Russia Set to Police Syria Safe Zones Backed by Iran, Turkey

  • UN special envoy to Syria says de-escalation plan is good step
  • Tension remains as opposition protests at signing ceremony

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Sochi on May 2, 2017.

Photographer: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP/Getty Images

Russia said it’s ready to send peacekeepers to Syria as it won backing from Turkey and Iran for a plan to establish safe zones inside the war-torn country in an effort to shore up a shaky cease-fire brokered by the three powers.

The three countries signed a memorandum on the creation of so-called de-escalation areas on Thursday after two days of talks in Kazakhstan that also included representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups. Opposition leaders distanced themselves from the plan, saying they can’t accept Iran as a guarantor of the truce and that they want “clear and tangible” guarantees the deal will be enforced. The U.S. also expressed doubts.

“Russia is ready to send its observers” to help enforce the safe zones, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, told reporters in the Kazakh capital, Astana. “We believe the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through political methods.”

Putin said on Wednesday that he’d secured the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump for the proposal, which could include a ban on bombing raids. But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday that the U.S. has “concerns” about the accord, “including the involvement of Iran as a so-called “guarantor,”’ and said Russia should do more to stop violence.

‘Regime Compliance’

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians,” Nauert said. Referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, she added, “We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”

While Assad managed to turn the tide of war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies including Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand in the way of a political settlement. The conflict, which risks drawing Russia into a quagmire, has killed an estimated 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.

The latest initiative would establish four zones patrolled by foreign forces -- possibly including Russian ones -- in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria.

It will take a month to finalize the maps of the proposed safe zones, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari said. The United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who also attended the Astana talks, described the agreement as a “step in the right direction.”

Iranian Withdrawl

In a sign of the difficulties in making the agreement work, one Syrian opposition member shouted in protest during the signing ceremony before he and others left the room. The Syrian government’s delegation chief, Bashar Jaafari, also called on Russia and Iran to discuss implementation of the memorandum with the authorities in Damascus.

The success of the plan could lead to the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces in Syria, said Lavrentiev, in an effort to win over the rebels who demanded “a clear schedule for the departure of foreign militias” from the country.

The opposition is skeptical about the Russian initiative because of the involvement of Iran, an uncompromising backer of Assad. They want United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed and the creation of no-fly zones. Putin said a halt to bombing could happen inside the safe zones if there is no military activity taking place.

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