Week in Review, by the editors of Al-Monitor, May 7, 2017 (with extensive, related reporting compiled below by New Cold War.org)
Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed to be guarantors of a six-month cease-fire in four Syrian regions — Idlib and parts of its neighboring provinces, Eastern Ghouta, northern Homs, and areas around Daraa and al-Quneitra provinces — to de-escalate violence, facilitate humanitarian access and improve the conditions for a political settlement.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura praised the agreement as a “promising and positive step in the right direction.”
With the Astana agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin has again changed the conversation on Syria, making clear to Washington that the road to both a political settlement and the defeat of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda passes through Moscow.
Just last month U.S.-Russia collaboration on Syria, which U.S. President Donald Trump had proposed during the U.S. presidential campaign, seemed on life support. There had been an international outcry over allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing over 90. The U.S. intelligence community had assessed with a “very high level of confidence” that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against the town in Idlib province April 2, and responded with a missile attack on a Syrian air base. The Russian government rejected U.S. accusations of Syrian blame, condemned the U.S. missile attack and stepped back from the U.S.-Russia conflict-avoidance arrangements in Syria.
But Putin seized on an ill-defined American plan for “safe zones” in Syria to put U.S.-Russia partnership back in play. A White House statement noted that Trump and Putin discussed “safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons,” in a telephone call May 2. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov linked the de-escalation zones in the Astana agreement to earlier U.S. proposals for “safe zones” to reduce violence in Syria, telling MIR TV on May 6, “It is not by chance that the United States welcomed the results of the meeting in Astana, specifically an agreement on setting up de-escalation zones.” The same day, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and the Russian chief of the General Staff of the armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, affirmed their commitment to conflict-avoidance operations in Syria.
Although the State Department made clear that the United States was not a party to the agreement, despite the presence of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones at the Astana talks, and that Washington has concerns about the role of Iran as a “guarantor” of the agreement, the United States nonetheless encouraged Syrian opposition groups to participate in the talks and declared that “the opposition must also live up to its commitments, with Turkey as the guarantor, to separate from designated terrorist groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which continue to hijack the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for a representative and accountable government.”
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is a coalition of radical Salafi groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
Because military operations against IS and al-Qaeda and its affiliates continue, the Astana agreement reopens the possibility of deepening U.S.-Russian coordination beyond conflict avoidance, especially as the United States readies an offensive against IS in Raqqa. The deal calls on parties to “take all necessary measures to continue the fight against [IS], Jabhat al-Nusra and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with al-Qaeda or [IS] as indicated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas.” On May 5, Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Operational Directorate, stressed that the memorandum of understanding “does not stop fighting against terrorists of [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. State guarantors undertake to continue fighting against formations of these and other terrorist organizations in the de-escalation zones as well as provide assistance to the government troops and armed opposition in fighting insurgents in other areas of Syria. After establishing the de-escalation zones, the government troops will be sent to continue offensive on the [IS] formations in the central and eastern parts of Syria as well as to liberate areas located along the River Euphrates.”
Four weeks ago, this column predicted that Russia might consider “reinforced military deployments or even a Russian no-fly zone” following the U.S. attack on the Shayrat air base.
The inclusion of Turkey in the deal suggests that Washington may require Moscow’s good offices to manage Turkey’s role in Syria. Last week, we wrote that following Turkey’s airstrikes against the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, the United States is “out on a limb as Turkey, a NATO ally, is almost daring the United States to continue its reliance on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose most effective fighters are drawn primarily from the YPG, in the long-anticipated military campaign to expel IS from Raqqa.”
Maxim Suchkov writes:
As Moscow has sought a reliable way to move the Syrian conflict from the battlefield into the political realm (the conflict has gradually claimed more Russian lives and drained more resources) the idea of safe zones became worth exploring. The concept only had to be recalibrated to meet at least three objectives: to not impede Russia’s own military actions on the ground; to be packaged as Russia’s own political achievement domestically; and to be presented as a genuine international effort co-mediated by Turkey and Iran to get them on board. Besides, such a move would also be helpful to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranians that Moscow is not “selling them out to Americans” as they fear. At the same time there is an understanding that without Washington, implementing the initiative would be more difficult. Hence, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it is willing to resume discussions with the United States — which Russia halted after the strikes on the Shayrat air base — on a flight safety memorandum designed to prevent midair collisions.
