Away from television cameras and media attention, technical advisers from the US, Russia, and Jordan wrapped up a low-profile meeting in Amman this week.
On the agenda was the “de-conflict” zone in southern Syria agreed upon, in principle, by presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Hamburg, in July.
The meeting’s outcomes were noteworthy, especially coming on the heels of an announcement that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to abolish the job of “Special Envoy for Syria.”
In other words, he will no longer be handling Syrian affairs at a micro-level; instead, he will let his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, hammer out a political endgame, with little to no interference or objection from the United States.
Southern Syria is a sensitive topic for all players in the Syrian conflict, in part because it impacts directly on Israeli national security. This explains why none of them has been willing to grasp it at either the Astana or Geneva talks, leaving Trump and Putin do the high politics.
At the G20, they agreed on the principle of the new zone, and that it would encompass the border city of Daraa, along with al-Quneitra, the principle town in the occupied Golan Heights, and extend all the way up to al-Suwaida in the Druze Mountains, 100 kilometers south of Damascus.
The zone’s objective is multi-faceted. First and foremost, it would free the Syrian-Jordanian border from all “non-state players” – in other words Hezbollah troops and southern Syria branch of ISIS, known as the Khalid Ibn Al Waleed Army.
Secondly, it would provide ample space to relocate millions of Syrian refugees who have been living in Jordan since 2011. And thirdly, it would satisfy the demands of President Trump, who has insisted on a safe zone to protect civilians, even if it is not named as such.
The de-conflict zone would also be off-limits to the Syrian Army. No tanks, warplanes, or soldiers will be allowed to enter.
The zone’s sovereignty would still be in the hands of the Syrian state, but it would be under the supervision of a civilian authority, rather than a military one. Members of the armed opposition would, in theory, be pardoned, and allowed to keep their light arms for use against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
Damascus would, meanwhile, be entitled to hoist its official flag, and to re-open state-run schools and police stations. It would also get full control of Syria’s borders with Jordan, which will be vital for bilateral trade.
Russian diplomats have repeatedly stressed that their Syrian allies would not obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid nor the full evacuation of the wounded and elderly.
Nor, say the Russians, would militants from the southern provinces be harassed or arrested, so long as they abide by the ceasefire. None of this has happened yet, and the millions of refugees who fled their towns in southern Syria have still not been allowed to return.
Members of the armed opposition would, in theory, be pardoned, and allowed to keep their light arms for use against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria
US negotiators seemed to be in a conciliatory mood at the Amman talks, agreeing, for example, to an increase in the number of Russian troops in the south from the present 400 up to 1,000.
A first batch of Russians was deployed to keep the peace in July, raising outcry from some members of the Syrian Opposition, who demanded a more “neutral” peacekeeping force. Those objections were soon muted when they were forced to choose between Russian and Iranian troops.
Already, similar Russian forces have been despatched to the northern city of Aleppo, and to al-Ghouta, the agricultural belt in the countryside around Damascus.
One suggestion floating in the air was to invite monitors and peacekeepers from India, China, Brazil and South Africa, but that was scrapped due to the financial burdens of such a commitment, along with fears for the lives of soldiers from those countries.
An Arab force was also suggested, similar to the one sent into Lebanon during its civil war, in the hope of counter-balancing Turkish and Iranian influence in southern Syria.
This idea was endorsed by Mohammad Alloush, commander of the Islamic Army, a powerful militia in al-Ghouta which has been fighting the regime since 2012 but recently signed the ceasefire agreement. Alloush suggested an Egyptian peacekeeping force and firmly opposed giving any role to the Iranians.
As for non-state players along border areas, the original agreement called for a clean space, free of ISIS and Hezbollah, of no less than 32 kilometers.
The Russians have been negotiating this point since April, after Tillerson explicitly asked Lavrov to oversee the evacuation of Hezbollah from all of Syria.
It was first agreed that they would be made to leave the Syrian south but not other parts of Syria. This week the agreement was further modified, meaning they will only have to retreat by 16 kilometers along the border strip, providing a slender Jordanian buffer zone similar to the one carved out in the north by Turkey that encompasses Jarablus, Azaz, and al-Bab.
So far the Americans have not objected to the strip’s narrowing down.