A deal signed between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, which envisions the establishment of four safe zones in Syria, came into effect at midnight on Friday, May 5th. The agreement calls for a ceasefire of conflict, the instalment of a flight exclusion area, unhindered supply of humanitarian aid, and the return of refugees for those within these zones. The agreement will be in place for six months and will be prolonged, providing that all three countries want to. There are plans to set up a working group within two weeks to address any technical issues, with the aim to establish the four areas by June 4th. The proposed de-escalation zones could potentially provide relief for the millions of civilians currently residing in those areas.
The ban on all aircraft over the safe zones with affect the current Russian, Syrian, Turkish and the US-led coalition air forces operating in Syria. The spokesman for the Pentagon, Jeff Davis, said the deal had not “changed or altered” the US-led coalition mission in any way and it will carry on strikes against ISIS. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres claimed he was “encouraged” by the deal and that it was “crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians.” US Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, an observer in the Astana peace talks, stated that the agreement was “an important, promising, positive step in the right direction.” The Syrian government has also been supportive of the deal, but they have asserted it will continue to fight against those it considers to be terrorist groups.
The Syrian opposition and several rebel groups have criticized the deal. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represents the main Syrian opposition umbrella body, claimed the plan was “vague and illegitimate,” and they cautioned against the deal dividing the country. Rebel groups have also denounced the deal due to the involvement of Iran as guarantor. A spokesman for Jaish al-Nasr rebel group, Mohammed Rasheed, further doubted it would end Russian and Syrian strikes on rebel-held areas in the de-escalation zones and said that “it is not the first time” that such declarations have been made.
The agreement presents an encouraging step towards securing peace in the Syrian conflict. Its viability is called into question, however, as it has not been signed by the Syrian government or the opposition. This could potentially result in key actors not recognizing the de-escalation zones and continuing to provoke conflict in those areas. Concerns have also been raised by the US State Department over the inclusion of Iran as guarantor, due to its backing of Assad’s government in the conflict. Despite these reservations, with its inclusion of armed monitors, the deal presents a new dimension to peace negotiations as a more serious effort at initiating a peaceful settlement.
The most recent round of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan has been sponsored by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Russia and Iran have supported the Assad government whilst Turkey has supported the rebel opposition groups throughout the conflict. The three signatories are hoping to build on the ceasefire deal they reached in December 2016, which collapsed only after a few weeks. Such negotiations have been seen as complementary to the United Nations’ talks in Geneva, but both have yet to affect any real change in the ongoing conflict.
Following the launch of the deal, there were reports of bombings in Homs and Hama, areas which are expected to be part of the zones. This demonstrates that the deal will be tested within the next couple of weeks. It will be at least a month before the safe areas are fully established, but they represent a potentially important step in the peace negotiation process. It is uncertain how monitoring will occur and whether other foreign powers will be involved, but Putin has indicated that it would be addressed in future talks. A continued commitment to enforcement of the deal must be made clear, so that concrete lasting progress is made towards a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict.
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