Russia Establishes ‘De-Escalation Zones’ In Syria. Will They Work?

Russia, Iran, and Turkey have reached an agreement to set up four “de-escalation zones” in Syria. The deal prevents the use of weapons in these four areas, including use of the Syrian government’s air force. The deal also allows for “unhindered” humanitarian access and the free flow of refugees.

Although the Syrian government supports the deal, they have said that they will continue to fight “extremists” in the four designated zones. To the Syrian government, an “extremist” essentially includes any armed rebel group fighting Assad. The Syrian government’s intentions were worked into the deal. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and rebel groups who didn’t sign on to the agreement are exempt from the ceasefire.

Reuters claims that some rebel groups “have rejected the deal and said they would not recognize Iran as a guarantor of any ceasefire plan.” In fact, much of the Syrian opposition walked out of the conference in Astana. They’re concerned about Iran’s place in the peace talks. Iran has a history of fueling sectarian conflicts that have killed some 400,000 people in the region.

“Iran is a country that is killing the Syrian people and the killer cannot be the rescuer,” said a rebel commander who attended the conference in Astana.

In fact, the rebel groups that did sign on to the agreement are required to distance themselves from terrorist groups. Jennifer Williams of Vox claims that this agreement could be part of Russia and Assad’s strategy to divide the opposition. According to Williams, the Assad regime is effectively threatening to continue bombing moderate rebel groups unless they start fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.

“It’s kind of the same tactics that the Russian military were running about 10 years or more in Chechnya,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a reporter for a Russian newspaper, told the BBC. “To split the resistance, to single out the ones who are going to collaborate, and then use them to fight the bad guys, the die-hards.”

There is a high possibility that this agreement won’t work. It rests on the assumption that the Syrian opposition will actually redirect their focus towards ISIS and al-Qaeda. Unless they do so, this agreement will probably join the rest of the failed ceasefire agreements in the trash heap.

So, will the rebels do the Syrian government’s bidding? Some will, but most of the focus of rebel groups is defeating the Assad Regime. That’s been their focus since 2011 and it is the reason why the Syrian Civil War started. The emergence of ISIS is certainly on the rebel’s radar, but defeating the Assad Regime is still their priority. Though it is unlikely that the rebels will stop fighting the Assad Regime, it’s possible and only time will tell. The Assad Regime has gained ground recently, which might entice the rebels to redirect their focus for the time being. But then again, why would the rebels give Assad time to consolidate his power even further?

Many are skeptical about this deal, but U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura maintains that the agreement is a “step in the right direction.” If anything, it shows a willingness by Russia, Assad and Iran to actually fight ISIS, instead of the rebels. However, critics will still somewhat rightfully argue that the agreement empowers the Assad Regime.

If the rebels could even temporarily pause their opposition to Assad to allow for humanitarian inflows into the four designated areas, then the agreement may just work.