Syria's ceasefire strengthened, but not expanded as negotiations freeze over exposing unmended rifts.
Eight-way Syrian peace talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital, ended in hopeful disappointment as significant progress was made — though less than was hoped for.
In a joint communique, Turkey, Russia and Iran pledged to establish a monitoring mechanism "to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire" in Syria.
The three countries pledged to build upon an accord made last month to stop hostilities in most of the war-torn country, but no consensus was reached between the warring Syrian regime and rebel delegations on laying down arms on the most hotly-contested battle zones.
Instead, talks focused mainly on technical specifics of monitoring and claims of violations of the ceasefire already in place, which could include the use of satellites and drones to verify allegations of any party breaking the peace, officials told TRT World.
"There is a date fixed soon to have the first meeting, in Astana between the three countries to have the technical people to actually decide the parameters together of monitoring the ceasefire," UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told TRT World, adding, "perhaps the support of the UN, because we have experience."
Negotiations did not make it beyond monitoring the ceasefire, leaving a list of grievances the opposition had hoped would be addressed, such as lifting siege on areas surrounded and cut off by the regime troops, or at least allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid.
"The agreement is not yet between us and the Syrian regime," told TRT World.
Though the warring parties did not engage in direct discussions, some small but significant breakthroughs were made.
"To come up with a decision about a ceasefire monitoring mechanism – that was quite an achievement," de Mistura told TRT World.
"It was already difficult to imagine that armed groups, the Syrian government, Iran and Turkey, the Russian Federation, with the UN, and even the US ambassador representing the new administration in Washington, sitting in the same room and not leaving despite in spite of the fact that there are strong disagreements," he said.
Inheriting the role as the United Nations' special envoy to Syria from veteran diplomats Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, de Mistura has proven to play an invaluable in the negotiations, shuttling proposals between the Syrian government and rebel delegations, who refused to hold discussions face to face.
Opposition delegates said they had also met with Russian officials in Astana, seeking an audience for the grievances that regime's delegates were reticent to hearing.
"The Russians promised us to put pressure on the regime to release all the political prisoners," Rayyes told TRT World. "The regime promised many times to release them, and it never happened," he said.
Syrian opposition's lead negotiator, Mohammad Aloush, said: "The Russians have moved from a stage of being a party in the fighting and are now exerting efforts to become a guarantor."
"But they are finding a lot of obstacles from Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah forces, Iran and the regime," he added.
Past ceasefire agreements have failed when the Russian and Syrian regime's air forces continued targeting populated areas in Idlib and Aleppo, arguing that the members of the UN-blacklisted terrorist group Jaish Fateh Sham (JFS) were active in the area. Rebels charged back that they were exploiting the pauses in fighting to gain the upper hand at the negotiating table.
Assad's forces have rarely distinguished between which fighters represent moderate rebel forces and which ones are jihadists, regularly referring to any and all opponents as terrorists.
"The two ceasefires we had in the past were actually undermined by this ambiguity, of defining ‘Al Nusra is here, Al Nusra is there'", UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told TRT World.
But with the commitment of Turkey, Russia and now Iran to hold allied forces to the ceasefire, "there is a clear message that everyone should be focusing on fighting on the terrorist organisations indicated by the Security Council, not just any group," said de Mistura.
"That's what makes what was decided today different in my opinion – to take care of this type of ambiguity, which is dangerous because it can be misused, and can become a cause for breaking the ceasefire," de Mistura told TRT World.
Syrian regime Foreign Minister Bashar Jaafari the agreement solidified in Astana solidifies Iran as a guarantor to the ceasefire. Jaafari said that Iran "played a positive role in facilitating reaching this final formula that is expressed in the final declaration."
Opposition delegates said they were concerned that the final Astana communique legitimised Iran's "bloodletting" in Syria and did not address the role of Shi'ite militias fighting rebels. Iran has sent an estimated 15-25,000 fighters to Syria,
"The issue here is not about who is happy and who is not happy. The issue here is that finally we have a consensual declaration agreed upon by everybody," Jaafari said in a press conference at the close of the talks in Astana.
But not everyone did agree.
"Everyone agreed on fighting Daesh, there is no question about that," Syrian regime delegate Al Rayyes told TRT World.
"We can't talk about Al Nusra without talking about Hezbollah, the Iranian militias and all the foreign fighters that the regime brought into Syria. This is the only way to create an atmosphere that can stop terrorism in Syria." Al Rayyes said.
Looking forward, the real test of the peace process will be if it can calm the fighting in the key rebel-held enclave of Wadi Barada.
Defending the regime's offensive as targeting the UN-blacklisted group Jaish Fateh Sham (JFS), Jaafari said that the offensive on Wadi Barada would continue, blaming water shortages in Damascus on the rebels who hold the area.
But rebels charge that continuing attacks on the besieged enclave is a venture of wiping out the "liberated territories" that oppose Assad, citing the local revolutionary council's statements that JFS isn't present there.
Opposition delegates said they have submitted a proposal to the UN and Russia for establishing truce lines around Wadi Barada.
"If Wadi Barada falls to the regime, all these talks in Astana will mean nothing for us. We sent our proposal to Mr. de Mistura. We are waiting to see actions," Al Rayyes told TRT World.
"If there is a really a real ceasefire on the ground, then Geneva would be the place for real negotiations," Al Rayyes said.
At the close of the Astana conference , de Mistura said the talks had made key progress that "paved the way" to make real progress at continued talks in Geneva, slated for February. "We cannot allow a third ceasefire to go to waste because of a lack of a political process," he said in his closing remarks in Astana.
Negotiations will continue in Geneva under the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the basis for political transition to establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" and laying down the process for drafting a new constitution.
"If the ceasefire becomes a reality on the ground, this will be a great achievement because the Syrian people are suffering, dead, or running out of the country, away from Assad's crimes," Al Rayyes said.
AUTHOR: Shawn Carrie