Publication of the Memorandum setting up the ‘de-escalation areas’ signed by the representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran at the Astana conference, together with certain comments about them by representatives of the Russian and Syrian governments, have clarified their intended purpose.
It is now clear that the ‘de-escalation areas’ have nothing in common with the ‘safe havens’ constantly advocated by various people in the West – including at different times by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – and by the Jihadi themselves, and by Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan’s attempt at the joint press conference with Putin to pretend that they were was misleading in the extreme and plain wrong.
Nor is it correct to suppose (as I did) that the Russian proposal to set up the ‘de-escalation areas’ was prompted by Donald Trump’s recently re-discovered enthusiasm for ‘safe havens’. On the contrary it is clear that the Russians have been working on this proposal for some time, almost certainly from before the alleged Khan Sheikhoun attack and the US missile strike on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base.
It is now also clear that the ‘de-escalation areas’ are envisaged by the Russians as a mechanism to achieve two objectives that they set themselves from the moment they first intervened in Syria in the autumn of 2015, and which were the subject of repeated failed negotiations between the Russians and US Secretary of State John Kerry over the course of 2016. These objectives are
(1) the separation of what the Russians construe as ‘legitimate’ rebel groups from Al-Qaeda and ISIS; and
(2) a ceasefire between these groups and the Syrian Arab Army – and their eventual disarmament – so that the full force of the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian air force can be concentrated against the main terrorist enemies: Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
There is already supposed to be a Russian-Turkish backed ceasefire in existence in Syria, which is backed by a Resolution of the UN Security Council. That ceasefire has however been only sporadically honoured, with the Turkish backed Jihadi groups who have supposedly joined the ceasefire repeatedly joining Al-Qaeda in attacks on the Syrian army.
What the ‘de-escalation zones’ are intended to do is build on this ceasefire by concentrating these groups in four designated areas in (Idlib province, parts of Homs province, eastern Ghouta near Damascus and in an area in southern Syria), and compel them there to cease all military activity, whilst surrounding them there with a network of observation posts and checkpoints in what is being called a ‘security zone’, which will control entry and exit from these areas, in order to ensure that that is what they actually do.
The key provision of the memorandum is the one which sets up these ‘security zones’
4. The security zones shall include
Checkpoints to ensure unhindered movement of unarmed civilians and delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as facilitate economic activities;
Observation posts to ensure compliance with the provisions of the ceasefire regime;
The functioning of the checkpoints and observation posts as well as the administration of the security zones shall be ensured by the forces of the Guarantors by consensus. Third parties might be deployed, if necessary, by consensus of the Guarantors.
(bold italics added)
In other words the three Guarantor Powers – Russia, Iran and Turkey – will directly supervise the administration of the ‘security zones’ – which will encircle the ‘de-escalation zones’ – and the ceasefire between the Syrian Arab Army and those Jihadi groups who have joined it. They will have forces present on the ground to do this, though they may in theory seek help with additional forces from other countries. Those ‘third party’ troops can however only come from those states which are acceptable to all three Guarantor Powers. That in effect excludes these troops coming from the US, NATO, or the Gulf Arab states, since that would be unacceptable to Iran.
Unofficially it seems that the ‘third parties’ that are being talked about are Egypt and Algeria (both allies of the Syrian government) and possibly Pakistan.
A commentary on the memorandum published by Syria’s official news agency SANA suggests that the Syrian Arab Army will also have a role in policing the ‘security zones’ and in manning the check points
It added that the de-escalation areas will include checkpoints to ensure the free movement of unarmed civilians and the delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as economic activities and monitoring posts to ensure the implementation of the provisions of the cessation of hostilities regime.
The document noted that the representatives of the Syrian Arab Army and the armed opposition groups, which have joined the cessation of hostilities agreement, will carry out their tasks at checkpoints and monitoring posts.
(bold italics added)
This provision does not appear in the text of the memorandum which has been published. It may however appear in a separate document. If this is correct then the Syrian Arab Army by agreement of all three of the Guarantor powers will be reintroduced into areas currently under Jihadi control in order to help police the ceasefire there. Supposedly it will do so alongside “representatives of the armed opposition groups”. Whether that is actually possible remains to be seen.
