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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Idlib agreement paves way to diplomatic solution in Syria, says senior opposition figure

A gust of hope reignites negotiations after years of deadlock 

Rebel forces have started withdrawing their heavy weaponry back from the demilitarised zone in Idlib. AP
Rebel forces have started withdrawing their heavy weaponry back from the demilitarised zone in Idlib. AP

The agreement to avert an offensive on Syria's Idlib represents a major step towards a negotiated solution to the conflict and away from the regime's military push to recapture all lost territory, a senior opposition official told The National.

In a rare instance of optimism, Hadi Al Bahra, a member of the Syrian negotiations commission said there is consensus among all international parties to wrap up the war's military phase.

If the Idlib agreement remains in place, Mr Al Bahra expects the current map to hold.

As it stands, President Bashar Al Assad's regime and its Iranian and Russian allies control the western coast, middle and south of the country; the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces the east; Kurdish forces remain entrenched in the north east and Turkey-backed rebels in Afrin and Idlib. Meanwhile, ISIS cling to three pockets on the border with Iraq.

The agreement is a win-win situation for all the actors involved, said the official.

“It kept the lines of the de-escalation zone unchanged, and secured the opposition control, with the Turkish army as a guarantor,” he told The National on Monday in an interview in New York, where he attended the UN General Assembly.

“For the Russians it’s securing Hmeimim Air Base from the drone attacks. For Iran and the regime it’s more logistical [and] relates to opening the M4 and M5 routes. For the international community, it is the fight against terror, while for Turkey, it saved the civilian population and maintained its control over the area,” said Mr Al Bahra.

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Read more:

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Idlib crisis prompts US to take a new tack on Syria

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The agreement - set to create a demilitarised buffer zone to separate government and rebel forces, with Turkish and Russian soldiers patrolling the zone - ramped up US-EU and UN-led talks on Syria.

The Syrian opposition was received by French President Emmanuel Macron, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and US officials leading the Syria file, as well as a number of foreign ministers.

“We are seeing from the international community serious efforts to revive the political process in line with a US-Russian consensus on basic points,” Mr Al Bahra said, including a road map to a UN-supervised election.

The points, said Mr Al Bahra, include a road map toward UN-supervised elections, a more active US role and a clearer policy led by a new team put in place by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Asked about US presence in Syria, Mr Al Bahra said Washington is not claiming they will remain indefinitely. However, he added, a successful political process would ultimately lead to the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria.

Washington recently linked its troop presence to Iranian fighters in Syria, saying it wouldn't leave before Iran does.

Mr Al Bahra is under no illusion that the Assad regime will accept the political process. “The regime and its allies still believe that a military solution is possible,” he said.

However, he added, the regime is not invincible.

“It doesn’t have full territorial control, and even in the areas it controls, the regime is reliant on Iranian militia presence,” he said.

"The regime exists but doesn’t control the resources in East... and over the long term it can’t finance and sustain services in its own areas. There is no way out except through a political settlement that would reunite the Syrian people, territories and regain our sovereignty,” said Mr Al Bahra.

Asked if the regime had won the war, the opposition official said that while Mr Al Assad hoped to portray a victorious image, no one in Syria had won.

"All the Syrian factions have lost,” he said. “We are talking about a country with at least five foreign military [forces] engaged on its soil, terrorist organisations roaming in the same space...there is no sovereignty today in Syria.”

Regarding the Kurds in the north and the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mr Al Bahra said “we are seeking equal citizenship for all Syrians including the Kurds. But the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and the SDF are different - they have to make up their mind: are they regime, are they opposition, are they in the middle?” he said, raising questions about the Syrian Kurds' link to the Kurdistan Workers' Party.