Moscow says Syria safe-zone deal bans US-led coalition aircraft

Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to establish areas across the war-torn country where Assad’s air force would be barred from flying

Times of Israel

Russia’s representative at the Syria talks says the “de-escalation zones” will be closed to military aircraft from the US-led coalition.

Alexander Lavrentiev’s comments Friday come a day after talks in Kazakhstan where Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to establish the zones in Syria. Under the Russian plan, President Bashar Assad’s air force would halt flights over the designated areas across the war-torn country.

Lavrentiev, whose remarks were carried by Russian news agencies, said US-led coalition aircraft would be able to operate against the Islamic State group in specific areas, but the “de-escalation zones” were now closed to their flights.

Lavrentiev suggested that all military aircraft, including Russian and Turkish, are prohibited. Full details of Thursday’s agreement have not yet been released.

The agreement, which a Russian delegate said would go into effect on Saturday, is the latest attempt to reduce violence in the Arab country. But the full details of the proposal were not made available and prospects for its success appeared bleak.

As officials from the three countries — Russia, Iran and Turkey — that back rival sides in the conflict signed the agreement at Syria talks in Kazakhstan on Thursday, some members of the Syrian opposition delegation shouted in protest and walked out of the conference room in Astana, the Kazakh capital.

The opposition is protesting Iran’s participation at the conference and role as a guarantor of the agreement, accusing it of fueling the sectarian nature of the conflict that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population.

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

The walkout and the comments underline the huge difficulties of implementing such a deal. The Syrian government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

A previous cease-fire agreement signed in Astana on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have all ended in failure.

Sponsors of the deal hope that safe zones would bring relief for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians and encourage refugees to return. But officials have expressed skepticism, stressing that safe zones have not had an encouraging track record.

Asked earlier this year to comment on the idea of safe zones after it was raised by President Donald Trump, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed to tragic examples such as Srebrenica, a UN-protected enclave in the Bosnian war where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995.

However, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura described Thursday’s agreement as a “step in the right direction,” expressing hope that the deal would boost UN-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva.

De Mistura said details of the Astana agreement would become clearer in the next two weeks, adding that the United Nations was “very supportive” of the deal.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States has “reason to be cautious” about the chances for success of the deal, though it appreciates the efforts by Russia and Turkey to help lower violence in Syria. She added that US has concerns, including about Iran’s “guarantor” role in the Kazakhstan deal.

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians,” she said.

The US was represented at the talks in Kazakhstan though Nauert said it was neither a “direct participant” nor a party to the agreement.

Along with Trump, the presidents of Russia and Turkey have recently supported the idea of creating safe zones in Syria.

Meeting in the Russian resort town of Sochi on Wednesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin expressed hope the Syrian government and rebels would adopt this latest proposal to “de-escalate” the conflict.

Putin said Russian and Syrian government jets would halt flights over the specified zones if all sides respect the cease-fire.

The Kazakhstan agreement calls for delineating zones where front lines between the Syrian government forces and the rebels would be frozen and fighting halted. The zones include the provinces of Idlib, areas north of Homs, the eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus, and an area in the south of the country, according to a statement.

Turkey’s foreign ministry suggested the scope was wider and would include the whole of Idlib province; parts of Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; parts of Homs province; parts of Damascus and the East Ghouta region; and also parts of the southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

It was not clear how a cease-fire over such a broad and logistically complicated area would be achieved, or whether international observers would be sent to Syria to monitor its implementation.

The head of Russia’s delegation at the Kazakhstan talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, said the Syrian government would abide by the agreement unless rebels inside those areas stage attacks.

“As of the sixth of this month all military operations will be ceased,” the Russian official told journalists in Astana. “All Syrian flights over these areas will cease.”

Lavrentiev said Turkey, Iran and Russia have agreed on the possibility of allowing international observers in case there is “unanimity” on that issue. He spoke at a press conference shortly after delegations of the three sponsor nations signed the agreement in the presence of de Mistura.

Military operations are likely to continue against members of al-Qaida-linked group known as the Levant Liberation Committee, which is active in areas where the fours zones are meant to be.

Iran and Russia have been among the strongest backers of Assad while Turkey is a main supporter of opposition groups that have been trying to remove him from power. Turkey and Russia are deeply entangled in the war in Syria, with each country having troops on the ground there.

Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions in Astana said the zones raise “a number of questions,” adding that Moscow still has no answers on how to deal with any violations from its ally Damascus or from Iran, which has a number of fighters on the ground in Syria on the government’s side.

“If this (negotiating) table does not lead to solutions, we will return to the gun,” he said.