An essential point to understand about the ‘de-escalation areas’ is that they do not envisage the complete cessation of military activities inside them. It it is only the Syrian Arab Army and the Jihad groups which have joined the ceasefire which must cease fighting each other within the ‘de-escalation areas’. This is made clear by the following provision in the memorandum
2. Within the lines of the de-escalation areas:
hostilities between the conflicting parties (the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the armed opposition groups that have joined and will join the ceasefire regime) with the use of any kinds of weapons, including aerial weapons, shall be ceased
(bold italics added)
By contrast military operations will continue against any Al-Qaeda and ISIS forces within the ‘de-escalation areas’
5. The Guarantors shall:
take all necessary measures to continue the fight against DAESH/ISIL, Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups,undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL as designated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas
(bold italics added)
Al-Qaeda and ISIS (especially Al-Qaeda) are heavily embedded in all four ‘de-escalation areas’. What the memorandum requires is that the Jihadi groups in these areas stand down, separate themselves from Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and cease interfering in the military operations in these areas of the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian air force against Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
In order to ensure this happens ‘security zones’ controlled in theory by the three Guarantor Powers but ultimately – since it is much the strongest power of the three – by Russia, will be set up to observe and police the areas in order to make sure that the Jihadi groups observe the ceasefire and do not interfere in the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Moreover in order to tighten control of these areas, entry and exit from them – including for humanitarian assistance and economic aid, which Al-Qaeda and ISIS have manipulated in the past to their advantage – will be controlled by the setting up of a network of observation posts and checkpoints manned by troops from a variety of sources (the Syrian Arab Army, those Jihadi groups participating in the ceasefire, and various friendly states) but which will again be ultimately controlled by Russia.
Needless to say these checkpoints are also intended to obstruct the movements of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists within the ‘de-escalation areas’ and to prevent them either escaping from or reinforcing themselves in these areas.
The ‘de-escalation zones’ are not therefore by any stretch of the imagination ‘safe havens’. Nor are they really ‘de-escalation areas’. Rather they are a device to isolate and break up the terrorist concentrations of Al-Qaeda and ISIS within these areas in order to destroy them there.
It remains to be seen whether this plan will ever be put into effect. However if it is then it is the end of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
The four ‘de-escalation areas’ cover precisely those areas of Syria where Al-Qaeda is strongest, and where it has concentrated most of its forces. If the plan is ever implemented they will be surrounded and divided from each other, making it possible for the Syrian army and the Russians to destroy them piecemeal.
Al-Qaeda has proved exceptionally skilled up to now at thwarting all previous Russian attempts to isolate it in Syria. This is however the most ambitious and thought-through Russian plan to do it to date. Moreover it seems Turkey (historically Al-Qaeda’s primary backer in Syria) is going along with it. Much will depend on whether Turkey continues to do so. If it does then it is likely this plan will succeed.
As for ISIS, though it has a significant presence in all four ‘de-escalation areas’, its primary base areas lie outside them. Even if the ‘de-escalation areas’ are thoroughly cleansed of Jihadi terrorists, ISIS can in theory continue to survive in its strongholds in eastern Syria, in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. It will however be severely weakened and isolated, and as pressure on its strongholds mounts, its destruction will be just a matter of time.
It is because the ‘de-escalation area’ plan – if it is ever implemented – spells the doom of Al-Qaeda in Syria that the Jihadi groups represented in Astana opposed it so strenuously.
Al-Qaeda is by far the strongest Jihadi group in western Syria, and makes up the backbone of what is euphemistically called ‘the armed opposition’. If Al-Qaeda in Syria is destroyed, then the Jihadis’ war against the Syrian government will have ended in defeat. The Jihadi leaders know this, which is why the voiced such strong objection to the plan in Astana. Their objections were however brushed aside, with Turkey – their biggest backer – signing up to the plan.
For the same reason the plan has been strongly welcome in Tehran and Damascus. If it is ever implemented it represents for them victory in the war.
It remains to be seen whether the plan ever will be implemented. The person on whom that depends is President Erdogan. He has proved throughout the Syrian war to be a treacherous and unreliable partner. However the fact that he has signed up to the plan – even if he seeks to misrepresent it – suggests that he too now finally realises that the Jihadis’ war in Syria is lost, and that it is in Turkey’s interests that it be brought to a close.
If that is indeed the case then it is justifiable to talk of the endgame being reached in Syria, with the prospect of the Syrian war being finally brought to an end.