Despite the supposed cease-fire agreement, new clashes were reported in Wadi Barada, a besieged rebel-held area and source for most of the drinking water for Damascus, the Syrian capital. Water supplies have been cut off for weeks, and the government and rebel sides have blamed each other.
The agreement among Iran, Russia and Turkey was announced a day after the Syrian factions exchanged harsh words at the start of the talks, held in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan.
A main result of the meeting was to firm up Russia’s growing role in the Syria diplomacy, establishing the Astana talks as a part of, but not a replacement for, the Geneva process that has been spearheaded for years by the United Nations and the United States. The new document said meetings in Astana, a capital five time zones east of Geneva with close ties to Turkey but firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, would be a forum to discuss specific issues that come up within the Geneva framework.
There had been tentative hopes among some rebel negotiators that Russia might be ready to take on a more active role in seeking a political compromise. But there was no concrete progress on political issues, which were excluded from the narrowly focused talks.
Iran, Russia and Turkey affirmed their commitment “to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multiethnic, multireligious, nonsectarian and democratic state,” and their conviction “that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process.” Those sentiments echo principles that the United Nations Security Council has already laid out.
The countries also reiterated “their determination to fight jointly” against the Islamic State and against Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, formerly known as the Nusra Front, pledging to “separate” them from armed opposition groups. That could be an important provision, since the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad tends to classify all the opposition fighters indiscriminately as terrorist groups, and many have been unable or unwilling to separate themselves from forces of the former Nusra Front on the battlefield.
The agreement did not specify how such a separation might occur, however.
In Astana, government representatives said that they still considered the rebel fighters to be terrorists and were waiting to see if Turkey followed through on the agreement. Rebel negotiators said the meetings had given them hope that Russia might be open to hearing rebel concerns and become more willing to press the Syrian government for a political resolution, but such optimism did not extend to Iran, which had stuck to a harder line.
Staffan de Mistura, the special United Nations envoy for Syria who had been invited to the Astana talks, said in an interview after the joint statement was issued that in the interactions he had watched between Russia and opposition commanders, “The body language was of people who were seriously talking to each other and taking each other seriously.”
At the same time, rebels are concerned that the new agreement puts Iran in the position of taking part in a cease-fire that its own militias have been accused of violating.
The next round of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition will occur on Feb. 8 in Geneva, according to the announcement by the three countries. But diplomats in Astana said it was unclear if that date was firm.
Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations who led his government’s delegation to the talks in Astana, said an offensive by the government and its allied troops would continue, arguing that Qaeda-linked “terrorist groups” controlled Ain al-Fijeh, a town in Wadi Barada. Residents in Wadi Barada say that some fighters from the former Nusra Front are present there, but that they are at most a tiny minority.
Also on Tuesday, United Nations officials appealed for more than $8 billion in funding this year to help millions of people displaced by the Syrian conflict.
The United Nations refugee agency is asking for $4.6 billion to help at least 4.8 million people who have fled abroad, mainly to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and around $3.4 billion for an estimated 13.5 million internally displaced Syrians.