Russia Muscles in on De-escalation Zones

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Russia Muscles in on De-escalation Zones

[original = by Asaad Hanna, October 2017]

Through imposing conditions on armed opposition groups, Russia is working to strengthen and transform its presence in Syria, moving from a military posture to that of a mediator driving towards a solution.

While this process of consolidation began with the Astana meetings between the military opposition and the Syrian regime, bilateral agreements are being reached separately in different parts of Syria, indicative of the Russians’ readiness to reverse any agreement that is signed in favour of an alternative that achieves their greater interests. But at the same time, the dynamics on the ground challenge the viability of any negotiated agreements.

The road from Astana

Almost a year after the start of the Astana talks, a ceasefire agreement was reached in four areas of Syria, backed by Russian, Turkish, and later Iranian guarantees. These areas, known as ‘de-escalation zones’, included the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, the northern Homs countryside, Eastern Ghouta, and parts of Deraa.

But since then, Russia has taken new steps to establish bilateral agreements directly with armed opposition groups on the ground in the same areas where the Astana agreements were announced. These agreements exclude any of the groups’ foreign-based leadership and are guaranteed by Russia alone.

These developments indicate that there is a Russian policy to become a unitary player on the Syrian issue, by excluding existing international actors such as Turkey and Iran. Events in southern Syria are an example of this, as Russia signed an agreement with the Southern Front to keep Iranian-backed militias away from Deraa. The Russians also made sure that the Iranians were not allowed to take control of eastern Aleppo or Hayy’ al-Waer in Homs and worked to replace them with Chechen police.

Through its statements and actions, Russia seems intent on suggesting that if it is not satisfied with the terms of the agreement established under the Astana framework, it will resort to outside agreements, thus ensuring Russia’s desired result is implemented in all cases. Take Eastern Ghouta’s inclusion in the Astana de-escalation agreement for example. Russian attacks continued on the areas until Jaish al-Islam signed an agreement directly with the Russians. Then attacks continued on areas where Failaq al-Rahman was present when the faction objected to several details of the agreement, including its listing of Cairo as the signing place, and refused to sign. But then it signed an agreement with Russia on 18 August in Geneva, after which Eastern Ghouta quietly entered into a truce, although the siege of Ghouta persists.

The same thing happened in the northern Homs countryside. After the de-escalation agreement was announced in Astana, it was revoked and a new agreement was established through a meeting between the Russians and Jaish al-Tawhid directly in Cairo. Similarly, in Idlib, which was also covered by the Astana agreements, the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy, stated that they are seeking to bring the city into bilateral agreements for a ceasefire.

These agreements were established based on a unilateral guarantee – a Russian guarantee – without an international guarantor for the opposition, and without grounding them in international legal mechanisms such as the UN Security Council. Thus, the fate of these agreements will be determined by a Russian desire to implement them. Should Russia wish to annul them, it is unrestrained. Just as the de-escalation agreements have been ignored and replaced with local agreements, these bilateral agreements can also be revoked in favour of other agreements.

Although the Astana agreements initially garnered international support and were considered a step on the path to calm and an end to fighting in Syria, many violations were recorded in the early hours of implementation. Russia has ended up being the guarantor of ceasefire agreements while at the same time being the one violating them and bombing areas included in these agreements. These agreements should consequently be understood as temporary understandings that bring calm to the Syrian regime side allied with Russia in exchange for non-military gains for the opposition such as the release of detainees or a stop to shelling to allow aid to enter besieged areas.

Further problems

De-escalation zones are also confronted with competition and conflict between the military factions who are still looking for a foothold in any would-be international agreement, to ensure they are safe under the agreement and to guarantee their legitimacy through international dealings. Likewise, they will try to obstruct any agreement that takes place without their participation.

This is what happened after Jaish al-Tawhid (which does not have any leadership abroad) signed an agreement with the Russians in Cairo concerning de-escalation zones in the northern Homs countryside. Ahrar al-Sham and other factions denounced the agreement and tried to move it to Turkey so that they might play a role in it in lieu of Jaish al-Tawhid. According to one of the supervisors of the agreement with the Russians, Ahrar al-Sham allocated $200,000 to dismantle the Cairo agreement and move it to Turkey. While they did not succeed in doing so, they did manage to move the talks from Cairo to a popular committee inside Syria in order to meet with the Russians and renegotiate the terms of the Cairo agreement under different conditions.

