The story of Astana.. “Architected” by Russia to freeze the opposition and give free rein to al-Assad
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
After Astana talks, the face of Syria has changed as the power balance in the provinces changed, for the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, has emerged as the only military and political authority that controls everything, and this came after it was about to lose that control in favor of the Syrian opposition.
The talks had a “military tinge”, in spite of the fact that they were inserted as part of the agreements and talks over the Syrian file. The items that have been agreed upon gave shape to the military map on the ground and added some political issues so as to allude to how crucial it is to integrate them into the so-called political talks about Syria, some of which revolved around the file of detainees, which is still pending today.
For two and half years, nine rounds of Astana talks have been held, with the participation of opposition figures, with the Syrian regime’s delegation succeeding in maintaining its firmness, and the three guarantor States, including Russia, Iran and Turkey. These parties were engaged in the talks basically by agreeing on the items at the end of each concluding statement issued at the end of each round, while the local parties have committed themselves only to the implementation of the resolutions.
The 9 rounds have engendered some key issues. Perhaps, the final concluding statement presented by the fourth round of talks, “Astana 4”, was a landmark for the talks, for it has contributed to the establishment of four “cease-fire” or the so-called de-escalation zones, mainly eastern Ghouta, the Syrian south and northern Homs, which are the main areas of opposition control.
A New Syrian map
The scene completely changed after “Astana 4”, and the military map started to recede in favor of al- Assad forces, which launched military operations targeting agreed-upon areas, despite the emphasis on a complete ceasefire. This change was met with complete stagnation and powerlessness on the part of the opposition fronts and total absence of any support coming from the parties that supported Syria in the early years of the revolution. This situation has triggered talks and thoughts about items which have been agreed upon under the table and have never been introduced by the opposition. The regime leaked parts of these items, some of which relates to fighting the “terrorism” of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and ISIS.
It is possible to emphasize the fact that some of the agreed-upon items have been concealed by the opposition through what Omran Center for Strategic Studies published about the form Idlib map will take. This map was not officially introduced by the opposition, for the final statement of “Astana 4” has divided the province into three parts, including the eastern part, on which al-Assad forces have established full control after the factions quickly withdrew without serious fighting.
The ex-Brigadier-General and head of the opposition delegation to Astana, Ahmed Berri, denied that the fact that the opposition might have concealed any of the signed items. “There is no agreement in Astana to hand over the territories or any opposition area to be exempted from the agreement,” he says.
He added that the de-escalation agreement has been implemented in four areas, but they just disengaged themselves, the first area to thwart it was the South of Syria, for the factions have signed a special agreement under the table with the US, Jordan and Russia, away from “Astana” and the Turkish guarantor.
According to Berri not only the south, but also eastern Ghouta has witnessed a similar scenario, as Jaysh al-Islam faction headed toward the Egyptian capital (Cairo) and concluded an agreement, away from Astana agreement. Northern Homs countryside also resorted to Egypt through al-Tawhid Brigade faction and Syrian Tomorrow Movement.
To this date, most of the opposition figures who took part in Astana process are avoiding to mention any details of the agreed-upon items.
As for Idlib, Enab Baladi tried to contact the head of the opposition delegation to Astana, Ahmed Tu’mah, but he refused to answer any question about the de-escalation agreement validity period in the province.
Astana is “not to blame”…The “guilt” is the factions’
A member of the Political Committee of the Syrian opposition coalition, Yasser al-Farhan, believed that in order to obtain the correct results one needs to analyze pre-Astana reality on the ground, in addition to the political reality as well.
During an interview with Enab Baladi al-Farhan explained that the opposition factions lost many areas before the beginning of “Astana”, including the Old Homs in 2014, and then al-Qalamun, Tishreen neighborhoods, al-Zabadani, Madaya, Qudsaya, al-Hamah, al-Tal, Jayrud and the villages of the Syrian coast. In addition to the huge loss in Darayya in west Damascus, on August 8, 2016, as well as the eastern region, which constitutes the largest area in Syria, of which ISIS and Kurdish forces took control after the “Free Army” factions have assured its control since the beginning of the armed movement.
According to al-Farhan, the areas that previously fell have nothing to do with Astana, especially the city of Aleppo, which contained huge amounts of opposition supplies and weapons, but the conflicts between the leadership at the time and the inter-fighting turned the situation in favor of the Syrian regime.
“Astana was the result and not the reason for this situation,” said al-Farhan. He refused to declare that “Astana” was the reason behind the fall of opposition areas to the regime’s favor and rather attributed it to the lack of parties’ commitment to the agreed-upon items, including the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.
