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Syria’s safe zones: Another smokescreen?

As the Russian-Turkish-Iranian agreement on creating four “de-escalation zones” in Syria went into effect on Saturday, confusion over its implementation and sustainability remain.
The three countries had signed on the deal in Astana as guarantors, but it is not clear how these parties, with clearly conflicting agendas in Syria, would ensure adherence to the its main objective: Cessation of hostilities between warring parties.
Already the opposition, which is not united in its position over the deal, is accusing the regime of violating the cease-fire agreement.
The US, which Russia had invited to join in the implementation of the agreement, is sitting on the proverbial fence while expressing doubts over Iran’s role and the regime’s readiness to honor the cease-fire.
The idea of setting up safe zones, a non-legal term, in Syria is not new. Turkey wanted to create its own buffer corridor along its borders with Syria ostensibly to allow Syrian refugees to return but also to derail attempts by Syrian Kurds to carve out a contiguous self-administered entity in the war-torn country. Under the Obama administration the concept, which entailed enforcing a no-fly zone, was not embraced. Turkish troops then entered northern Syria last August in a bid to implement the plan by force. But they were stopped short as they reached the outskirts of Al-Bab. US, Russian and regime forces remain within an arm’s length of each other in that strategic area.
President Donald Trump also suggested the creation of safe zones in Syria without revealing details. Jordan had toyed with the idea earlier on but in the absence of a clear strategy by the Obama administration its plans were put on hold. Interestingly, Jordan’s initial reaction to the Astana agreement, which includes the creation of a de-escalation zone in the Daraa region close to the kingdom’s borders, was to state that it was not a party to the deal. It was probably waiting for a US stand on the agreement, which is yet to be made.

Regardless of the prevailing confusion, so long as Washington and Moscow follow different paths in Syria the credibility of the political process will remain in question while the future of the de-escalation zones does not look hopeful.

Osama Al-Sharif

Moreover, Amman was looking into other options. Its main concern, as enunciated by King Abdallah on a number of occasions, is the proximity of “non-state actors” to its northern borders. That includes Daesh and other radical groups, but also Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias. These concerns were conveyed to Moscow and in a recent diplomatic contact Jordan reiterated its position of rejecting the presence of sectarian militias along its borders. It asked for a Russian commitment to keep Iran and Hezbollah forces as far back as possible. Furthermore, it called on Moscow to seek a nation-wide cease-fire arrangement.
Even after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Washington last week, the American position remained vague. Its priority is to retake Raqqa and deal a lethal blow to Daesh militants. Last week it announced that it will begin to arm Syrian Kurdish forces that will lead the march toward the stricken city; a move that irked Turkey and raised concern in both Damascus and Moscow.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for the three guarantors is dealing with the fluid situation on the ground in most of the four designated zones. For instance, Idlib, the site of the recent chemical attack, is largely in the hands of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, an Islamist coalition that includes the Al-Nusra Front in its grouping. The former has been branded as a terrorist group and is excluded from the cease-fire deal. There are other groups, represented in Astana, which have rejected the deal, primarily because of Iran’s involvement.
In recent days, the Syrian regime, backed by pro-Iranian militias, has dispatched troops to the border area with Jordan and Iraq, in anticipation of a possible joint US-British-Jordanian land incursion aimed at isolating Daesh militants and cutting off a land route for Iranian militias and mercenaries.
While Jordan has brushed aside reports of a military build-up along its borders with Syria, Damascus insists that Jordanian territory will be used as a launching pad for an alleged US-led incursion.
Meanwhile, as a sixth round of indirect talks began in Geneva on Tuesday, a divided opposition is weary that Russia is working to replace that process with Astana. President Bashar Assad himself said last week that “nothing substantial” would come out of Geneva, which was “merely a meeting for the media.”
Assad’s forces secured an important victory this week when they finally overcame rebels in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun; paving the way for the regime to spread its authority over the entire capital districts. For Assad and his Iranian backers the only thing that matters is making gains on the ground in the hope of tilting the balance of power in their favor. Is the latest Astana deal just another smokescreen that is buying the regime precious time?
Regardless of the prevailing confusion, so long as Washington and Moscow follow different paths in Syria the credibility of the political process will remain in question while the future of the de-escalation zones does not look hopeful.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.