Russia: Syrian Safe Zones Plan to Take Effect at Midnight

safe zones, Syria, Russia, Iran, U.S.
L to R: Russian lead negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, Thursday. (Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)

A Russian plan to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria is to go into effect at midnight on Friday, but it will be at least another month until the safe areas are established, according to Russian officials

Also, prospects for the success of the deal — agreed on by Russia, Turkey and Iran — are undermined by the failure of Syrian rebel groups who oppose President Bashar Assad to sign on to it.

Russian military officials said the plan, which was agreed to in Syria talks in Kazakhstan on Thursday, envisions establishing four safe zones that could would bring relief for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and encourage refugees to return.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are to enforce the zones, but Russian general staff official Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Friday that other countries could participate. He did not elaborate on who those countries might be.

The “de-escalation zones” to be established in Syria will be closed to military aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition, the Russian official who signed the agreement also said Friday. Under the Russian plan, Assad’s air force would halt flights over the designated areas across the war-torn country.

Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s lead negotiator on Syria, spoke a day after he and officials from Turkey and Iran agreed to establish the zones, in the latest attempt to reduce violence in the Arab country.

But the Pentagon said the de-escalation agreement will not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State terror group.

“The coalition will continue to target ISIS wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary,” said Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.

Rudskoi also told reporters that Russia wanted to restore an agreement with the United States to coordinate air operations over Syria and reduce the risk of aircraft colliding. That arrangement was suspended last month after the U.S. Tomahawk missile barrage on a Syrian air base, fired in response to a deadly chemical gas attack in Syria that was blamed on Assad’s government.

Lavrentyev, whose remarks were carried by Russian news agencies, said “the operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without. This question is closed.”

He said the U.S.-led coalition aircraft would still be able to operate against IS in specific areas.

On Thursday, as the agreement was being signed in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, some members of the Syrian opposition delegation shouted in protest and walked out of the conference room.

The opposition was protesting Iran’s participation at the conference and role as a guarantor of the agreement, accusing it of fueling the sectarian nature of the conflict that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population.

The walkout and the comments underline the huge difficulties of implementing such a deal. The Syrian government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it will continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

A previous ceasefire agreement signed in Astana on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a ceasefire in Syria have all ended in failure.

Sponsors of the deal hope that safe zones will bring relief for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and encourage refugees to return. But officials have expressed skepticism, stressing that safe zones have not had an encouraging track record.


Updated Friday, May 5, 2017 at 1:44 pm