Russia Lays Ground For Astana Talks With Bloodshed: What Would Opposition Say?
Russia, backing its ally al-Assad, is laying the ground for the next round of Astana Talks with intensive military campaigns in Idlib province, Northern Syria, adopting exactly the same policy with which it approached previous rounds and to which, besides itself, Turkey and Iran serve as guarantors.
The round 13 of Astana Peace talks is to kick off in August and to last for the first two days, as announced by the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 19.
Iraq and Lebanon will participate for the first time.
With the political round, to join the delegations of the opposition and the regime, drawing closer, the Russian and Syrian war machines are paving the way for Astana with joint swarms of aircraft, which are taking turns in bombarding Idlib’s residential areas.
Negotiations’ Price Is Civilians
Opposition-held Idlib province is bearing witness to a large-scale military escalation, conducted by Assad Forces and their Russian allies. However, the carnage has intensified in the past a few days, while only a couple of days are left before the next round of Astana talks’ launch.
The coalition increases air raids that made a target of residential compounds and popular markets, where several massacres of civilians are recorded, on top of which is that in Ma`arat al-Nu`man city on July 22 that took a toll on 39 civilians while 60 others were injured, as reported by the Syria Civil Defense (SCD).
Failing to achieve any military progress on rural Hama’s fronts, the attackers in the area’s airspace are aiming at what lies beyond the battle line, seeking to impose more pressure on the opposition and insisting on taking over the areas of the demilitarized zone, agreed upon by the Sochi deal which Russia and Turkey signed in September 2018.
In its account of the happenings, Russia says that the shelling is targeting “terrorist groups’” posts, contrary to what has been documented by the area’s human rights and humanitarian organizations, including the SCD.
In a statement cited by Russia Today, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied its warplanes targeting of the popular market in Ma`arat al-Nu`man city last Monday, in response to the massacre committed by air forces, which humanitarian organizations have documented.
In another statement quoted by Reuters on Friday, July 26, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, “this latest relentless campaign of airstrikes by the government and its allies has continued to hit medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructure such as markets and bakeries, causing a minimum of 103 civilian deaths, including at least 26 children.”
“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” the High Commissioner said, adding that the escalating airstrikes on Idlib are met by “apparent international indifference.”
“[The conflict] is no longer on the international radar,” adding that “Now, airstrikes kill and maim significant numbers of civilians several times a week, and the response seems to be a collective shrug.”
She condemned the international silence, saying that “the Security Council [is] paralysed by the persistent failure of its five Permanent Members to agree to use their power and influence to stop the fighting and killing once and for all,” Bachelet said.
More than 400 civilians were killed in North-western Syria in the past a few months, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement it published on its website on Tuesday, July 23.
According to the statistics posted by the Response Coordination Group (RC), operating in Northern Syria, on July 22, 1010 persons, including 281 children died in the military campaign that started on February 2, 2019.
Escalation Hails Astana Peace Talks
The 13th round of Astana Talks is decided to be held on the 1st and 2nd of August in the Kazakh capital city Nur-Sultan, in the presence of the delegations of the Syrian regime and the opposition, as well as the guarantor states. However, the opposition’s participation is not guaranteed in the shadow of the military escalation.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Ayman al-Asmi, spokesperson of the Syrian opposition factions’ delegation to Astana Talks, said no decision has been made so far concerning the participation in the next round.
“In the meantime, there are negotiations concerning a cease-fire in Northern Syria. There is not a clear decision about participation in Astana yet.”
For his part, the former head of the military delegation of Astana Brigadier General Fatih Hasson said that so far there is not a change in the factions’ decision on attending Astana’s next round, elucidating that Turkey has conducted several summits earlier own as to preserve Idlib area, since it considers it a matter directly touching upon its national security while it houses about three million civilians.
“These summits resulted in the Sochi deal, the application of which demands time and exquisite care.”
He believes that Astana Talks have turned into the procedural frame of other agreements. The Talks themselves are not resulting in any new resolutions but resuming them means working on the application of deals resultants of former summits. Stopping the talks, however, means blowing up all the concluded deals and agreements.
In response to the military escalation, Naser al-Hariri, Director of the Syrian Negotiations Committee, called on the opposition factions to refrain from participating in the next round of Astana Talks.
“[We demand] that all forms of communication with Russia be cut as long as the military escalation continues and Moscow keeps being unserious concerning the political solution,” he posted on Twitter on Wednesday, July 24.
“The participation of the factions’ delegation in the Astana Talks should also take the same direction.”
Geir Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria, is expected to announce the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee during the Astana Talks.
In a meeting with Russian and Turkish officials and others representing the Syrian regime and the opposition, Pedersen expressed relief over the progress and achievements in relation to the foundation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which is expected to be formed during the next round of the Astana Talks.
The next assembly is to assess the current state, especially in Idlib province and north-eastern Syria, as well as set up additional measures to continue building trust between the conflicting parties and pushing forward the political process with a focus on finalizing the foundation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
In an interview with the Russian Sputnik Agency on Wednesday, July 10, Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out to the approaching agreement about the Constitutional Committee.
“There are definite and tangible ideas that open a space for a final agreement on the formation of the Constitutional Committee and the last third of it,” he said.
The optimism about the Constitutional Committee’s foundation was confirmed by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
In a press conference on Wednesday, July 24, he said that we can announce the formation of the Constitutional Committee in the upcoming a few days.
In a press conference on Monday, July 22, Naser al-Hariri stressed that the dispute over the controversial six names and the procedures was resolved.
Despite the optimism that engulfs the near launch of the Committee, the voting process might hinder its progress, especially if any disputes are to arise concerning a certain decision, which demands a 75% votes, that is 113 out of 150 votes (the number of the committee’s members).