Safe Zones in Syria: A double-edged sword

By Farhang Jahanpour

After six years of brutal conflict in Syria, hundreds of thousands of fatalities, unimaginable hardship experienced by civilians with millions displaced inside the country or becoming refugees abroad, and the destruction of most of that ancient land, the Syrian tragedy is entering a new phase.

The Russian air campaigns that started on behalf of the Syrian government in September 2015 have strengthened the government against the rebels and have forced the rebels to agree to negotiations. To that extent, the Russian intervention must be seen as a success, as it has paved the way for the latest developments. Earlier attempts at intervention by the West and their coalition had failed, mainly because they were pursuing the single goal of regime change.

Meeting in Astana on 4th May 2017, the representatives of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran that back rival sides in the conflict signed a Memorandum establishing “de-escalation zones” in four parts of the country mainly under the control of the insurgents.

According to the Memorandum: “Along the borders of the de-escalation zones, it is envisaged to create safe areas to prevent incidents and direct clashes between the warring parties.” It is important to remember that this is not a ceasefire, or a final political agreement. As the name itself implies, it is aimed mainly at de-escalating the violence, thus paving the way for an eventual ceasefire and hopefully a political agreement between various warring factions in the coming months and years.

According to the agreement, the safe zones would include the whole of Idlib province; parts of Lattakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; parts of Homs province; East Ghouta region; and also parts of the southern Deraa and al-Quneitra provinces. It seems that Turkey will exert some influence over Idlib, the Kurds will get a northern strip, and the rest of the safe zones will cater for the areas dominated by the rebels and the Syrian government.

This is the latest in a series of agreements and ceasefires that have failed to bring peace to Syria. A previous cease-fire agreement signed in Astana on 30th December by Russia, Iran and Turkey ended in failure, although it helped reduce overall violence for many weeks.

After the chemical attack on the al-Qaeda-dominated province of Idlib on 3rd April, President Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired on the Shayrat air base near Homs, and he informed the visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping of the attack as they were having dessert.

He justified the attack by claiming that the Syrian government had been responsible for the use of chemical weapons, although a UN investigation into the source of the attack was still continuing. The missile attacks infuriated Russia, Iran and Syria, but helped the terrorists who, led by the Salafi Jihadist Ahrar al-Sham, applauded that attack.

On 15th April 2017, a suicide bomber struck a convoy of buses carrying civilians out of two rebel-held towns, Fuaa and Kafrya, on the basis of a pre-arranged agreement, in return for the transfer of thousands of rebels from government-held areas. Around 100 were killed and dozens were injured. The West has been rather muted in its condemnation of that attack.

In the past, from the time when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State to the era of Trump, it was the West that called for the establishment of safe and no-fly zones, but by that they meant to set up the kind of safe zones that would prevent the central government from repulsing attacks by the rebels, and ultimately hoping to bring about regime change, as they did in Libya.

The difference between this and earlier safe zones and ceasefires is that the current plan is supported by the three main foreign players in Syria, the Syrian government, the United Nations, as well as having the grudging acquiescence of the West, and therefore has a better chance of holding.

Some positive points

Clearly, like most agreements, the establishment of safe zones has a number of positive and some negative aspects.

First of all on the positive side, one can point out that the Syrian government has supported the agreement. In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry backed the proposal for de-escalation zones, although it stated that Syria would continue fighting the terrorists.

Contrary to many earlier agreements initiated by the West, the current agreement affirms “the strong commitment” of the three sponsors of the agreement to “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The agreement has also involved the representatives of the rebels, who took part in the signing ceremony, but the terrorist groups were not part of the agreement. Some opposition representatives at the meeting spoke against the agreement and walked out of the meeting, objecting to Iran’s participation in the talks, as though Russia and Turkey, or for that matter Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states who continue to back the rebels, were more impartial than the Iranians.

It now emerges that the walkout was pre-arranged and the rebels had been told by their Western and Arab backers to make that protest in order to express theirs and the West’s opposition to Iran. This is due to the fact that the agreement validates Iran’s role in Syria as a country fighting against ISIS, but also as a proponent of a ceasefire, and it makes it harder for the United States to accuse Iran of being a sponsor of terrorism.
So far, there has been no formal endorsement of the agreement by the American government.

However, on Wednesday 3rd May, during the joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin announced that he had discussed the establishment of safe zones with President Donald Trump in his latest telephone call with him, and Trump had also expressed his support for the idea.

It is also important to note that the U.N. Syria envoy, Stafan de Mistura, was present at the signing ceremony and has also expressed his backing for the establishment of safe zones, saying that it can pave the way for later agreements.

Some negative points

One important negative aspect of the agreement has been the fact that it has been initiated by three outside powers, not by the Syrians themselves, although the Syrian government has also endorsed it.
Another problem concerns the nature of the safe zones.

A major problem with the safe zones has been that they have become safe for the militants, and they might act as magnates attracting other militants to those areas, which of course later on can cause many problems for the central government.

They would also require a great deal of humanitarian assistance by the central government or by humanitarian organizations. Do these institutions possess the capability to continue providing that assistance?
The safe zones have to be monitored, and this also poses another major dilemma.

According to Sputnik, Alexander Lavrentyev, the head of the Russian delegation to the talks said: “Russia is ready to take part in sending its observers to the so-called safe zones to take part in monitoring of the adherence to the cessation of hostilities, registering positive violations, but we as guarantor states agreed that participation of other countries is also possible but only on the basis of consensus [of the guarantors].”

It is not clear who the other guarantors will be and whether any of the countries involved in the conflict will be allowed to send forces to monitor the agreement, or whether they will have to come from other countries, and if so which countries will agree to take part and under what kind of mandate.

Iran, Turkey and Russia have spoken about the possibility of allowing international observers in case there is “unanimity” on that issue, but who are these foreign observers and on which basis would they operate?

It is a matter of great significance whether the United States will comply with the safe zones or not. What happens if the United States violates the no-fly zones and attacks Syrian government positions as was done with the missile attacks on 5th April? Will Russia try to enforce the no-fly zone, or will she back down as she did in the case of the previous missile attacks?

What about Israel? Will she honor the safe zones or will she continue to attack Syrian sites at will on various excuses, often to help the rebels and weaken the central government?

Will the establishment of the safe zones put an end to the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, or will Turkey continue to attack the Kurdish enclaves, accusing them of being in league with the PKK?

Will Western, Israeli and GCC pressure force Russia to limit Iran’s involvement in Syria and leave it open to Sunni militants, or will Russia, Turkey and Iran try to cater to both Sunni, Shia, Christian and other minority populations and form a government that will represent all of them?

Above all, will the terrorists honor the agreement or will they continue engaging in new outrageous acts, such as the attack on the convoy of the refugees, forcing Syria and her allies to retaliate?

However, despite all these misgivings, the agreement could lessen the scale of violence and could mark a way forward. One major benefit of the agreement will be if it can separate the terrorists from the rest of the opposition and thus expose them as the real enemies of the Syrian people.

The other hope is that after a period of calm, most Syrians, even those who are strongly opposed to the Syrian government, will find it preferable to live in peace, rather than continue the carnage that has done so much harm to Syria and the Syrian people.

Therefore, it is a gamble, but one worth taking. However, its success would depend on the extent of cooperation by the West, the Arab states that sponsor the rebels, the militants, and above all the majority of the Syrian people and people of goodwill throughout the world.

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