De-escalation zones offer hope for Syria

Sunday 14/05/2017
Russian investment. The signing of a memorandum on creating safe zones in Syria during the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, on May 4. (AFP)

Tunis- The ultimate success of the Syrian de-escalation zones agreed to by Turkey, Iran and Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan, remains un­certain without the support of the United States, which was discussed in Washington by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secre­tary of State Rex Tillerson.

The de-escalation zones negoti­ated during the fourth round of the Astana peace process build on a ceasefire agreement signed Decem­ber 30 following Syrian forces retaking Aleppo.

Under the terms of the agreement, all military activity would be prohib­ited within the agreed areas and the entry of humanitarian aid, including the resumption of electricity and wa­ter supplies where required, would be guaranteed. Only Russian aircraft would be allowed access to patrol the skies above the zones and they would be prohibited from undertaking strikes.

The four de-escalation zones, which mostly lie in opposition-held territory, are understood to include the Islamist-held territory around Idlib in north-western Syria; Ghouta, to the east of Damascus; the Rastan- Talbiseh area, to the north of Homs; and the rebel-controlled territory around the Houran and Golan re­gions near the Jordanian border.

Precluded from the agreement are Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-af­filiated groups, the latter of which is said to dominate most of the zones, raising fears that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces could contin­ue to use their presence within the zones to target broader rebel-held areas. Earlier attempts to halt the bloodshed in the conflict, now in its seventh year, collapsed after Russian and regime aircraft purportedly used the presence of al-Qaeda affiliates to target civilian areas.

Writing for the IRIN humanitar­ian news agency, Syria analyst Aron Lund said: “This leaves (former al- Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) Tah­rir al-Sham with every reason to rally opposition to the Astana deal and to torpedo it through bombings and other provocations… It also seems likely to provoke clashes between the jihadis and those rebels who in­tend to abide by the Astana plan, which could, in turn, tempt the al- Assad government to seize new op­portunities for advancement.”

Iran’s involvement with the deal has also proved problematic, with the Russian news agency TASS re­porting the signing ceremony was interrupted by a shout of “Iran is a criminal. It has no right to be among the guarantor countries” before op­position delegates removed their headphones and marched out.

Uncertainty also exists over the ex­tent of Syrian regime support for the Russian-sponsored initiative, with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mual­lem on May 8 rejecting Russian sug­gestions that outside forces could be deployed to monitor the ceasefire.

“We do not accept a role for the United Nations or international forces to monitor the agreement,” Muallem said.

In the case of violations, Muallem said, in comments unlikely to sooth opposition concerns, “the Syrian Army will be prepared to respond in a decisive manner.”

Writing on the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s website, Charles Lister said: “Moscow has in­vested all of its cards in the Astana process… However, the de-escala­tion memorandum signed by Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey on May 4 raised more questions than answers and the US State Department is far from convinced of the deal’s durability.”

Lister continued: “Russia has a great deal to lose should this initia­tive fall apart, which makes acquir­ing a more committed US statement of support extremely important.”

Lavrov is the highest-ranking Rus­sian official to have visited Wash­ington since US President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January.

“At the current stage, we agree on the concept and even on prac­tical steps concerning the geogra­phy of the de-escalation zones,” TASS quoted Lavrov as saying. “The memorandum signed in Astana out­lines further steps that would help the stakeholders come to terms on who… will ensure the safety areas surrounding the de-escalation zones” and how this will be done.

Relations between the two powers have been low since the US bombing of the Syrian airfield thought to have been the location for the launching of an April 4 chemical weapons attack against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun and accusations of Russian tamper­ing in the US elections.

However, despite his country’s misgivings, US Defence Secretary James Mattis appeared to offer guarded approval for the deal.

“All wars eventually come to an end and we’ve been looking for a long time how to bring this one to an end. So, we’ll look at the proposal and see if it can work,” Mattis said during a visit to Denmark. Whatever approval he gave though came with a caveat: “The devil’s always in the details, right? So, we’ve got to look at the details.”