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Making peace in Syria
The latest de-escalation bid for Syria involving regional powers appears to be the most realistic agreement till date
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The need for fresh initiatives aimed at restoration of peace in Syria has been felt for a long time during the past few years over fears of war escalation into Middle East and Europe. For this reason, there have been calls to de-escalate tensions in Middle East despite the two Superpowers making attempts to control the situation in Syria that has been going out of hands after killings of civilians. The war-torn Syria has also forced the peace loving civilian population to migrate to some of the European countries and they have been welcomed there on humanitarian grounds. The recent de-escalation agreement reached among Russia, Turkey and Iran last week in Astana is the latest in a series of attempts to bring the six-year-old Syrian civil war to an end. The previous ceasefire and peace plans have either failed to take off or collapsed soon after, given the continued hostility between Bashar al-Assad regime and the rebels. As yet, the latest agreement is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly of all, any attempt to cease violence is welcome given the destruction the war has wreaked in Syria during the past six years. More than two million people are estimated to have been living in rebel-held territories (barring areas controlled by the Islamic State) in terrible humanitarian conditions and under constant fear of aerial bombing. For them, an end to the Assad regime strikes backed by Russians is a great relief. Secondly, the pact involves the three main external players in the civil war. Russia and Iran are the key backers of the regime, while Turkey supports some rebel groups. Under the present agreement, Syria and Russia will stop bombing rebel-held areas, divided into four zones in Idlib, Homs, Damascus suburbs, and southern Deraa and Quneitra towns, to de-escalate tensions. The regime will also allow 'unhindered' humanitarian supplies to rebel-held areas and provide public services. In return, the rebels should stop fighting government forces. Thirdly, this appears to be a more focussed, phased attempt to end violence. The agreement was reached barely weeks before a two-track political process was to begin. In June next, the Bashar al-Assad government and rebel representatives will meet for negotiations in Switzerland, while the Russia-led talks of external actors will continue in Kazakhstan later in July. If the de-escalation plan holds, it will be a big boost for the political process and a way forward for restoration of peace in the war-torn Syria.

Under the existing circumstances and the international pressure, the implementation of the agreement itself will be a major challenge given the complex nature of the civil war. For the agreement to hold, Russia and Iran will first have to rein in the Assad regime in the first instance. In the past Assad regime has shown almost no interest in a political solution. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's comment that the regime would not allow UN monitoring of the implementation of de-escalation is not in the spirit of the agreement. A bigger challenge for all actors involved is how to tackle the threats from al-Qaeda-linked groups apart from the challenges posed by the rebels traditionally backed by Islamic State. The Astana agreement is clear on that - Russia and Syria will continue to attack them till some of the territories controlled by them are freed. In Idlib, the Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham is the main anti-regime militia having their stronghold. In Homs and the Damascus suburbs, they have joined hands with other groups, who are yet to be identified and tackled separately. So if the government continues to attack them, it could drag more rebel groups into the fight, risking an end to the ceasefire under the fresh agreement. Under the given conditions, the regime should exercise restraint and the non-jihadist rebels distance themselves from Qaeda-linked organisations, while allowing Russia, Turkey and Iran to play the role of facilitators. To take the political process forward, everyone has to act more responsibly, keeping in mind the humanitarian situation. Along with such efforts an earnest beginning also needs to be made for restoration of peace and allow return of normalcy for the civilian population living in those areas.

News Updated at : Friday, May 12, 2017
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