Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty in the country on Sunday on the eve of the 5th Trilateral Astana Summit in Ankara where leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran will meet to discuss notably the situation in Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria.
A decree has been published to release or decrease the punishment of various prisoners, including some detained under a 2012 terrorism law, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA reported on Sunday.
The amnesty which could see thousands of prisoners released across the country applies to crimes committed before September 14, commuting the death penalty to a life sentence of hard labor and life sentences to 20 years.
Syrians who took up arms to fight against the al-Assad regime, colluded with foreign nations against the state, joined terrorists-regarded insurgents or committed crimes related to drug and arms smuggling will fall outside the amnesty coverage.
The president made this move on Monday before talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The three are expected “to assess the developments in Syria, Idlib in particular, as well as ending the climate of conflict, ensuring the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees and discussing the joint step to be taken in the period ahead with the aim of achieving a lasting political solution”, the statement by the Turkish presidency said.
A civil war broke out between the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government rebels, in2011.
Moscow and Tehran support the al-Assad regime, while Ankara has been backing the rebels, notably the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which controls a region home to some three million residents including most of Idlib and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.
Erdogan’s Turkey first called for al-Assad’s ouster but has since shifted its priority to preventing a mass influx of refugees from Idlib in Syria’s northwest, with al-Assad’s position looking gradually secure.
The al-Assad regime with the help of Russia and Iran has reclaimed control of most of the country from an array of rebel factions.
In September 2018 Turkey and Russia agreed on a cease-fire treaty – called the Astana Process – to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in a bid to remove extremist fighters, such as HTS and prohibit acts of aggression in the territory in an attempt to prevent attacks on Syrian government forces and infrastructure.
The bombardments, however have hit the buffer zone agreed under the deal. As per the framework of the Astana Agreements, Turkey currently holds twelve cease-fire observatory points in Idlib’s de-escalation zone, while Russia has 10 posts.
The treaty which was in place until late April was effectively shattered by the fighting. The Syrian government launched the assault arguing that Syrian rebels had breached the existing ceasefire.
Since then, Syria and its ally Russia have been bombing Idlib most of which has been under control of the HTS since January 2019.
“We will continue to discuss developments in Idlib including observation posts and the fight against terror organizations,” Erdogan said on Friday.
According to Middle East analyst Seth J. Frantzman, the trio’s only goal in Syria is “to evict the Americans”.
“Their goal is, in general, to remove the West from the Syrian equation,” Frantzman wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Saturday.
Turkey has also other concerns regarding Syria, aiming at clearing the northern Syria of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara deems both as terrorist organizations.
In contrast the United States (US) sees the YPG as an important ally in the fight against ISIS.
In recent months Turkey and the US have been hashing out details of a safe zone in the region. In August they set up a joint operation center in Turkey. They have, however, so far disagreed over the size and oversight of the zone.
The two NATO allies also began joint patrols in the planned safe zone last week, surveying the area to the east of the Euphrates River.
Erdogan has been repeatedly threatening to launch a cross-border offensive against the YPG. He lately vowed to launch an operation into Syria by the end of this month, if the progress on the zone remains “cosmetic”.
Ankara conducted two previous offensives, along with its ally Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, against ISIS in 2016 and the YPG in 2018.