Author: Maria Chalhoub, Common Space Initiative,
On 4 May 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran signed off on a deal in Astana to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria in the most recent effort to put an end to the violence in some of the most contentious conflict areas. The fact that the agreement was enacted in the absence of Syrian signatures speaks to the increasing irrelevance of Syrian voices to international decision-making. Experiences of the conflict to date, however, warn of the risk of sidelining local actors as they will ultimately be needed to implement and sustain any deal on the ground.
Figure 1© AFP 2017/ VASILY MAXIMOV
In this article, a limited sample of Syrian voices from across the country has been invited to express their views on the Astana agreement; what it means to them and the impact it has had so far. The respondents are social activists and are located in Aleppo and its peripheries, Raqqa, Salamiyah southeast of Hama, Hasakah, Qamishli, Quneitra, Damascus, Idlib, and As-Suwayda. Their main message is that stabilization efforts on the ground are likely to crumble if they fail to address the underlying social friction and the lack of trust within and between communities. Several of them noted that the Astana agreement has successfully reduced external military violence, but that internal fighting has surfaced in its wake in their areas. Armed actors are, for instance, seen competing for supremacy in their territories, and tensions have surged between armed and civilian actors competing for influence in the absence of local political leaders and solid governance structures. The deal has also had little positive impact on existing social tensions between civilians and no attention has been given to local reconciliation to nurture stability. The respondents also expressed strong opposition to the de-escalation zones as a permanent solution to the conflict as it reinforces the current social and geographical divisions and threatens the reunification of Syria. The following sections elaborate further on the respondents’ points of view.
Perception of the agreement
Whereas some respondents described the agreement as a necessary intervention to reduce violence, in general the responses pointed to an underlying concern about the absence of Syrian ownership of the deal. “It is a temporary, non-lasting solution, where regional players run the show”, one respondent said. Another respondent reported that “throughout the war we have lost faith in decisions and guarantees of this kind, guaranties that retained by those who were behind the destruction in the first place and who are now in charge of protecting us!”. One respondent explained: “The deal places too much emphasis on the immediate situation; on the violence, on a military outcome. It doesn’t draw up a long-term plan and doesn’t take into account how the dynamics of the deal will play out in the future”. Several respondents also expressed concern over the potentially divisive implications of the deal, suggesting that “it destroys unity”, and is “a political, social, and geographical division”. According to one of the respondents: “The country beyond my city is no longer what we used to think of as our country; it is no longer what we studied in history and geography. The borders have changed forever”. Another participant in contrast explained that a unified Syria was no longer the case anyway, and that “this agreement will reinforce the divide”.
The inclusion of local actors in the deal
Amid the lack of a sense of Syrian ownership, Syria Initiative asked respondents to elaborate on the role of Syrian actors in sustaining the agreement. Respondents were almost unanimous in saying that local actors should have a greater role: “These national and local actors have a great role to play; however, right now they can’t fulfill it because they do not have the necessary tools”. Some respondents suggested the type of role Syrian actors could play: “Right now, they need to play a role in calming the people on the ground, and position themselves to advocate for a joint government”, and “they can play a very simple role (…) to work with the post-siege/post- reconciliation-deal communities on building trust, local reconciliation and social cohesion”. Other respondents adopted a more cynical tone, suggesting that Syrians are excluded from participation, that “they are not allowed to play a major role” and that the deal “enforces the division of Syria into territorialities exclusively controlled by, and linked to regional forces”. A couple of respondents warned that the absence of Syrian involvement would undermine the sustainability of the deal: “No role has been permitted for national and local actors, and that is why it is a temporary, non-lasting, solution”; and that “There is a social tension that is left unresolved and that can explode at any moment”.
Astana’s impact on the ground
Despite the short time that the agreement has been in existence, most of the respondents were of the opinion that the deal had resulted in the visible reduction of violence on the ground, and they welcomed the accelerated access to aid: “The halt of the air raids has definitely had an impact on civilians’ lives”, “the air raids stopped and that brought back our feeling of safety” and “it allowed the safe and timely provision of humanitarian aid”. On the other hand, several respondents considered that the halting of external military violence had unleashed new layers of internal violence amid the absence of local political leadership and governance structures: “It reduced fighting between the armed opposition and the government forces but it produced internal fighting between groups battling for territorial supremacy and for their survival”, and “tension between the guarantors and the military factions is mounting and local Syrian leaderships are completely devoid of power”.
Less than three months into the Astana agreement, it is too early to determine its success or failure. At the time of writing, the details of the framework have yet to be agreed upon by the main parties. The deal stands a chance of paving the way for an incremental national stabilization plan but, alternatively, if this does not materialize, what will remain is a fragile ceasefire that history shows is likely to gradually fall apart. Indeed, a quick revisit to the ground backs up the respondents’ claims that violence has decreased in several of the affected areas. However, other areas have continued to come up against military pressure that has challenged the loose boundaries that were set for the four zones on 4 May. At the same time, secondary layers of conflict have erupted in those areas where external pressure has dissipated, indicating that international stabilization efforts are likely to collapse unless robust action is taken to rebuild trust between local actors and involve them in the efforts they are expected to abide by. However, and regardless of the situation on the ground it is clear that from this moment forward, the Syrian protagonists will not be allowed by the external guarantors of de-escalation to leverage their presence on the ground in future political talks.
 Respondent from As-Suwayda.
 Respondent from Hasakah.
 Respondent from Qamishli.
 Respondent from Damascus.
Author: Maria Chalhoub, Common Space Initiative