The Cable

A New Round of Syria Talks Start in Astana

The trick this time will be to secure a ceasefire for Idlib province.

A picture shows a general view during a fifth round of Syria peace talks on July 5, 2017, in Astana.
Powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey struggled on July 5 to hammer out details on a plan for safe zones in Syria at a fifth round of peace talks in the Kazakh capital. Moscow and Tehran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and rebel supporter Ankara agreed in May to establish four "de-escalation" zones in a potential breakthrough towards calming a war that has claimed an estimated 320,000 lives since March 2011. / AFP PHOTO / STANISLAV FILIPPOV        (Photo credit should read STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows a general view during a fifth round of Syria peace talks on July 5, 2017, in Astana. Powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey struggled on July 5 to hammer out details on a plan for safe zones in Syria at a fifth round of peace talks in the Kazakh capital. Moscow and Tehran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and rebel supporter Ankara agreed in May to establish four "de-escalation" zones in a potential breakthrough towards calming a war that has claimed an estimated 320,000 lives since March 2011. / AFP PHOTO / STANISLAV FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A sixth round of negotiations over the Syrian conflict in Syria began Thursday in Astana, Kazakhstan, focused chiefly on the creation of a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib province in northwestern Syria.

Brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran — and with grudging participation from the United States — the Astana talks are ultimately meant to bring about a nationwide ceasefire. But thanks to the Assad regime and opposition groups, both of whom have failed to abide with previous agreements, the talks so far have floundered.

Now, negotiators are hoping to carve out a safe zone in Idlib province, whose population has grown precisely has hostilities have wound down in other parts of the country. Over the course of the past year, Idlib has become a “dumping ground” and staging area for groups still opposed to Assad, including the al Qaeda linked coalition Hay’at Tahrir al Sham. At the same time, previous ceasefires in other provinces have led to population transfers that sent fighters and civilians to Idlib.

In all, the province has absorbed almost one million people since the beginning of the war.

Many analysts worry that Damascus, which has already scuppered previous ceasefire agreements, would be unable to tolerate the continued presence of anti-government groups in the province. In addition, a coalition of al Qaeda linked groups have set up shop there, too — once again placing the province firmly in the crosshairs of Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

Others are concerned that if talks fail and the now-crowded region becomes an objective of the Assad regime’s territorial consolidation, it could lead to another civilian bloodletting on the order of the government’s 2016 assault on Aleppo.

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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