Russia, Turkey and Iran on Tuesday were working on a statement to reaffirm a fragile ceasefire between Syrian warring parties that could agree to establishing a mechanism to observe its compliance and pave the way for a U.N.-led peace settlement. Delegations from the Syrian government and opposition were holding indirect talks for a second day in the Kazakh capital at a time when Turkey, which backs the rebels, and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, each want to disentangle themselves from the fighting.
That has led them into an ad-hoc alliance that some believe represents the best chance for progress towards a peace deal, especially with the United States distracted by domestic issues. However, after two days of deliberations an initial draft communique seen by Reuters suggests the powers have agreed little beyond reaffirming the need for a political resolution and to reaffirm a Dec. 30 ceasefire that each side accuses the other of violating.
Delegates from Russia, Turkey and Iran were wrangling over the terms of the final communique which would need to be approved – though not formally signed – by the government and opposition delegations. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, attending the Astana talks, said the three powers were closing in on a final statement that would reaffirm and strengthen the current cessation of hostilities between the warring parties.
“We’re not far from a final declaration,” he told reporters. Diplomats said there was a nuance in the language being used, with the Syrian government opposed to the use of the word ceasefire as opposed to cessation of hostilities, which suggests more short-term arrangements. “There are pledges from the Russian side to reinforce the ceasefire in areas where there are continued violations, but we’re waiting for more than just statements,” senior opposition negotiator Osama Abu Zaid told reporters.
A rebel source said they were discussing a draft of the final text with their Turkish backers. A Syrian government source said consultations were ongoing to break obstacles presented by Turkey, which he said was trying to introduce elements beyond the Astana framework. The draft statement from Monday includes a paragraph suggesting the powers would either consider or establish “a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocation and determine all modalities.”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Tuesday that this had now been agreed between the three. Some observers said the meeting could jump-start U.N.-led negotiations which de Mistura hopes to reconvene next month after suspending them nine months ago.
FIGHT NEAR DAMASCUS
However, diplomats said there were still differences among the powers especially on the wording, including on how to resume peace talks under the umbrella of a United Nations resolution which calls for a transition of power. It was also unclear whether Russia would be able to put pressure on Iran to force its militias on the front lines to abide by the terms of any ceasefire mechanism in areas on the outskirts of Damascus, where heavy fighting is ongoing.
“We’d like to think that the Russians are putting pressure on the Iranians, who are not very warm to the idea of a ceasefire or a political transition,” said a senior Western diplomat. Violence flared near Damascus on Tuesday as Syrian government forces clashed with rebels in the Wadi Barada area in their latest attempt to advance there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The government and its allies including Lebanese group Hezbollah were trying to push forward in Ain al-Fija, where springs and a pumping station that supply most of the capital’s water are located. The Wadi Barada area has recently become the most intense battlefront in the Syrian civil war.
In a sign of some pressure on the Syrian government, a senior Russian official was quoted by Ria-Novosti news agency on Monday as saying he was concerned by recent violations of the ceasefire. In a rare reprimand, the source said that some Syrian government commanders had been “strongly reminded” of the necessity to abide by the ceasefire. Jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Nusra Front, launched an assault and seized some positions from Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in northwestern Syria that are attending the Kazakhstan talks, a move diplomats said could be aimed at weakening the opposition’s bargaining position.