There are also fears of Iranian meddling to dismantle agreements in order to preserve their positions and plans for an increased Iranian presence in Syria, guaranteeing access from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria and strengthening the arm of Iranian militias in the region. The Iranians will not accept Russia taking their place in Syria so easily. Should the Russians seriously begin efforts to stabilize the parties to the conflict in Syria, Iranian militias are expected to attack opposition areas, prompting the opposition to respond and destroying the ceasefire.

When the Russians blocked Shia militias from entering Hayy’ al-Waer, the militias began to threaten and intimidate the civilians and fighters leaving al-Waer. Later they planted mines on the road used by the sixth batch of civilians leaving al-Waer, delaying their arrival to Zogra camp in Jarablus and forcing Russian forces to dismantle the mines and secure the road. Similarly, when Russia consolidated a strip of Shia villages in northern Homs to prevent any attacks from being launched on the region, the action provoked Iranian militias, who fired rockets and mortars into nearby opposition controlled areas. This was because the inability to launch attacks to control opposition territory reduces the Iranian role within regime controlled areas.

Extremist organizations also play a negative role in the de-escalation zones because they are always referred to as parties that must be fought, or at least to be dissolved or transferred to other areas to remove their presence within de-escalation zones. One of the terms of the de-escalation agreement in Eastern Ghouta was for Failaq al-Rahman to distance itself from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), with which it had a strong relationship. In the northern Homs countryside, the agreement required the removal of HTS without specifying a destination for relocation.

Therefore, the factions endorsing de-escalation agreements are stuck between two alternatives – either violate the agreement and don’t confront HTS, or adhere to it and expel them (because experience has proven that HTS will not withdraw from any region voluntarily). It is therefore seriously expected that HTS will open battles with the Russians and the regime to stop implementation of the agreement or use the agreement as an excuse to confront signatory opposition factions and streamline its control over larger areas.

Shaping the future

With this new wave of local agreements, the Russians are attempting to transform their role from that of an aggressor, threatening the opposition’s existence, to the main party capable of ensuring calm. Such a change would contribute to Turkish marginalization, overshadowing Turkey’s role as a guarantor of the opposition in the Astana agreements, and side-line Iran. If they succeed – and with the Americans moving away and changing their priorities in the region – the Russians would be alone to shape the solution in Syria.


Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation Statement on Astana Negotiations, 4th May 2017.

 [By Lara Keller, last updated 6th May 2017]

Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation Statement on Astana Negotiations, 4th May 2017.

According to FSA News, Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation, Statement 4th May 2017. This statement describes the Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation’s surprise at the escalation of Assad Regime shelling and what any acceptable agreement must include ( see for references ).

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Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation Statement on Astana Negotiations, 3rd May 2017.

 [By Lara Keller, last updated 6th May 2017]

Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation Statement on Astana Negotiations, 3rd May 2017.

According to FSA News, Statement Number 3: Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation, 3rd May 2017. This statement describes the Syrian Revolution’s Military Delegation’s commitment to the Ankara Agreement of Dec 2016, and lists the comprehensive breeches of this agreement by Russia and the Assad Regime. It sets out the determination to ensure specific previous UN resolutions and ISSG Communiques are implemented (see for references).

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Memorandum On the Creation Of De-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic, 4-May-2017

 [By Lara Keller, last updated 6th May 2017]

Memorandum On the Creation Of De-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic, 4th May 2017

According to FSA News, copy of Astana “Memorandum On the creation Of De-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic” dated 4th May 2017. ( see for references ).

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[note: last paragraph seems careless, is this document genuine or are the drafters of the document not serious? ]


Stop Assad, Continuing Massive Fraudulent Scam.

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[Posted by Lara Keller 19/1/16]


Stop The Mass Scam by the Assad Regime

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[Posted by Lara Keller 18/1/16]

