Beirut (AFP) – The Astana peace process, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, was launched in January 2017 by Russia and Iran, allies of the Damascus regime, and rebel-backer Turkey.
The three presidents are due to meet in Iran on Friday, ahead of an expected government offensive on rebel-held Idlib province that could be the last major battle of the seven-year-old civil war.
The Astana process, launched after Russia’s intervention definitively tipped the military balance in the regime’s favour, led to the creation of four “de-escalation zones”.
The cessation of hostilities in those areas was short-lived, however, and the forces backing President Bashar al-Assad have already retaken three of them. Idlib is the last one.
The Astana process gradually eclipsed an earlier UN-sponsored negotiations framework known as the Geneva process, which had put more emphasis on political transition but failed to curb violence that has already killed more than 350,000 people.
– Russia takes charge –
In late 2016, Russia, Iran and Turkey take over the Syrian peace process, sidelining the United States. They impose a ceasefire between the army and rebels.
In January 2017, they launch talks in Astana, bringing rebel and regime representatives to the capital of Kazakhstan, a Russian ally in central Asia.
At the January 23-24 talks, the three sponsors agree to bolster the fragile truce.
However, the final declaration is not signed by the rebels, led by Mohammad Alloush, or the regime, led by Bashar Jaafari, and negotiators do not hold face-to-face talks.
In February, Astana talks between regime and rebel delegations end without a major breakthrough. Several more rounds of talks are held but fail to yield significant results.
– ‘De-escalation zones’ –
In May 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey adopt in Astana a Russian plan for four “de-escalation zones” across Syria to shore up local ceasefires.
According to the text, “security zones” will be created around them, with checkpoints and monitoring centres to be jointly staffed by troops from the guarantor countries.
Government troops and rebel fighters must stop using all kinds of weaponry, including aircraft.
– Only Idlib remains –
However, since the start of this year, government forces backed by Russia and allied militia have reconquered three of the zones, largely through heavy bombardments that ended with rebel surrenders.
Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold outside the capital, was retaken in April after a two-month offensive. The regime then retook parts of the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.
Of the four de-escalation zones, only the northwestern province of Idlib remains. The last rebel stronghold, it has been the destination for thousands of rebel fighters and civilians evacuated from other areas.
– Many summits, little progress –
The summit in Tehran on Friday between Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be the third between the sponsors of the Astana peace process.
Putin hosted his counterparts in November 2017 and at a peace congress in January 2018 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, which resulted only in good intentions.
In April 2018, Putin, Rouhani and Erdogan met in Ankara, where they agreed to pool forces to achieve a “lasting ceasefire” in Syria.