The fifth round of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan is set to conclude on Wednesday with Russia saying that it may deploy its military to police the borders of planned de-escalation zones in Syria within two to three weeks after finalising an agreement with Turkey and Iran.
Moscow hopes to sign the final documents with Ankara and Tehran on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital Astana, Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said.
Russia and Iran, which back regime leader Bashar al Assad, and Turkey, which supports some opposition groups, agreed in principle to create four "de-escalation zones" in Syria in a previous round of talks in May, but put off a planned June meeting where they were supposed to work out the details.
Lavrentyev said that Moscow and its partners were still discussing detailed maps and other conditions related to Idlib and southern zones, while the borders of two other zones, in Homs province and near Damascus, had been agreed.
"Overall, (the agreement) provides for the presence of Russian military police in the buffer zones, but once again this matter has not been agreed yet," he said.
Depending on when the documents on safe zones are signed, I think one should expect concrete measures on the deployment of forces within 2-3 weeks – Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev
Promoting Russia's and Iran's influence?
A Syrian opposition official said the aim of the Astana talks "is to set out the areas of influence between the three states that sponsor it, and it embodies the interests of these states and their areas of influence on the ground, unfortunately with an intended American absence and suspicious European silence."
"It will succeed in the north because the desire of the states and their interests dictate that, and if we want to interpret it on the Syria-wide level, it represents the strengthening of Russian and Iranian influence on the ground."
Talks aimed to "undermine" UN-backed talks
Riyad Nassan Agha, a member of the opposition Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, said that the opposition feared the Astana talks aimed to undermine the UN-backed peace talks in Geneva, reiterating the opposition's view that Iran could not act as a guarantor of any deal because "it is a hostile state."
"What they are talking about (de-escalation) did not happen. So the Syrian people no longer have faith in these agreements that happened in Astana," he said.
Lavrentyev, who earlier on Tuesday met Stuart Jones, acting US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said that he would meet Syrian opposition delegates on Wednesday.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests.
The war has culminated in the worst humanitarian disaster of over half a century. Some argue that the scale of the crisis even surpasses World War II. Nearly five million Syrians have become refugees, according to the United Nations.
Turkey is the largest host country, providing shelter to some 2.75 million Syrians. Lebanon is the second-largest host country, with 1.5 million refugees, followed by Jordan, where over half-a-million refugees are currently living.