Russia… The political and military “architect” of Syria
Russia headed “Astana” talks, and tried to “catch two birds with one single stone” through restoring large parts of the opposition areas after the neutralizing its fronts, and then implementing a political solution, which managed to distort the political vision of Syria from “Geneva” to “Sochi”. This last move drew the full picture of the objectives that Russia has been trying to achieve since the first round.
Russian design overlapped with that of the other guarantors, namely Turkey and Iran, for despite its support for the Syrian opposition, Turkey had other endeavors when it decided to participate in the talks. It has found an interval in which it managed to divert the military weight in the north to serve its objectives on the border and to establish full control over Afrin, in conjunction with the military operations that were carried out in eastern Ghouta. These operations were then labeled as “a distraction” to the northern factions, in order to open fronts that would alleviate the perimeter of the capital.
Iran also had intentions behind participating in Astana talks, and these had to do with reaffirming its role in the Syrian file along with the Russians and Turks, after the American and Israeli threats to eliminate its presence from all Syrian territory. As a result, Iran was able to recently install checkpoints in the vicinity of Idlib province.
With the features of the military scenarios in Syria becoming clearer after the regime forces have established control over the South of Syria, the role of the talks in Astana, whose 9 rounds were managed by the military factions and Russia in addition to the regime and the guarantors, has reached an end.
Today, the rest of the files of “Astana” move to a new round of “Sochi” talks, the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said that Sochi will be held on July 30 and 31, and that its program will follow that of Astana.
“During our last meeting of Astana, we decided that the next meeting would take place in Sochi on the last two days of July,” he said.
The three guarantors of Astana, mainly Russia, Turkey and Iran, will maintain their own positions in Sochi, and there will be observers alongside the Syrian parties. It is expected to move on tackling details about the Syrian constitution and consultations on the political solution in Syria, after finishing up the military file.
From Aleppo to Daraa
How did the opposition lose its regions?
The map of influence in Syria witnessed significant changes since late 2016 until 2018, most of which were in favor of the Syrian regime, at a time when the areas of the opposition factions witnessed a clear and significant decline, until the areas controlled by them became confined to two enclaves in the North of Syria, one under Turkish administration and the other’s fate has not yet been revealed, which is Idlib province.
This change came with the start of the process of “Astana” by the guarantor States (Turkey, Russia, Iran) early 2017 in the wake of the start of military operations in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo that ended with its complete control by the Syrian regime, which was considered the beginning of the setbacks and the “fall” of the opposition areas in favor of al-Assad and his allies.
The talk about the process was linked to an agreement called “de-escalation” and which ruled a cease-fire between the rival factions on the ground (the opposition, the regime), away from the jihadist factions such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, a step that played a major role in the continuation of al-Assad’s battles against the opposition areas, under the pretext of eliminating “terrorism”.
Aleppo before Astana
The fall of the city of Aleppo, in the hands of al-Assad forces and the militias which support them, is a major blow to the Syrian opposition, as it is its main front in the North of Syria.
Aleppo fell before the start of the first round of “Astana” during the signing of the cease-fire agreement in Ankara, December 2016, followed by the capital Damascus surroundings and the central region to the south of Syria, which tops the Syrian scene now.
The eastern neighborhoods of the city witnessed a formulated policy, which began with the imposition of a complete siege, accompanied by starvation and lack of essential supplies for civilians, targeting infrastructure and hospitals to narrowing the geographical area.
The map of control changed after the fall of Aleppo in mid-December 2016. The opposition factions lost vast areas of influence in Syria to al-Assad forces, especially in Damascus western countryside and the central region in and around Homs.
The western countryside of Damascus
Wadi Barada and the Ain al-Fijah area were the first target after Aleppo, where al-Assad forces began a battle in the region in conjunction with the exit of the “green buses” from eastern Aleppo. After a month-long escalation of air strikes, al-Assad forces managed to take full control of the area as part of an agreement to “deport” its fighters and their families to northern Syria.
The regime also applied its own military policy to empty west of Damascus in the cities of Madaya and al-Zabadani, which were lost by the opposition within the “Five Town Agreement”, which the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and “Ahrar al-Sham Movement” played the most prominent role in its implementation.
These developments coincided with the first round of Astana and the preparations for the second round, held in February 2017, despite the insistence of the opposition delegation to freeze the fighting in the region.
Not long after the fall of the cities and towns of Damascus western countryside until al-Waer neighborhood in the city of Homs went through the same fate, as al-Assad forces intensified aerial bombing of the neighborhood, and forced the factions of the region to accept the agreement to depart to Aleppo northern countryside and Idlib province, last April.