For now, the Russian Defense Ministry says safe zones will be a key tool in securing these immediate goals:
- To divide moderate opposition forces from the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
- To more freely deliver humanitarian aid to population in the de-escalation areas
- To restore infrastructure and water facilities in the zones so refugees can return.
Suchkov adds, “Most importantly, the memorandum is seen as a key step to stop the fighting in Syria. … Operationally, Russians believe that the safe zone initiative will untie the Syrian government’s hands and help Assad direct forces to liberate central and eastern parts of Syria from IS, including territories along the Euphrates River and east of Palmyra. All that would help with preparing a large-scale offensive on IS-held Deir ez-Zor. The Russian military makes it clear it will support those efforts with its airstrikes.”
Syria says ‘no’ to UN monitors for de-escalation zones, Press TV, May 8, 2017
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem says Damascus does not agree to any role for the United Nations or other “international forces” to monitor the implementation of a deal on four de-escalation zones in the war-torn Arab country. “We do not accept a role for the United Nations or international forces to monitor the agreement,” Muallem told a televised news conference on Monday.
He added that there could be a role for military police as Russia has said, but did not clarify whether he was referring to Syrian or foreign units…
Russia says deal bars American jets from much of Syria’s skies. U.S. says no.
By Anne Barnard, New York Times, Friday, May 5, 2017
BEIRUT, Lebanon — United States and allied aircraft will be banned from flying over much of Syria as part of a deal struck by Iran, Russia and Turkey to foster a cease-fire in the Syrian war, a senior Russian diplomat said Friday.
But a State Department spokesman later said that the agreement, which the United States did not sign, does not “preclude anyone from going after terrorists wherever they may be in Syria.” The spokesman, Edgar Vasquez, said Russian officials’ interpretation of their own agreement “makes no sense.”
A senior State Department official was at the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that led to the deal, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The agreement aims to establish four “de-escalation zones,” where Syrian government and rebel forces are supposed to stop fighting each other.
The accord raised the prospect that after years of government opponents asking the United States and its allies for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the Syrian military’s bombings, it could end up being Russia, Syria’s ally, that imposes one. But there are many factors that could undermine the deal, as with previous cease-fires. It has not been accepted by all opposition groups, and the Syrian government reserved the right to continue fighting what it called terrorist organizations across the country.
The Russian statements could also signal an effort to limit American strikes against Syrian government forces like the one carried out in retaliation for a chemical attack last month. They suggested that United States warplanes could be barred from all of the most important areas contested by the government and rebels that are not affiliated with the Islamic State.
The Russian diplomat, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, suggested that Russian and Turkish warplanes would, like the United States-led coalition, be prohibited from flying over the zones.
But Mr. Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy on Syria, seemed to sketch out a broader geographical no-fly zone for American and coalition military planes. He said they would be allowed to fly only in eastern Syria over Islamic State-held areas, apparently excluding the entire western spine of the country.
Capt. Jeff Davis of the Pentagon would not say if the United States military would honor the zones and promise not to fly over them.
No-fly zones have been a contentious issue in the Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year; they have long been requested by rebel groups and rejected by the government. Disputes about who can fly planes and when — “subtle professional issues,” the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, called them recently — are likely to continue under the new deal.
Nevertheless, one of the representatives of the Syrian opposition groups at the talks, Col. Ahmad Berri, sounded a more optimistic note than some other rebel leaders, saying he expected to see a full cease-fire in the designated zones. “The Russians this time are more serious, we sensed it, more than last time,” he said in a telephone interview. “The regime will be committed to the deal because the Russians are the guarantor, so if the Russians said no bombing, the regime will stop.”
