Russia's Syria Safe Zones Need Trump's Support: QuickTake Q&A

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to enlist U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in an initiative to establish combat-free safe zones in Syria. The civil war there, now in its seventh year, drags on despite a Russian bombing campaign aimed at solidifying the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has the agreement of Iran, which also supports Assad, as well as Turkey, a backer of the Syrian rebels. Syria’s government has also signed up. The opposition, however, is not on board yet. Putin must also overcome skepticism in the U.S., which has supported the rebels.

1. What is Russia proposing?

The creation of four so-called “de-escalation’’ zones -- areas where fighting would be suspended, allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid and a return to peacetime life. The zones would be guarded by non-Syrian forces, though where they would come from hasn’t been agreed. It’s possible Russian troops would be responsible for enforcing security. The exact boundaries of the proposed areas haven’t been fixed either yet, but the idea is to establish them in four flashpoint locations -- in the northwestern province of Idlib, north of the city of Homs, the east Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and in southern Syria.

2. Who’s not on board?

The Syrian rebels are skeptical about the Russian plan as they reject an Iranian role, would prefer any cease-fire covers more of the country and that United Nations peacekeepers police it. They also insist on a ban on bombing raids; Putin has said such a prohibition could apply only where there is no military activity. The U.S. has also expressed doubts.

3. Could the Russian plan work?

It could be tricky. The Syrian government has continued to attack opposition forces in spite of cease-fire accords, the latest one brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran at the end of last year. There are also differences between the three co-guarantors. Iran is a more uncompromising backer of Assad than Russia is. Turkey is at odds with Russia over the role of Syrian Kurds. Officials in Ankara regard them as terrorists linked to separatist Kurds within Turkey’s own borders, while for Moscow they’re allies in the fight against Islamic State.

4. What is the U.S. attitude?

Trump pledged to work with Putin on ending the Syrian conflict during a May 2 phone call that the White House described as “very good.’’ The conversation eased tensions sparked by a U.S. missile assault in April on a Syrian base in response to a chemical attack in Idlib province blamed on Assad forces. Still, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a day after the phone call that there’s almost no trust between Washington and Moscow. The two powers remain at odds over the future of Assad, even if Trump isn’t pushing for his ouster in the near future. Trump has made his own proposal for safe zones to protect refugees. Russia opposed the idea out of concern that a bigger U.S. military involvement would help the rebels. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said May 4 that the U.S. has “concerns” about the Russian-backed accord, “including the involvement of Iran as a so-called guarantor,” and urged Russia to do more to rein in Assad.

5. Have such safe zones worked in the past?

Not always. In 1995, 200 Dutch troops failed to prevent the killing of 7,500 Bosnian Muslims who had sought refuge at a UN safe zone in the Srebrenica enclave -- the worst massacre since World War II.

6. What’s in it for Putin?

If the U.S. comes on board the safe zone idea, it offers the prospect of broader cooperation in Syria. Trump had promised during his campaign for the presidency to join forces with Russia in fighting Islamic State, the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group that in 2014 began conquering territory in Syria and Iraq and eventually spawned terrorist attacks around the world. But his proposal has run into opposition from the U.S. military as well as both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who want a tough stance toward Putin for Russia’s alleged meddling in last year’s U.S. elections, his backing for Assad and interference in Ukraine. Putin needs a peace deal in Syria to prevent his military foray turning into a quagmire -- and that’s hard to achieve without U.S. help.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Samuel Dodge, and Bill Faries

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