In this period, the third round of “Astana” took place in March 2017, which ended with the formation of a tripartite truce monitoring committee from the Guarantor Powers, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Following the exit from al-Waer neighborhood, al-Assad forces moved to the eastern countryside of Damascus. The Aleppo scenario was implemented in the strategic neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barza, in an exit agreement to the north of Syria, to cut off the last supply lines of fighters and civilians in the eastern Ghouta, May 2017.
Arsal and the borders of Lebanon
The regime’s attention shifted towards the western countryside of Damascus in August 2017. Al-Assad forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia completely controlled it and declared the border between Syria and Lebanon under its control after it forced opposition fighters in the Arsal region to depart for eastern Qalamun and the Syrian north.
In the same period that al-Assad forces took control of Western Qalamun, the fifth round of Astana failed, as the guarantors failed to reach agreement on the details and “de-escalation” areas borders.
Eastern Idlib basin
The province of Idlib in the north of Syria has also witnessed major changes by the end of last year, after the start of a military operation by al-Assad forces with Russian support in the eastern countryside, which has reached Aleppo southern countryside, as it managed to control large areas up to Abu al-Duhur Airbase, and then stopped military operations in the area.
These developments came after the “Astana” sixth session, whose terms have been leaked, by dividing Idlib into three regions, one of which is run by Russia while Turkey controls the other area, which borders it.
The third region is demilitarized, and this was confirmed to Enab Baladi by sources in the leadership of the “Free Army”.
According to the sources, the railway eastern area, on the line of Aleppo – Damascus, will be demilitarized and free of militants and factions under Russian protection to be managed by local councils, while the second area extends between the railway and highway, and the third will be subject to Turkish influence.
Ghouta of Damascus and its south
Six months after al-Assad forces controlled large areas in the eastern countryside of Idlib, they moved to the capital Damascus and its surroundings, and began a military operation in February this year, where they managed to control the opposition controlled areas in the eastern Ghouta, most notably the city of Duma, which was previously controlled by the “Jaysh al-Islam” faction, Jubar neighborhood, towns of Kafr Batna, Saqba and Hamouriyah, which were under the control of “Al-Rahman Legion” faction.
In the early days of 2018, Russian forces announced that their main mission was to destroy the “Al Nusra Front”, which had some of its fighters in the “de-escalation” areas, and on this basis sought to justify their campaign on Ghouta which joined the agreement in July 2017, although the number of “Al Nusra” fighters in Ghouta did not exceed 200.
The agreement included the lifting of the siege on Ghouta and allowing the entry of basic goods, without any obstacles or taxes, in addition to the release of those who were arrested and detained and belong to the parties concerned in this agreement. However, none of these agreements was realised.
The factions operating in Ghouta dropped Astana in favor of other agreements. “Jaysh al-Islam” faction went to the Egyptian guarantor, while “al-Rahman Legion” faction concluded an agreement with the Russian side during the political talks in Geneva.
The military attack on Damascus eastern Ghouta was after the end of “Astana 8” talks and the transition to political talks on the Syrian file in the city of Sochi, Russia.
The fighting did not stop at Ghouta, but extended to the opposition controlled areas south of Damascus. In May this year, al-Assad forces managed to take full control of these areas, after reaching an agreement which provided for the departure of the fighters who did not want to settle in northern Syria.
In conjunction with securing the capital Damascus surroundings, the attention of al-Assad forces turned to eastern Qalamun, parts of which have been under the control of the opposition, since the early events of the Syrian revolution.
In April 2018, al-Assad forces announced full control of this area after imposing an agreement on its factions, which provided for handing over heavy and medium weapons and leaving for the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib province.
The agreement came after days of fighting, where al- Assad forces managed to take control of the city of Al-Rahiba and progress in an attempt to divide the area into enclaves, as a step to control each enclave separately.
Homs northern countryside
Since the “de-escalation” agreement in Astana entered into force in August 2017, fighting has stopped between al-Assad forces and the opposition factions in Homs northern countryside fronts, which did not take any military action to ease the tension in the rest of the fronts, especially the eastern Ghouta, something that observers linked to the terms of the agreement signed in “Astana”.
After al-Assad forces closed the file of opposition areas in the vicinity of the capital, they came back to it with a military operation and aerial bombardment, which led to an agreement that resulted in the exit of those who do not want to settle in northern Syria, and handing over of light and heavy weapons.
On May 16, 2018, the Syrian regime declared full control over the northern countryside of Homs and southern countryside of Hama, after the last portion of residents of the area went to Idlib under the Russian-imposed displacement agreement.
The General Command of al-Assad’s forces then issued a statement in which it said it had completely taken control of 1200 square kilometers of the northern countryside of Homs and southern countryside of Hama, and it added that it had taken control over a total of 65 towns and villages.
