On Thursday the 18.05. Russian, Iranian und Turkish officials held further talks about concrete steps and details of their planned etsablishment of de-escalation zones in Syria. The three states serve as guarantors for the various factions of the Syrian conflict involved in this agreement. A first memorandum was signed on May 4 in Astana to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria.
While many details have yet to be agreed upon, flights above the zones are already banned. The Russian Ministry of Defense, who’s units will enforce this rule, made clear, that violations will not be tolerated, even if announced beforehand.
This deal differs significantly from the no-flight zone proposed by the U.S. coalition, which of course would have been controlled by U.S. forces and basically would have grounded the Syrian Airforce. The latter is still the case for the de-escalation zones but in addition any hostilities are to be ceased in the designated zones since May 5, including those of ground forces. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense the ceasefire held so far, aside of minor inicidents, mostly caused by single small arms fire.
The deal, if fully implemented, would bring relief for both the population in the zones and the forces fighting for control over those areas, as neutral peace keeping forces will control the zones. Still the exact boundaries of the zones has to be determined until May 27. Also a joint working group of the guarantors should have been installed until May 18. The group should realise the implementation of the deal, that is to be finalised by June 4.
The borders of the zones will have security lanes with checkpoints, to allow the movement of civilians and goods, while keeping the opposing parties of the Syrian conflict at distance. Turkey is rooting for a UN supervision of the agreement. The memorandum demands the guarantors themselves to provide supervisioning troops, but leaves the option to include third parties open. The next round of the talks will be held in Teheran May 21.
Meanwhile the U.S. House of Representatives passed a new bill demanding the Donald Trump to impose sanctions he sees fit on backers of the Syrian gouvernment, while explicitly naming Russia as an core allie of Syria on May 17. This is supposed to be a reaction to allegations, mainly based reports on various social media accounts, of a chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces in Khan Sheikhoun.
While these claims already prompted Trump to command a strike with Tomahawk rockets on a Syrian airbase, as he reportedly had dessert with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, there has not been any indepedent investigation of the events as of now. The allegations seem contradictive since the U.N. announced in June 2014 that the Syrian gouvernment had voluntarily destroyed all chemical weapons and in their possession and all means for their produtcion within the framework of an agreement with the U.N..
All three guarantor states of the agreement on the implementation of de-escalation zones have, in their respective tone, urged the U.S. to seek participation in a political solution and to abstain of destabilizing actions in the Syrian conflict. It is unlikely for the U.S. to respect the boundaries set within the new agreement, with the U.S. led coalition already using the alleged violation of the yet to be established de-escalation zones as a pretext to bomb the Syrian Army.
On Thursday a Syrian Army convoy was bombed near the Tanf border crossing in Syria’s southeast, causing several deaths and injuries, because it was, according to U.S. media, approaching positions of rebel groups in a de-escalation zone in Suweida region, close to the Syrian Jordanian border. It is important to note, that the area is not part of the designated de-escalation zones, as can be seen on the map published by the Russian Ministry of Defense. U.S. special forces are supporting the rebel groups in this region and were filmed last Sunday intruding into Syrian souvereign territory via the Tanf border crossing.
There are also major rifts among the armed opposition regarding the agreement, which could lead to wide scale infighting. The powerfull Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’et Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) will not be protected in any party of Syria according to the deal, due to it’s status as a terrorist group, whereas groups backed by Turkey would enjoy protection within the to be designated de-escalation zones.
But if despite those hindrinces the agreement were to come into full effect, this would free up, larger contingents of the Syrian forces, to focus their efforts on ISIS. With this perspective, the Syrian Arab Army and allied groups have already started parts of a large scale operation, which ultimately aims to seal Syria’s south-eastern borders and to liberate the city of Deir Ezzor in Syrias east, which has been besieged by ISIS for 2 years now.
Below are more detailed maps published by the Russian Ministry of Defense, showing a first rough sketch of the 4 de-escalation zones, as designated by the guarantors: