Analysis

Russia Tries Diplomacy in Syria Again With 'De-escalation Zones'

If successful, Russia's responsibility for the chemical attack could be obscured - if not obviated

Senior Russian officials attend a briefing on the new de-escalation zones in Syria, May 5, 2017.
Pavel Golovkin/AP

Only a month after the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib district of Syria, which killed some 90 people, and a little less than a month after President Donald Trump rained his Tomahawk missiles on Syria in response, Russia has suddenly presented a political show, which, if it succeeds, could obscure if not obviate its responsibility for the chemical attack.

An agreement on “de-escalation zones” and safe zones in four centers in Syria are the old-new method by which Russia is seeking to limit the war in Syria and perhaps lead to a diplomatic solution. The agreement, signed by Turkey, Iran and Russia, which was to go into effect Saturday night, has already been broken by shooting in the Hama area, and has been rejected by some of the opposition factions, which abandoned the negotiating table in the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan because they were against Iran being a signatory to it.

But lacking alternatives, and with the United States not opposed to it, if not to say indifferent to it, the agreement can be put to the test. Besides the general agreement that these areas will be established in the areas of Idlib and Latakia, Dara in the south, the outskirts of Homs and the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the precise boundaries of these zones have not yet been drawn; this awaits negotiations expected to take place between the parties to the agreement in early June.

The outlines of the agreement ban aerial action of any kind in these areas, including by international coalition forces led by the United States. Roadblocks will be put up between the zones and patrols will monitor compliance. The agreement does not note the identity of the patrol forces. Rapid humanitarian assistance will be provided to people living in these zones, estimated at more than 2 million, and the cease-fire will be immediate. The first phase of implementation will take about six months, with an option to extend it with the approval of the signatories.

The agreement is not supposed to interrupt the fight against the ISIS in Syria, but it implies that a certain amount of protection will be accorded other organizations, such as the A-Sham Liberation Front and the A-Sham Conquest Front, which are affiliated with Al Qaida, and other groups that Russia, Syria and Iran define as terror groups. If the agreement is effectively implemented, hundreds of thousands of refugees will be able to return to the safe zones, including refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Thus the enormous economic burden on these countries will be reduced. But then, international bodies, which are suffering from a worrying lack of funds, will be required to increase their contributions to the refugees.

There is no coincidence in the areas defined as de-escalation zones. The choice of the Dara area is meant address Israel’s concern over actions of the Syrian army and pro-Iranian militias in the area of the Golan Heights, and a no-fly zone in that area is meant to prevent attacks by Jordan. The Idlib area has a large concentration of militia fighters evacuated from Aleppo and other nearby cities, and a safe zone in that area will enable Russia and the Syrian forces to monitor their activities.

In contrast, the area of the border between Syria and Turkey, where most of the Syrian Kurdish population lives, and from which PKK forces operate, will continue to be outside the safe zones, thus allowing Turkey to persist in its attacks on Kurdish forces. The cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, which are still being held by ISIS, are not included in the agreement. Nor is the Syria-Lebanon border, which means Israel will be able to continue action in areas where weapons could be transported from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The establishment of safe zones is not a new idea. Turkey demanded a number of years ago that such zones be established, but the original purpose was that they be located along the border with Turkey to thwart actions by the Kurds. The United States and European countries opposed the establishment of such zones at the time, out of concern that monitoring them would require deep military involvement in Syria and the deployment of large ground forces to ensure their protection.

But since the U.S. and its European allies are not signatories to the agreement, and thus are not required to be involved, the main obstacle to their establishment has been removed, at the price of a general transfer of control over the fighting to Russia. But even that is nothing new, because since September 2015, when Russia began its massive aerial actions in Syria, it has taken over the diplomatic and military front in Syria and it is now Russia that dictates the diplomatic moves meant to lead to a resolution of the crisis. This latest move is a continuation of the policy of localized cease-fires that Russia was able to apply in various parts of Syria, and the innovation is in the major extent of territory in which the cease-fires are to be instituted, and the success of the Russia-Iran-Turkey axis in establishing a meaningful alternative to the Western international coalition.

The importance of this axis goes beyond Syria, because it allows Iran to appear as a major power involved in conflicts and proposing solutions to regional crises, and it shows Turkey as vital in the region, all under a Russian umbrella rather than an American one.