Syria’s safe zones and draft constitution
Safe zones and a draft constitution in Syria are major projects that have emerged from collaboration between the new US administration and a Russian leadership riding high on its strategic victories in Syria.
The Syrian crisis is 6 years old. It started as a revolt against dictatorship but turned into a proxy war between regional powers. Russia took a comfortable lead in making itself essential for a solution in Syria but the United States is coming back on the scene with the idea of creating safe zones in Syria.
Desirous of not being sidelined, Turkey jumped on the bandwagon and praised the US initiative. Turkey suggested a similar initiative three years ago but the Americans shot it down then. Consequently, Turkey immediately aligned itself with the Russian strategy in Syria.
Analyses in the US media are talking about partitioning Syria into four zones, with each one being controlled by an international or regional power.
The first zone would extend from Latakia on the Mediterranean to Damascus and would be controlled by the Syrian regime. The second zone would extend from north-eastern Syria to the city of Manbij and would be under US control. Also under US control would be the third zone extending from Sweida to Quneitra. Turkey would control the area along its southern border, extending 70km inside Syria up to the city of al-Bab north of Aleppo.
Soon after the US plan was announced, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov lambasted the initiative and said the United States had not consulted with Russia about the safe zones. “Washington must think of the potential consequences of establishing safe zones in Syria,” warned Peskov.
For US President Donald Trump, establishing safe zones is in the Americans’ interest because they would serve to dam the migration waves towards the United States, Europe and Syria’s neighbours. The safe zones could serve as bargaining chips for both the United States and Russia.
The US administration has drawn the limits of the zones along the demarcation lines between the different fighting factions in Syria and says the project would not obstruct any agreement with Russia about a solution in Syria.
Like its predecessor, the Trump administration says there is no need for the United States to get bogged down in the Syrian quagmire as long as Russia is willing to do the necessary job in the field while preserving American interests.
Both countries agree on fundamental principles: fighting Islamic organisations classified as terrorist, especially the Islamic State, guaranteeing Israel’s safety and Israel’s right to launch military retaliation strikes inside Syria and protecting the Kurds. They do also implicitly agree on replacing Syrian President Bashar Assad with a non-radical figure within a non-sectarian civilian government.
The Obama administration was lenient with the Shia Islamic movements in the Middle East. The Trump administration, however, seems to be set on clipping Iran’s wings. This would be compatible with US interests in the region and US efforts to contain Sunni Islamic movements as well.
Washington agrees with Moscow on limiting Iran’s influence in Syria and backs up Russia’s strategies that were implemented following the Aleppo agreement despite Iran’s obvious displeasure.
The meetings between Russian and US interests in Syria do not signal the beginning of a honeymoon period between the two countries. Both are still testing each other.
However, both countries have become in possession of most of the cards in the Syrian game while the other regional players, Turkey and Iran, are trying to preserve as many of their cards as they can.
Among the strongest cards in the hands of Moscow and Washington is the one related to the draft Syrian constitution. They are both looking forward to a constitution that would disregard an Islamic system of government. Even Iran would be happy with such an outcome as it would eliminate right from the start the project for a competing Sunni Islamic state.
The safe zones and draft constitution projects will dominate the settlement process in Syria. They assume that all parties in the Syrian conflict have had enough and are ready for a settlement. They will certainly be pursued along with the idea of preventing any radical Islamic movement from replacing Assad and kicking out all foreign militias from Syria.