The motivation in supporting a repressive government is usually fear. The bastards who get to the top want to scam the country on an industrial scale. This is the ultimate purpose of the mass murder, torture and starvation.
The Assad Regime is no exception to this rule. How people on the hard left can see Syria as some sort of persecuted socialist country is astonishing. The Syrian regime is as socialist and anti-imperialist as Harrods. A minority on the reactionary hard left need to stop trying to persuade others that the Syrian regime is opposed to the capitalist grand order, they should have “it is part of it” tattooed to their foreheads.
We are talking here about Syria before the uprising in 2011, clearly everything is even worse now. Syria was one of the most repressive police states in the Middle East, with little press freedom and the systematic use of torture across the labyrinthine “security” services. The “Damascus Spring” after Hafez’s son was handed the presidency in 2000, came to nothing as Bashar went back on earlier promises of reform. Syria continued to have the deserved reputation for rampant corruption allied to habitual government non transparency.
Bashar did nothing to reform the politics of the police state, but he did bring in neo-liberal reforms to the economy. This resulted in increases in poverty, as corruption concentrated the gains in the hands of the Assad Clique, and cuts in the subsidies for basic items and privatisation of state organisations concentrated the losses on the poorest.
In 2005 the UN Development Programme estimated that 30% of Syrians were living in poverty, with 11% unable to meet basic food needs. A later report in 2013 by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR) on the socioeconomic roots of the crisis, reported a 2009 household survey across Syria that estimated extreme poverty had risen to 18%. A report by the UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated unemployment at 18%, particularly effecting the young. Overall a third of Syrians had either no employment or were under employed.
At the same time the Assad Family were estimated to have accumulated a massive business empire centred on Rami Makhluf that had controlling interests in 60% of the Syrian economy. It may not be a coincidence that Bashar married Asma Akhras in 2000, who had been an investment banker.
Before 2011 a snap shot of Syria would be a rural economy still recovering from a period of severe drought, at least 1.5 million refugees from Iraq, and a youthful population which had doubled since the 1980s. Rather than managing these crises, the repressive corrupt Assad regime in Damascus was dismantling the state run economy into their own pockets, forcing an increasing number of Syrians into poverty and hunger. Shanties towns were growing rapidly on the outskirts of Damascus, while in the centre expensive western shopping malls were being built to supply luxuries to the regime’s elite. It is thought that Bashar Assad has personally trousered 1.5 billion dollars from his time as president.
Then there is the whole business of official statistics in Syria. Under the 1963 emergency law, independent opinion polls were banned. A covert poll by Pepperdine University in 2010-11 found that 46% wanted to emigrate, 81% said the economic situation was bad or very bad, 83% said it had got worse in the last 5 years (ie 2005-10), 88% that the government could not solve the country’s problems, and 77% that the government was very or extremely corrupt. While 82% wanted the government to leave power, which explains the emergency law’s attitude to opinion polls!

Then there is the problem of the country’s official GDP. In 2009 according to the World Bank, the “official” GDP per capita in Syria was 42% that of Egypt’s GDP per capita. Comparison based on Parity Purchasing Power (PPP). Given the regime’s straggle hold on the so called “liberalised” economy, whatever that means, how much of the difference in official GDP is due to a large shadow economy, in which the elite siphon off the wealth of Syria?

Clearly if Assad regime gets the boot, then there will still be very tough times ahead as they are now. The Pepperdine poll saw people optimistic about the near future, which was before the utter betrayal of demands for representative government by the representative governments of the West, because the people they represented decided that they would be safe from being mislead if they demanding doing next to nothing. This as you have guessed is how they were mislead…..again. Syrians deserve so much better, and it still brings tears to my eyes that Syrian Activists are not being supported by progressive people in the West, even 5 years on. They seem to me to have a weary determination that demands my respect and yours.


Stopping Assad in Syria, Where are the millions of Muslims and Progressives demanding action?

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[Posted by Lara Keller 15/1/16]

Where are you? Across Europe in 2003, millions turned out to demonstrate against the US invasion of Iraq. An invasion that was designed to punish Iraq, control oil reserves and demonstrate US military power. These demonstrations did not change this disastrously bad intervention, but at least people united to oppose it. In London for example a million people took part in a mass protest march.

Forward to 2016, and where are the mass demonstrations against the criminal Assad regime in Syria. This bunch of gangsters have been waging a brutal war against their own people for over 5 years. They have been ruling Syria with the iron fist of systematic torture since 1970. The vast majority of Syrians wanted the regime replaced with representative government. The regime responded to this demand with weasel words and a violent crackdown.

Still the Hard Left are talking rubbish about anti-imperialism and the vast conspiracy of corporate capitalist media lies they claim are being told about the Assad regime. Progressives babble on about the need to be careful after the bad interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and to some extent in Libya. The media in the West adopts the “Palestine-Israel” fence perching approach, in which neither side is more to blame, and it is all a bit too complicated. This is garbage.

