The talks in the Astana format, which ended in Sochi on July 31, made it possible to sum up the results of the two and a half months that had passed since the previous round. It is already obvious that it is not simply about a change of venue (the previous round took place in the capital of Kazakhstan), but actually about a new phase in the Syrian crisis. This time the parties are going to focus on three areas: military, humanitarian and political.
The former, as can easily be guessed, is about settlement scenarios in the last de-escalation zone, which covers the bigger part of the province of Idlib and parts of neighboring provinces. In this case, search for a formula that would be acceptable for all conflicting parties as well as to external stakeholders may prove to be a long and complicated process.
It is in Idlib that the main forces of Jabhat al-Nusra (an organization banned in Russia) and its allies are concentrated. Besides, militants from other areas of Syria that did not want to reconcile with the authorities and chose organized evacuation were also brought here. The number of extremists in this de-escalation zone is estimated at 50,000 people. The situation is further complicated by humanitarian considerations: most of these militants have families, who, on the one hand, are considered civilians, but on the other, are equally intolerant of the authorities in Damascus and government troops. There have been episodes when terrorists’ little children cut off heads of captured Syrian soldiers or shot them dead as skillfully as their fathers. The question of how these people should be treated remains unanswered so far.
But this is not the biggest problem. Over the course of the conflict, Syrians and Russian experts have learned how to make offers to militants that they cannot refuse. And a military operation would be a logical scenario but for Turkey. Ankara has already made it clear that it will not allow any fighting in the area and will view it as an attempt to undermine the Astana agreements.
Russia could hardly ignore the stance – due to a fair number of reasons, like efficient cooperation with Turkey on the Syrian settlement, close economic ties, Ankara’ cooling relations with the US, and more. Besides, Moscow has always said that it would be impossible to resolve the Syrian crisis without considering the positions of all parties involved. Moreover, there have been media reports about Turkey having delivered to Russia a certain “white paper”, a set of proposals on Idlib, which, among other things, includes a commitment to disarm the militants.
Anyway, it was no coincidence that on July 31, Alexander Lavrentyev, the Russian president’s envoy for Syrian settlement, announced that “there could be no talk” about an operation in the zone. This, however, does not stop Damascus from relocating troops to the north, having liberated the south. And Lavrentyev also made it clear that Russia expected the moderate opposition to get rid of radical elements and even offered Moscow’s assistance in the matter. At the same time, he emphasized that any provocations were unacceptable, adding that “Russia’s patience can run out, too.” So it looks like there is going to be some fighting, after all.
Meanwhile, there is already quite a number of fairly safe districts in Syria, and this is why another area of cooperation – humanitarian – is becoming more and more relevant. It is about creating conditions for bringing refugees back. Russia estimates their number at 7 million people. By the way, Moscow, which initiated the process, made an unprecedented move. Usually, the process of forced migrants returning to their homes after a conflict -- and there has been quite a number of them in the Middle East in recent years -- is left to run its course. Some people come back, some don’t. The situation with Palestinian refugees, for example, has been in limbo for more than a decade now.
In case of Syria, everything is different. Contrary to speculations in certain media, Russia is definitely not trying to hog the blanket. Moscow is working to establish coordination with Lebanon and Jordan, which let in several hundreds of thousands of refugees. It is carrying out a joint project with France to deliver humanitarian aid. Even Japan (not a very obvious stakeholder!) has shown interest in the problem, which was announced by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the recent talks in the 2+2 format (foreign and defense ministers). Of course, the US was also invited to participate. But it refused, citing the unfavorable conditions in Syria.
And it is against this backdrop that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an unexpected statement. In September, Istanbul will host a summit of Russia, Germany and France, he said. Alexander Lavrentyev later confirmed that the meeting was scheduled for September 7 and said that the topic of refugees could become the centerpiece of the discussion.
Remarkably, the Americans have not been invited this time. It’s understandable: relations between Washington and Ankara are not particularly warm right now. The US is reaching out for its sanctions bludgeon. This time, because of pastor Andrew Branson who was detained by Turks in 2016 on accusations of terrorism, espionage and abetting the failed military coup. In addition, the US threatens Turkey with sanctions unless it gives up its plans to buy the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia.
So Donald Trump is not a welcome guest in Ankara. And Turkey has long been known to discuss the topic of refugees with Europeans first. Suffice it to recall its deal with the EU, under which Brussels agreed to admit one legal refugee in exchange for each illegal one sent to Turkey and to allocate money for supporting illegal immigrants there. Ankara, in its turn, promised to stop the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe. So the list of participants in the future negotiations is perfectly understandable. Apparently, these talks even made it necessary to postpone the summit of guarantor states, which was initially scheduled to take place in Tehran also on September 7.
Given this background, the political aspect of future efforts remains equally important, while many observers believe that it has been lagging behind the developments on the battlefield. It implies the establishment of a constitution committee and drafting of a new constitution, as laid down at the Congress of Syrian National Dialog held in Sochi in January this year. And there have been some shifts in the situation since then: the authorities in Damascus compiled a list of their candidates for the committee, the opposition submitted its list about two weeks ago, and now the last one, from civil society, has been prepared. All of them are not final and are yet to be approved, which is not expected to happen until September. The time when the constitution committee gets down to work is even harder to predict. Nevertheless, the process is under way, both with regard to the constitution and in other areas. There is still a lot to be done, apparently, but at least there is no stagnation in sight.