As was the case with Eastern Ghouta, the factions operating in the countryside of Homs, most notably al-Tawhid Brigade, resorted to the Egyptian guarantor and signed a new agreement that led to al-Assad forces’ entry to the area.
South of Syria
The most notable front of the Syrian opposition was not different from its predecessors. Despite the calm it witnessed for almost a year, it was on the list of areas over which al-Assad’s forces intend to regain control after they lost it in the early days of the Syrian revolution.
In June, al-Assad’s forces launched an offensive against Daraa Governorate, in which it managed to take control over large areas, starting from the eastern countryside to the western countryside, to which al-Assad forces entered under agreements of reconciliation with the responsible military and civilian officials.
The Syrian regime will soon take full control over all the opposition areas in Daraa after taking control over a large part of them. The regime adopted in this regard a method based on gaining the popular incubator as an essential card that made it avoid the consequences of military action, like that adopted in the other fronts.
The South had become part of the “de-escalation” agreement signed between Russia, USA and Jordan in July 2017. However, many details about the mechanisms of applying the “truce” have not been made public to this day.
Astana Peace Talks turn Turkey from a supporter to a mediator
During the first five years of the revolution, Turkey made itself, under the leadership of current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a defender of the revolution against the Syrian regime and supporter of the opposition factions, amid statements that it would not allow other massacres similar to the those that were committed in the 1980s in Hama.
However, the Turkish position has started to shift from a supporter to a mediator, especially after the Ankara-Moscow rapprochement that emerged from the two sides’ convergent interests in Syria. On the one hand, Russia wants to help Turkey in persuading the opposition factions to stop the fire and push the negotiations forward. On the other hand, Turkey has discussed its national security against ISIS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. Added to that, it is unable to politically and militarily confront Russia in Syria.
The change in the Turkish position was evident in the battle of the eastern districts of Aleppo, over which al-Assad forces took control in late 2016, when it turned from a supporter to a mediator to evacuate civilians and reach an agreement with the combatants to leave the area and hand it over to Russia and the regime. This was confirmed by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, on 23 December 2016, when he said, “The operation of liberating Aleppo was conducted in accordance with Putin’s directives, and in close cooperation with fellow ministers from Turkey and Iran.”
In the Astana hippodrome
After the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo fell, Turkey entered the hippodrome of the Astana Peace Talks and participated, along with Iran and Russia, in all sessions as a guarantor country of the opposition factions to cease the fire.
Turkey has indeed been a moderator of the opposition factions, as it calmed down the fighting fronts in different regions, especially in Idlib and the two countrysides of Hama and Aleppo. At the same time, however, it made only political statements by its officials about the Syrian regime and Russia’s violations in the areas of Ghouta, countryside of Homs and Idlib that are included in the Astana Agreement.
In eastern Ghouta, the Turkish position was no better than the neighborhoods of Aleppo. Erdogan merely criticized the military operation the Syrian regime launched with Russian Air Force support on the towns and villages of Ghouta, which ultimately led to taking control over them in April 2018.
The regime has taken control over Ghouta without Turkish action that was limited to criticism and statements by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu that the bombing of the towns and villages of Eastern Ghouta contradicted the Astana Agreement, while Erdogan only criticized the international community for what was happening in the region and its bombing with explosive barrels by the regime, without criticizing Russia.
“Sorrow and concern”
After taking control over Ghouta, Russia and the regime headed towards the northern countryside of Homs. In April, Turkey asked Russia, via presidential spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, “not to repeat what happened in Ghouta, whether in the northern countryside of Homs or in Idlib.” However, the scenario had been repeated in the countryside of Homs and the factions left to the North in May, amid Ankara’s silence.
“Condemnation, concern and sorrow”, these have been statements that have repeatedly been used by Turkish officials every time al-Assad’s forces attacked a region. The most recent of these statements was after the attack on the neighborhoods of Daraa, when on June 29, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy, expressed his “deep sorrow and deep concern,” about The attacks on Daraa and Quneitra, and expressed his country’s feeling of “great sorrow and concern about what is happening.” He also condemned “the harsh inhuman attacks, which undermine the efforts in Astana and Geneva Peace Talks to reduce violence in the region and find a political solution to the crisis.”
Turkey was left only with Idlib, in which it has spread 12 checkpoints under the Astana Agreement, followed by threats by Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to end the political process with Iran and Russia in Astana in case of an attack on Idlib occurred.
“We have 12 checkpoints in the city of Idlib and we told Russia and Iran that launching any attack on Idlib would end the political negotiations and bring us into a war,” Çavuşoğlu said in an interview with CNN Turk TV channel on June 21.