99% of the truth is this. The Assad regime is an illegitimate clique of gangsters who use violence and extortion to line their own pockets. They are as much neo-colonialists as the Zionists in Palestine-Israel are. The external actors in Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, are also parasitical dictatorships, who use their fake public opposition to each other to justify themselves. I will deal with the “yes but I have heard counter claims” below.

So the vast majority of Syrians in 2011, with the Arab Democratic Uprising in full flow, see their chance to get rid of the Assad regime. The regime responds with a violent crackdown. The moderate armed opposition emerges, and is denied adequate support by the West. Understand that the Assad military have years of Soviet then Russian support to create a military to oppose the bloated Israeli war machine.

The Saudi led dictatorships steps in to support extreme jihadists. Is it bloody obvious what fighters are going to do, join the jihadi groups, give up or die. Five years on and the Assad regime has killed > 200,000 , tortured to death > 20,000, has 1 million under siege and plunged 13 million Syrians into desperate need. Forget Islamic State or the other extremist jihadi nutters, this is over 90% the work of the Assad regime. Now we are told to wait while the various dictatorships involved in Syria decided on a “peace process”. Now the Syrian people have had their faces ground into the dirt, they are expected to return to a version of the Assad regime with cosmetic changes.

There is an alternative and has been for the last five years, more on this below.

To be blunt most people in Europe can see no connection between their political struggles and Syria. This is immensely stupid. To demonstrate “I believe in representative government” is the most important action now. Our democracies are under threat because governments have lost the power to govern their economies. We can vote, but why bother? To take back control means believing in representative government, struggling for something beyond ourselves and having the courage to take on daunting odds and wade through the mess of real politics. We need a cultural shot in the arm from our near neighbours in Syria. Look at the carnage and violence, but also look at the people’s believe and courage.

The alternative is protecting civilians. Give power to Syrians to protect themselves against the regime’s sectarian militias and the extremist jihadis. Give food, by air if necessary, to enable them to carry on. Stop the Syrian and foreign air forces bombing civilians. Hold those from all sides accountable for ordering war crimes. Create a plan for reconstruction.

A central command system is needed for any security force. This can only be created if the leadership have the resources of weapons and training needed. The same applies to civilian infrastructure. Pieces of paper alone cannot unite. All bombing of civilians in Syria must stop, with force used against military infrastructure if this is broken.

Clearly the clique that run the government must go, the regime is over. As much as possible of the government organisation needs to be kept in place.

Sectarian divides have been encouraged by the regime and other dictatorships in the region. Minorities including the Alawite Shia sect have been victims of Assad’s sectarian trap. The revolution in Syria will fail if sectarianism is not fought at every level. The long term survival of the Alawite and Kurdish minorities depends on a non-sectarian state. The state must guarantee rights for all Syrians, backed by an efficient judicial system. It must offer sufficient autonomy to minorities, and pursue the rights of these minorities in neighbouring states. Anything less will waste the sacrifice of millions of people.

Saudi Arabia is not an ancient proud desert kingdom or a defender of Sunni Islam. It is an opportunistic monarchy formed around oil reserves after the First World War, with arms from Britain and US. The supreme leader in Iran decides who can run for president, and who sits in groups who decide who can run for parliament. The supreme leader appoints who chooses the next one, and so on. It is a sham not a democracy.

Then there is the racist dribble about Islam. Religion is always a severe disappointment, and can always be misused. The compassion of the Prophet Mohammed as revealed in Islamic scriptures abhors the evil of the Assad regime. The real origins of so called Islamic State and the extreme jihadists is described above.

It is the duty of every Muslim and every Person who claims the tag “Progressive” whether Muslim or not, to demand our governments give the power to the Syrian people that they need to Stop Assad. Doing anything less, is no challenge to Islamophobia or Western elites. Doing nothing is exactly what they want. It is handing the implementation of Western foreign policy to the elites. The idea that the elites of Russia, China, India etc are somewhere on opposite sides to Western elites is dangerously out of date. The Assad regime is part of the global elite. Opposing partnership with Syrians so they can remove the regime is reactionary.


Stop Assad, Using Hunger as a Weapon of War.

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[Posted by Lara Keller 14/1/16]


Stop Assad, The Mass Torturer

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[Posted by Lara Keller 13/1/16]