Representatives of the Syrian government and some armed opposition groups are meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on Monday for talks aimed at implementing a lasting ceasefire agreement.
Though there have been several international initiatives aimed at bringing the war, now in its seventh year, to an end, the latest round of Astana talks is aimed at establishing four so-called “de-escalation zones” in mainly opposition-held areas of the country, with Russia, Turkey and Iran acting as guarantors.
The meeting is expected to call for a cessation of hostilities between anti-government groups and forces fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, for a period of at least six months.
Sources have told Al Jazeera that the October 30-31 meeting will also discuss the release of hostages, prisoners, delivery of food and aid to besieged areas, the transfer of dead bodies and the search for missing persons.
What areas will be ‘de-escalation zones’?
The zones will cover four areas of Syria:
Zone 1: Parts of Idlib province, as well as parts of northeastern Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province.
There are more than one million civilians in this zone and its rebel factions are dominated by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance largely controlled by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
Zone 2: Eastern Ghouta, in the northern Damascus countryside.
About 690,000 civilians live there.
Jaish al-Islam, a major rebel faction in eastern Ghouta, is participating in the Astana talks.
Zone 3: The Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in northern Homs province.
There are approximately 180,000 civilians in this zone and its network of rebel groups includes HTS.
Zone 4: The rebel-controlled south along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces.
Up to 800,000 civilians live there.
According to Syrian opposition sources, checkpoints will be positioned within the “de-escalation zones” to facilitate the free movement of unarmed civilians and humanitarian access to the areas.
Who will be attending?
Russia, an ally of Assad, has repeatedly stated that the “de-escalation zones” will only apply to the “moderate opposition”. This excludes Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
Delegations from the Syrian government and some armed opposition groups have so far confirmed they will be in attendance. The rebel factions that will be represented in Astana include Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Al-Sham army and the Central Division.
The discussions will be led by Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian president’s special envoy to Syria; Sedat Onal, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister; and Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Iran‘s deputy foreign minister.
According to Syrian opposition sources, Turkey, which has played a key role in the conflict in recent months by actively supporting rebel forces near its border, will play an intermediary role between the Syrian opposition and others.
Also helping to organise the talks is Iran, whose fighters have been battling on the side of Syrian government troops.
Delegates from the United Nations and the United States will also be in attendance. However, representatives from Gulf countries, which have supported opposition groups, will not.
What’s different about these talks?
The zones could mark a potential breakthrough towards calming the fighting that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, wounded more than a million, and forced at least 12 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – to flee their homes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the set up of “de-escalation zones” could resolve the conflict by as much as “50 percent”.
Vladimir Sotnikov, a Russia-based Middle Eastern policy analyst and senior research fellow at the Institute of Eastern Studies, told Al Jazeera that the Astana meeting represented a crucial moment for the armed opposition.
“If the talks prove successful, they could provide a roadmap for the future of a unified Syria,” he said.
“Assad is in a position of strength heading into the talks. The rebels have no option but to sit with the government and negotiate for a better tomorrow.”
But Colonel Fateh Hassoun, who heads the Syrian opposition delegation to the talks, told Al Jazeera that the aim of their negotiating team is “to reach a political solution that will lead to a transition period without the regime of President Bashar al-Assad”.
Nizar Al Hiraki, the ambassador of the Syrian Coalition to Qatar, told Al Jazeera he was boycotting the talks as rebels were continuing to fend off a Russian-backed military onslaught.
“We don’t trust the Russians, and never have.
“The Russians and Iranians have been violating their own agreements by continuing the shelling and bombing of areas that were a part of the de-escalating zones,” he said.
What can we expect six months from now?
It remains unclear whether there would be any international monitoring of the “de-escalation zones”, but Sotnikov told Al Jazeera that “international peacekeepers could be an outcome of the talks”.
“Critics have described the de-escalation plan as the de-facto partitioning of Syria. However, only if some of the rebel groups continue to be stubborn and fight, this could lead to the fragmentation of Syria and the break-up of the country,” he said.
The establishment of the zones has been received with mixed reactions by residents of the affected areas.
Yousef al-Bostani, an activist based in the besieged area of eastern Ghouta, told Al Jazeera that the previous agreements in Astana to lift the siege of eastern Ghouta had failed.
“The siege was never lifted and the sick, especially children, are dying from a lack of treatment and medicine,” he said.
“Unfortunately, people are losing hope in those talks, so in my opinion perhaps it is better to withdraw from the talks,” he added.
Moreover, the Syrian government has said that while it will abide by the agreement, it will continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists.
“The situation is worsening by the day,” Mazen al-Shami, an activist in eastern Ghouta, said.
“The prices of food, commodities and medicine have skyrocketed.
“Our campaign to lift the siege of eastern Ghouta will continue until the Russians, the guarantors of the Syrian regime, force their client to end its inhumane siege on innocent civilians.”