Separately, a Syrian monitoring group and an official with a U.S.-backed force said on Thursday that Kurdish-led fighters have captured all parts of a Tabqa, a northern town in Syria that was held by the Islamic State group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters withdrew from Tabqa and the nearby dam after reaching an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces to leave.

However, Brig. Gen. Hussam al-Awwak, an Arab spokesman for the SDF, told The Associated Press on Thursday that no such agreement was reached but that a corridor was opened for the extremists to leave the dam, which he said they still control.

SDF has been on the offensive in Tabqa since mid-April.

  1. #1 by PJ London on 05/06/2017 - 9:34

    Oops, Israel can no longer bomb indiscriminately in Syria. What a shame!
    The purpose is to completely remove all the lies about Assad using chemical weapons and bombing his own people. From now, all deaths and bombing will be America’s (and it’s allies) fault.
    America wants to put ‘Boots on the ground’ will end up with a lot of American ‘Boots’ buried in the ground.

  2. #2 by derek on 05/06/2017 - 9:34

    PJ (if this is true) i cannot see how “Israel can no longer bomb indiscriminately in Syria” the “de-escalation zones” mean Russian and Syrian government jets would halt flights over the specified zones if all sides respect the cease-fire but Israel has Launched missiles from across the borders before so what stops them doing the same here from outside the zones?
    This is how they have managed to bomb on several occasions and the only way to stop them would be to shoot them down.

    I am sure American boots are already on the ground directing the Kurds and the Jihadis – Putin knows it.

  3. #3 by O'Rourke on 05/06/2017 - 9:34

    ??? Confusing. I don’t get it; A no-fly zone for everyone??

  4. #4 by auntyuta on 05/06/2017 - 9:34

    “The head of Russia’s delegation at the Kazakhstan talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, said the Syrian government would abide by the agreement unless rebels inside those areas stage attacks.”

    Can we hope that the rebels are not going to stage any attacks?

  5. #5 by PJ London on 05/07/2017 - 9:34

    Yep, all military activity is to be halted in the zones, and the past ‘Hezbollah’ targets are now located in the zones.
    If any one attacks in the zones, regardless of motivation, then Russia-Iran-Turkey-Syria have given notice that they will respond. (You will notice that the Israel-Saudi-US proxies at the talks have thrown their toys on the floor and walked out, but the major players went ahead anyway.)
    Even if the Israelis fire missiles while standing-off over Israel there could be retaliation.
    To evade the radar, Israel was coming in over Lebanon, not directly over Golan and this way attempting to ‘muddy the waters’ over who was doing what. Now it is a prohibited airspace and everything, missile or drone or plane is fair game.
    To the best of my knowledge, Israel has not launched Ground based missiles into Syria, only air to ground attacks. A Surface based attack (from inside Israel) would move it to a whole new level.
    Israel keeps pushing the edge to see what it can get away with, it wants a retaliation whilst US is in the war. If US pulls back from the ME because ‘peace’ has broken out, then Israel has a new lot of problems.

  6. #6 by PJ London on 05/07/2017 - 9:34

    @Derek 2
    ‘I am sure American boots are already on the ground directing the Kurds and the Jihadis ‘
    Agreed, but if they are in the ‘de-escalation zones’, which is unlikely because the zones are primarily R-I-T-S and ‘moderate’ controlled areas of people at the meeting, then they would be at risk if ‘military’ actions are undertaken by them.
    Communications have been re-established, to prevent misunderstandings about who is ISIL and who are R-I-T-S troops.
    The main thing I believe, is that R-I-T-S (with China in the background) are no longer scared to go head to head. Russia would rather the fight was in Syria than in Ukraine and Iran similarly is happy to take them on in Syria rather than Yemen or Iran itself.
    By being on the Israeli border, it means that if an attack was made on Tel Aviv, Israel would get 5 mins warning rather than 45 minutes. 10,000 missiles in easy range of Israel ‘might’ keep the US from being d*heads.

  7. #7 by scj on 05/08/2017 - 9:34

    Why are we trusting Turkey, all of a sudden?

  8. #8 by Alan Scott on 05/09/2017 - 9:34

    “safe zones have not had an encouraging track record”… The US “appreciates the efforts by Russia and Turkey to help lower violence in Syria”.
    Maybe if America minded its own business in its own backyard, the rest of the world could get on with doing the same.

  9. #9 by stlonginus on 05/09/2017 - 9:34

    U.N. Secy-General Gutteres mentioned, “Srebrenica, a UN-protected enclave in the Bosnian war where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995.” Things to come?

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