Idlib deal sparks fresh diplomatic push to end Syria war

Idlib deal sparks fresh diplomatic push to end Syria war
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Displaced Syrians take part in a protest against the regime and its ally Russia at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Lusin near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in Syria's northern Idlib province on September 7, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Aaref WATAD

A Turkish-Russian deal for Syria’s Idlib has revived efforts towards a diplomatic solution to the country’s seven-year war, but analysts say a political settlement is still far off.

Diplomatic activity has picked up since regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey last month reached an agreement to stave off a government assault on the last major rebel bastion of Idlib.

The accord has for now stopped the regime’s military advances, after it recaptured swathes of the country with Russian support since 2015 to extend its control to over two-thirds of Syria.

Two areas still escape the government’s reach: a northwestern chunk including Idlib, and a huge region in the northeast controlled by a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance.

“The Idlib deal has opened the way,” opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said.

“We have noticed a flurry of diplomacy.”

The outgoing United Nations envoy to Syria last week visited Damascus, and the political opposition’s chief negotiator welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with Moscow.

On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, together with the leaders of France and Germany, called for a political settlement.

Numerous rounds of UN-backed indirect peace talks between the opposition and the regime have failed to stem the conflict that has killed 360,000 people and displaced millions.

In recent years, those negotiations have been overshadowed by parallel talks overseen by other key regime ally Iran, Russia and Turkey that ended up producing the Idlib deal.

– ‘Return on investment’ –

Karim Bitar, of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs, said the Idlib deal was “absolutely fundamental”.

“The Russians feel they have triumphed militarily and hope to get a return on investment after having carried (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad for three years,” he said.

“But they won’t be able to transform this military victory into a lasting political foundation without Erdogan’s support.”

Julien Theron, of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, said Syria’s main power brokers could not avoid talks if they wanted to rebuild the country.

“A diplomatic route seems unavoidable,” he said.

“Nobody can really stabilise or rebuild the country without the cooperation — or at least the tacit agreement — of the others.”

In recent days, international efforts have focused on setting up a long-awaited committee to discuss a post-war constitution.

The mission is fraught with difficulty, as the opposition has pushed for an entirely new constitution, but the regime has said it will only discuss altering the current one.

On Saturday, Turkey, Russia, France and Germany called for the committee to be established by the year’s end to pave the way towards “free and fair elections”.

But analysts are not overly optimistic.

Under a UN plan, the regime and opposition would choose 50 committee members each, and the UN would nominate the final 50, composed of representatives of civil society and technical experts.

– ‘Stubborn creatures’ –

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura travelled to Damascus with a list of 50 candidates last week, but Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem rejected it.

Instead, the Damascus regime is to draw up its own list, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey, according to de Mistura, who is set to step down next month.

In a briefing with the UN Security Council on Friday, he stressed the need to “not miss the opportunity of the Idlib window”.

Aron Lund, a fellow with the US-based Century Foundation, said the process was likely to drag on, especially if no committee was formed by the time of de Mistura’s departure.

Even if formed, any committee would not be likely to persuade the regime to make concessions, after its military victories and repeated threats to eventually retake the whole of the country.

“Diplomats are stubborn creatures, but even they should realise that Assad didn’t fight his way through seven years of war only to throw his hands up and surrender if he’s beaten in a committee vote,” Lund said.

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Last week, Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Jaafari set limits to the diplomatic path.

“We will retake Idlib… when we are sure that political and diplomatic action has failed in restoring national sovereignty to this part of our territory,” he said.

And regional expert Lund was not hopeful.

“I don’t think there’s much potential for a political settlement that reintegrates these areas without violence,” he said.

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