were ending, Russia’s defence ministry said its warplanes had bombed the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria’s Deir Ezzor region.
Meanwhile, UN agencies and aid groups appealed for $4.63 billion (4.31 billion euros) in 2017 to help Syrians who have fled their country’s war and sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
The appeal is on top of the $3.4 billion that the UN estimates is needed this year for the 13.5 million people still in Syria who have been affected by the conflict.
Washington acknowledged the three-country mechanism announced Tuesday — but said ultimately Damascus and the rebels need to talk directly.
“We welcome actions that sustainably de-escalate violence and reduce suffering in Syria,” said acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
But he added: “We call upon these three countries to press regime, pro-regime, and opposition forces to abide by the ceasefire in order to create an environment more conducive to intra-Syrian political discussions.”