Russia has announced setting up a de-escalation zone in the northern part of Homs, including the capital of the province. The area covers 84 settlements populated by more than 147,000 people. The ceasefire took effect on August 3. Russia and Syrian opposition groups had reached an agreement on the operational details at the talks in Cairo on July 31.
The Russian military police will ensure the disengagement of the opposing sides, monitor compliance with the cessation of hostilities and protect deliveries of humanitarian supplies and evacuations of those ill and injured. The Homs-Hama highway, linking Hama with Damascus, is open for traffic now.
The zone is the third to be established in Syria under a Russian-led initiative. An agreement on creating de-escalation zones in Syria was reached on May 4 at the international meeting in Astana. De-escalation zones are intended to be set up in four areas: Idlib, north of Homs, Eastern Ghouta and the country’s south. Now Idlib, which is dominated by a Syrian affiliate of al Qaida, is the only one left. Last month, Moscow announced the establishment of the first two zones in southern Syria and in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Following the results of a Russian-US summit in Hamburg on July 7, it was announced that a de-escalation zone would be created in south-western Syria – in the area of Daraa, Al-Quneitra and Al-Suweida. Located across eight of Syria’s 14 provinces, the zones do not cover the entire country and the Kurdish-controlled areas of north-eastern Syria are notably left out.
The de-escalation zones in Syria were discussed during the August 6 meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Philippine capital Manila during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum.
The process of establishing de-escalation zones is in full swing. An agreement has already been reached on the joint deployment of Russian and Turkish forces in Idlib.
The success of de-escalation zones is taking place against the background of the Shohada Al Quartyan armed opposition group leaving the ranks of US-led coalition as it prefers to fight the Syrian government rather than the Islamic State. It opted to leave the 55-km de-confliction zone surrounding At Tanf to carry out independent operations against the Syrian government. The zone had been set up by Russia and the US to prevent clashes between Syrian pro-government units and the coalition-led formations.
The group is comprised of local fighters from the surrounding Hamad Desert area and has made its contribution into the fight against the jihadists. It was the first time the US-led coalition has ended support for an opposition group in south-eastern Syria.
The coalition command has plans to bring the local forces based at At Tanf to the Middle Euphrates River valley, leaving the strategically important base, which sits in near the tri-border area of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. It may sound a bit surprising but the safe zone in this area is the only place where Russia and the United States are cooperating. It’s a fact. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces are making advances in the province of Deir ez Zor. Syrian troops and the US-led formations will have to avoid clashes. Russia can mediate to avoid the worst from happening.
So, the US is ceding its position in the southern part of Syria. True, in the north it still has under its control the roughly 90,000 strong Kurds-dominated multi-ethnic alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces, conducting the operation to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. But the American military is running the risk of losing control over it as the Turkish forces are preparing for a new operation on Syrian soil against the Kurds. Then, the US will have nothing left.
On August 5, Turkish President Erdogan said that new cross-border operations into Syria are in the works as the country is increasing its military presence along the border against threats from Kurdish militants in war-torn Syria. According to him, the situation in Syria goes beyond a war on a terror organization, alluding to Kurdish aspirations for statehood. The president’s announcement was made hours after the Turkish military reinforced its presence in the other side of the barbed wire border with Syria by deploying a six-vehicle convoy that included tanks and howitzers to the southern province of Kilis.
It is likely that the Kurds will leave Raqqa and the SDF to fight the Turkish military in case the operation President Erdogan talked about will materialize. As a result, the US will have its role in Syria greatly diminished. It may even become irrelevant against the background of Russia-led de-escalation process gaining momentum.
And even if Raqqa is captured, the question will pop up…now what? Controlling a comparatively small chunk of territory does not turn the US into an actor who calls the shots in Syria. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds will not disappear and there is no magic wand to wave it away. Support for the Kurds means that the US will always walk a thin line. If a conflict sparks, it’ll have to choose between a NATO ally and the most effective force fighting the Islamic State. America and the Kurds have a long history of cooperation. Whatever side it chooses, the other one will cry foul, accusing Washington of betrayal. This is the hardest choice one could imagine and, as one can see, the United States may face it pretty soon.
Russia is in a unique position to mediate and help. It is friendly with Turkey, the Kurds, the Syrian government, Iran, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf – all major actors involved in the conflict except the terrorists losing ground. Moscow can step in to mediate between Turkey and the Kurds. No de-escalation zones could be agreed on without it. Washington may not like it, but this is the reality of the situation - cooperation with Moscow is the best way for it to tackle the problems in Syria.
Meanwhile, with all the hard choices it faces in Syria, the United States has expanded its regional military involvement with boots on the ground in Yemen as it supports UAE forces in a «major» offensive against al-Qaeda positions in the country, the Pentagon said on August 5.
With no clearly defined objectives, the United States is rushing headlong into another fray, which by no stretch of the imagination could threaten its national security. Russians call it stepping on the same rake. Is it sane to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result?