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Russia calls the bluff of Turkey and so-called Syrian opposition and wins

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

The joint Russian-Iranian-Turkish delegation at the Astana Peace Talks agreed to form four ‘safe zones’ also known as de-escalation zones in Syria in order to help stabilise the fragile Russian authored Syrian ceasefire agreement.

The position set out in a memorandum produced by the leaders of the Astana talks calls for the creation of special zones in  Latakia, Idlib, Hama and a portion of Aleppo Governorate, Homs Governorate, Eastern Ghouta and parts of Daraa and Quneitra in the south of Syria. These zones will be designated as areas where government troops and militants will cease from hostilities against one another.

The memorandum sets out the composition and rules to be applied within each safe zone,

“Within the borders of de-escalation zones military actions between the warring sides (the Syrian government and the formations of the armed opposition that have already joined or will join the ceasefire regime) stop, including the use of any weapons, including airstrikes”.

Russia’s chief negotiator at Astana, Alexander Lavrentyev said,

“We agreed that the de-escalation zones will be established for a period of six months with the option of automatic extension for another six months unless there will not be some circumstances and the guarantor states will take the other decision. The memorandum can be indefinite if needed”.

The memorandum follows the trajectory of the current Russian authored ceasefire insofar as it excludes the most violent terrorist groups operating in Syria from the agreement. This includes ISIS and various al-Qaeda off-shoots such as al-Nusra.

The armed militant delegations at Astana stormed out of the talks, refusing to accept the memorandum of agreement on creating safe zones.

According to one of the militant leaders, Osama Abu Zaid,

“We are against the division of Syria. As for the agreements, we are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favour [of it] as long as Iran is called a guarantor state”.

The idea that such groups would reject the proposal because Iran is one of the stated guarantors is a bit hard to take seriously as Iran is a party to the Astana Peace Talks and therefore would be a signatory of any agreement reached at the talks.

Why are these militant groups at Astana in the first place if they so object to any agreement that has the backing of Iran?

In reality, the rejection of the agreement by the militants is demonstrative of the fact that their goal is not peace but conquest. So long as the Syrian government controls even part of Syria, such groups will not be satisfied. The anti-Iranian rhetoric is simply par for the course among groups with a disturbing sectarian agenda for Syria.

Iran, as it has done throughout the conflict, took a far more moderate tone. The Iranian Foreign Ministry is quoted as saying,

“We support any initiative aimed at de-escalation of the conflict in Syria, prevention of bloodshed, destruction, leading to the fleeing of the Syrian people from their native territory. We support any step aimed at a ceasefire”.

Syria too supports the initiative. This was a crucial as Vladimir Putin stated clearly that Russia would only support such measures if they had Syrian support.

Syrian diplomat Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari responded to the memorandum saying,

“Syria supports the Russian initiative on de-escalation zones (aka safe zones)… Syria affirms continuation of the war against terrorism…. We wish that our Russian, Iranian friends will discuss details of implementation of this memorandum as soon as possible”.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also expressed support for the memorandum’s proposals.

Yesterday, standing beside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Astana was the right forum to discuss the creation of such safe zones. Putin said that so long as the zones were in line with the letter and spirit of the current ceasefire, he would have no problem agreeing to their creation.

Many felt that this was a concession to Turkey and its jihadist proxies in groups like the FSA. In reality, Putin called the bluff of both Turkey and the militants at Astana.

READ MORE: Presidents Putin and Erdogan hold joint press conference in Sochi

Turkey scored a self-serving but ultimately pyrrhic victory while the militants revealed themselves to be as extreme in their long term goals for Syria and their relationship towards the brokers of peace, as the groups excluded from the ceasefire.

Putin can now correctly say that Russia did all it could to placate both Turkey and the militants in Syria. Iran by association can say much the same. Russia also did all that it could to bring the United States to the peace table. While the militants stormed out, America did not even bother to turn up.

Putin has called the bluff of both Turkey and the militants and Putin has won big time. Geo-politics is often analogised to a chess game. If this is the case, Putin can now say ‘check mate’!

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