What seemed to be unbelievable has finally happened! A pipe dream has come true! For the first time in six years since the Syrian conflict sparked, light is seen at the end of the tunnel. In a major foreign policy breakthrough, Moscow has received major international support of its conflict management initiative. On May 4, Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed a memorandum calling for the establishment of safe zones in Syria during peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The document was signed by the heads of the delegations. The issue will top the UN-brokered Geneva talks on Syria to be resumed this month. The proposal has been endorsed by US President Donald Trump, the Syrian government in Damascus and a vast segment of the armed opposition. The Astana talks are proximity talks, with Syrian government representatives and the rebels separately meeting with Russian officials and other representatives.
It’s important to note that Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones represented the US at the Astana talks on Syria – the first time a senior US official joined the negotiation process. Prior to that, Washington had been represented by the ambassador to Kazakhstan who sat in as an observer.
It also strikes an eye that right after the Trump-Putin phone conversation focused on Syria, President Donald Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer distanced the administration from the claims by FBI director James Comey who told Congress on the same day that Russia presented «the greatest threat of any nation on Earth» to US democracy. Spicer said it was «the view of the FBI», not the administration. Also on May 3, Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia and the United States would continue their contacts on Syria at the working level. The analysis of the events helps see which way the wind blows. We witness major changes on the way to alter the Syria’s landscape.
It leads to a very important conclusion – despite all the snags on the way, Russia and US diplomats and military have been working behind the scenes to make the accord possible. This is a very positive turn of events. If Russia and America cooperate on Syria, they can do it in other areas of the relationship. The US and Turkey are NATO members. One way or another, NATO will be involved in the implementation of the safe zones concept. Russia and the alliance will join together carrying out the same mission. The past experience of join exercises and contacts will come in handy for the militaries to be involved in the effort.
The proposal foresees establishment of four «de-escalation zones» in Syria where the warring sides would be separated by «security lines». The four include areas in the provinces of Idlib and Homs, the eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus, and an area in the south of the country. The borders will be agreed on by the guarantor states till May 22. They will be patrolled by Russian, Turkish, Iranian and other militaries. The areas would be surrounded by checkpoints manned by rebels and government troops. Foreign troops could also be deployed in observer roles. Russian and Syrian government jets would halt flights over the specified zones if all sides respect the cease-fire. The zones would be monitored by international observers and allow for the voluntary return of refugees.
According to the Turkish president, if the idea of creating «safe zones is implemented, then 50 percent of the Syrian issue can be solved». The implementation of the plan requires diplomatic skills of all the parties involved, especially Russia. It is the only actor able to play the key role of an intermediary between Turkey, the Kurds and Syria’s government. Moscow is also the only party able to effectively mediate between Washington, Jordan and other American allies on one side and Damascus, Tehran and their allies on the other.
Much has been said about the hurdles on the way to any arrangement in Syria and the things that divide the pertinent actors. But there has also been experience of acting together to carry out certain missions. In December, Russia warplanes supported the offensive launched by Turkish troops to retake the Syrian town of al-Bab from Islamic State militants. In March, Russia and US troops operated in the same Syrian city of Manbij, acting as a buffer between rival Kurdish and Turkish-backed militias.
The operation endorsed by the Syrian government will be legal under international law, still nothing prevents it from getting approval from the UN Security Council. After all, all major parties involved endorse Russia’s initiative. Once the operation becomes an international effort, many more countries would join. It’ll be much easier to solve the issue of expenditure. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the members of BRICS and the CSTO (the Collective Security Treaty Organization) could contribute in one way or another to make the operation succeed.
It’s too early to assess the chances to succeed. The endeavor will not be plain sailing. Nothing is clear about what contingents will be involved and which countries besides Russia, Turkey and Iran, will participate militarily and otherwise. Clearly, the sovereignty of Syria must be guaranteed. The creation of these zones might be a temporary measure and should not substitute the broader political process. The emergence of the protected areas will not put an end to hostilities in other parts of the country. There is a bumpy road ahead. The agreement achieved is just a start but also a huge step forward. The Syria conflict’s final settlement does not appear to be hope against hope anymore. Nobody thought was possible but Russia did it.