As of this writing, the US-led coalition aircraft don’t cross the line set by the Russian military to avoid being tracked with missile systems and military aircraft as potential targets. This is the first time since Russia’s troops were deployed in Pristina in 1999 when the US military has to step back under Russian military pressure. Russia’s warning made Australia suspend its participation in the operation. Its aircraft are based at Turkish Incirlik air base and cannot avoid flying over the airspace controlled by Russian air defense systems and aviation.
On June 18, the US-led coalition conducted 15 strikes consisting of 20 engagements against Islamic State targets near Abu Kamal in the vicinity of Iraq’s border, Deir ez-Zor in the northeastern part of the country, and Raqqa in the north. But the next day all 13 air strikes were delivered in the area around Raqqa only. Formally, the coalition confirms its right to strike everywhere in Syria but it doesn’t.
Actually, the military influence zones in Syria appear to be established. The question is: will they become the zones of political influence?
The southern part of Syria near Jordan’s border is controlled by Sunni Arab formations trained by Jordan and supported by the United States. They have been recently reinforced with the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Other political influence zones are also in place. The Northern Syria Security Belt is held by Turkish forces. Syria’s north-west is controlled by the Damascus-based government supported by Russia and Iran. The province of Raqqa and parts of Der ez-Zor are under the control of US-supported Kurds-Arabs SDF alliance. The Tabqa airbase, 45 km west of Raqqa, has become a US bastion located on the Kurds-controlled territory. It has been reported recently that the US and the Kurds had signed a military cooperation agreement. Golan Heights Druze Arabs seek Israel’s friendship to survive.
On May 4, Russia, Turkey and Iran signed a memorandum on the establishment of four de-escalation zones, including the northwestern Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces, the north of the central Homs province, eastern Ghouta near Damascus and certain parts in the country's southern Deraa and Quneitra provinces. The agreement envisages cessation of hostilities between the Syrian government forces and militants. In early May, the creation of de-escalation zones as a way to manage Syria’s conflict was proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia.
Some chunks of land may be disputed as the Islamic State (IS) retreats and leaves the territories it had occupied. With the IS losing ground, a chance of an accident to provoke a conflict between the actors involved in Syria has grown exponentially. If it happens, the extremists will benefit greatly.
With tensions running high, there is rivalry and contradictions of interests. But there is also a silver lining in every cloud. None of the actors has stated Syria’s partition as its goal. The zones under control are not state entities.
A fresh round of UN-brokered talks on Syria will begin on July 10. The creation of de-escalation zones will top the agenda. The last Geneva talks ended on May 19 after four days without making any real progress.
The Russian and Kazakh foreign ministries said on June 19 that talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss these zones would take place in the Kazakh city of Astana on July 4-5. A new round of Astana talks had been scheduled for June but was postponed as key players had to define more clearly their positions on practical steps to create safe zones agreed for Syria in May. Setting up the zones is the best option to move forward together away from the abyss of military conflict.
If there is a will, there is a way, they say. It has been reported that Russia and the United States have held secret talks about the zones in Syria. They now have a chance to discuss the situation at sideline talks during the upcoming forums. True, a grand bargain may be off the table in view of the attacks launched against President Trump in the United States and against the background of the anti-Russia bill being pushed through Congress. But a set of compromises reached at the upcoming forums will be a feather in Trump’s hat, allowing to keep the United States from stumbling into an undesired clash with Russia, Iran, or Syria.
This is a chance to dissipate the mounting tensions and boost the US president’s popularity. Congressmen and the people will certainly appreciate it. The administration needs to thinks long and hard about possible arrangements that could be reached. After all, the US Defense Department says the goals the US and Russia pursue in Syria are not confronting. «The coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria», the recent Pentagon statement said. «The coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat».
There never was a good war or a bad peace. With the IS losing ground, the temptation is great to rush in and grab it. It is a matter of crucial importance to avoid confrontation spiralling out of control in the days still left till the peace talks kick off. Give peace a chance!