On Friday evening, even before the official start of the cease-fire, families in rebel-held areas that have been routinely bombed went to parks, picnicked and organized antigovernment demonstrations.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in a statement late Wednesday that it “supports” the initiative on de-escalation zones, “including not shelling those areas.” But the statement also said the Syrian military would continue to fight banned terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Qaeda-linked militants and “affiliated terrorist organizations” anywhere in Syria.
Government opponents saw the statement as signaling that the Syrian military intended to keep bombing wherever it chose on the pretext of fighting terrorism.
“Aviation over these territories ceases,” Mr. Lavrentiev told reporters in Astana on Friday, a day after the deal was signed between Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian government, and Turkey, which backs some rebels.
But in response to a question about the United States-led coalition formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, Mr. Lavrentiev did not mince words: “The work of aviation, especially the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged,” he said. “This issue is now closed.”
He added that “the only place” where the coalition could operate was against Islamic State targets in Raqqa, along the Euphrates, Deir al-Zour and into Iraqi territory.
The excluded area encompasses Idlib Province, where American warplanes have been carrying out an intensifying series of airstrikes against what officials say are Qaeda operatives. It also includes some of the areas where Turkey, a NATO ally, has skirmished with Kurdish militias also backed, sometimes with airstrikes, by the United States.
And it includes most of the Syrian government’s military installations, such as the Shayrat air base, which the United States struck with missiles in retaliation for chemical attacks that killed scores of people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib last month.
The de-escalation zones cover virtually all areas held by non-Islamic-State insurgents — a zone encompassing Idlib and neighboring parts of Latakia, Aleppo and Hama; another along Syria’s southern border with Jordan, a third in the eastern Damascus suburbs and a fourth in a pocket of the central province of Homs.
In some ways, such discussions are academic. The United States has never had Syrian government permission for its airstrikes on the Islamic State and on Qaeda targets on Syrian territory. The Syrian government calls the American strikes violations of its sovereignty.
And Russia and the Syrian government have liberally interpreted exceptions to previous cease-fire deals, continuing to carry out strikes, including some that hit rescue workers and hospitals and that were followed by declarations from Moscow and Damascus that terrorists had been present in the areas targeted.
Rebel groups, too, have argued about the meaning of provisions requiring them to separate from banned terrorist groups, asserting that they lack the ability to push out well-funded and well-armed extremists. But, at the same time, some rebel groups have entered into tactical alliances with the extremists.
Still, United Nations officials have held out hope that the new deal will fare better than others that have evaporated under the weight of those contradictions. American officials said they shared the stated goals of the plan but expressed skepticism that Russia could restrain the Syrian government and concern about the role of Iran.
What makes this agreement different is that some of the countries backing different sides in Syria have agreed at least on the possibility of bringing in outside forces to monitor a cease-fire.
Mr. Putin said on Wednesday that aircraft would not operate over the designated zones, “provided that these zones show no sign of military activity.”
Government opponents said that a real end to bombings across the country was the top demand of their supporters. But they saw the deal as something else: as a pretext to make sure that there would be no repeat of the strikes ordered by President Trump, or as an attempt to shore up Mr. Assad politically. They said the latest deal recalled the agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons that Russia and the United States struck as an alternative to punitive strikes for chemical attacks in 2013.
“This deal is like when the Russians rescued Bashar in 2013, and now they’re trying to rescue him again with plastic surgery agreements,” said Hisham Marwa, a member of an opposition coalition.
Russia presents resolution on de-escalation zones in Syria to UN Security Council
Russia has presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council in support of the memorandum on de-escalation zones in Syria signed at the international meeting in Astana on May 4, Russia’s permanent mission to the UN told TASS on Sunday.
“We confirm the draft resolution was presented,” press secretary of the permanent mission Fyodor Strzhizhovsky said.
Voting on the document may take place at the beginning of this week, probably on May 8 or 9, according to diplomats.
During the May 4 meeting held in Astana, Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum on setting up de-escalation zones in Syria. Implementation of the memorandum will allow putting an end to the civil war in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier.
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