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Russia’s ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria: a serious proposal, a diplomatic ploy or a trap?

epa05290100 Russian soldiers march during a rehearsal of Victory Day parade, in which they will take part with a Syrian unit at Hmeimym airbase in Latakia province, Syria, 04 May 2016. Victory Day will be held on 09 May 2016 to mark the 71st anniversary since the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. Hmeimym airbase serves as the base of operation for the Russian air force in Syria. The United States and Russia have agreed to extend the cease-fire in Syria to the city of Aleppo, the US State Department reported on 04 May. EPA/SERGEI CHIRIKOV

Russian President Vladimir Putin rounded off three days of non-stop diplomacy with a telephone conversation with US President Trump and a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan.  This came directly after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Putin obviously discussed the Syrian conflict with all three.  Moreover it is known that over the course of the same discussions Putin mooted with all three of them – but especially with Trump and Erdogan – a new Russian proposal for something the Russians are calling ‘de-escalation zones’.

That this is so was confirmed during the joint news conference Putin and Erdogan gave after their meeting.  Here is what the two of them had to say about this proposal

Question(retranslated): I have a question about resolving the Syrian crisis and creating safe zones in Syria. Did the two leaders discuss this issue and, if so, did they reach an agreement?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: There is a new initiative in this regard. As you may be aware, from the very outset, I have been using the term ”safe zone“. I will continue to use it. However, a new term – ”de-escalation zone“ – has gained currency recently. As you may be aware, refugees from Aleppo have found shelter in the province of Idlib. Unfortunately, problems occasionally emerge in Idlib. A ”green zone“, that is, a ”de-escalation zone“ has been created there. We hope that the de-escalation zone will be preserved.

This is critical for the Astana process. I hope that the decision on the de-escalation zone will be adopted and acted upon to further resolve this issue.

Vladimir Putin: The President and I operate on the premise – I already mentioned this – that the Syrian crisis can be resolved exclusively by political means. However, to set this political process in motion it is necessary to ensure a ceasefire. As the countries that made the greatest contribution to this formula and the practical side of ending hostilities, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have never stopped thinking about ways to bolster the ceasefire.

One way to do so is to create safe zones, or de-escalation zones, as the President just said. We have heard the US President mention de-escalation zones as well. Yesterday, I discussed this issue on the phone with Mr Trump. As far as I understand, the US administration is supportive of these ideas. Earlier, Russia held consultations with Damascus and Tehran, and we believe that we need to work toward creating mechanisms that would guarantee an end to the bloodshed and create conditions for starting a political dialogue. In this sense, I am on the same page with the President of Turkey. We proceed from the premise that the participants in the conflict who gathered in Astana today will make the final decision, because, ultimately, the future of their country depends on them. As guarantors of the ceasefire, Turkey, Iran, and Russia will do their best to ensure that these mechanisms get better and are effective. We will support this proposal.

This is all extremely vague, and does not provide any clear explanation of what these so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be about or what they will consist of.  However it seems from these words that Erdogan, Trump and the Syrian and Iranian leadership are all to a greater or lesser degree supportive of this proposal, which given their differences on so many other issues is an extraordinary fact in itself.

A few days ago Al-Masdar, which has reliable sources within the Syrian government, published an interesting article about how the Russians are supposedly planning to establish four zones in Syria, which are presumably the proposed ‘de-escalation zones’.  The article reads as follows

Russia proposed the creation of four zones in Syria as part of a wider plan to de-escalate the tension in the war-torn country.

The proposed zones will have safety lines along them and monitoring centers in order to avoid direct fire among the warring parties, as well as granting safe access to unarmed civilians and aid convoys.

The Russian proposal also involves the possibility of the three guarantor states (Russia, Iran and Turley) to form a working group and send troops in order to enhance the application of the proposal.

Putting this article with what Putin and Erdogan said together, it seems that what the Russians are proposing is that the Syrian authorities and the various Turkish backed Jihadi groups which are supposed to be participating in the Russian-Turkish sponsored ceasefire and in the Astana process agree between them certain zones (the Russians have apparently proposed four such zones) which are to be completely demilitarised and to which civilians can escape in order to avoid the fighting.

Putin was quite clear that the setting up of these ‘de-escalation’ zones and their boundaries had to be agreed by the Syrian government and by the Turkish backed Jihadis as part of the Astana peace process.

We proceed from the premise that the participants in the conflict who gathered in Astana today will make the final decision, because, ultimately, the future of their country depends on them

However it seems that once the boundaries are agreed the three guarantor powers – Iran, Turkey and Russia – will take steps to secure them.   Here is what Putin had to say about that

As guarantors of the ceasefire, Turkey, Iran, and Russia will do their best to ensure that these mechanisms get better and are effective

What this means in practice is unclear.  The Al-Masdar article speaks of the setting up of a ‘working group’ and of troops being sent ‘in order to enhance the application of the proposal’.  That suggests peacekeepers being sent to police the zones.

The question of whose troops those would be is the key one.

The Syrians would be deeply unhappy if Turkish troops were introduced into Syria in order to police the zones, since this would legitimise the presence of Turkish troops in Syria, which up to now has been illegal.  Given how the Syrians feel about Turkey – which has been their most relentless enemy – they would be bound to object strenuously to any proposal which legitimised the presence of Turkish troops in their country.  The Russians in light of their own difficulties with Turkey might be reluctant to pressure the Syrians to agree to it.

The US, the Israelis and the Saudis for their part would however undoubtedly strongly object to the introduction of Iranian troops into Syria for such a purpose.  All three of these countries have spoken of their determination to end any Iranian presence in Syria.  They would certainly not agree to Iranian troops entering the country to police ‘de-escalation zones’.  The Turkish backed Jihadis would be bound to object strenuously also.

That might well mean that the bulk of the troops would have to come from Russia.  A short time ago rumours circulated in the Middle East media that the Russians were considering sending ground troops to Syria.  If so then that might be as part of this proposal rather than in the active combat role the rumours claim.  Presumably if an agreement were reached it would be backed by a Resolution of the UN Security Council authorising Russia, probably with the help of troops from some other powers, to send troops to Syria to police the zones.

Any suggestion that Russian ground troops be sent to Syria, even following an international agreement and with the authority of the UN Security Council, would still however be hugely controversial in Russia.  It is far from certain the Russian government is considering it.  So far there is no confirmation of it.

Whilst the form and purpose of the proposed ‘de-escalation zones’ is still unclear, the reason for Russia proposing them is not.  They give every impression of being a Russian response to President Trump’s revived talk since the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack of ‘safe havens’.

The difference between ‘safe havens’ and ‘de-escalation zones’ is that ‘safe havens’ are supposed to be set up by the US and Turkey unilaterally, whilst ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be agreed by the Syrian government as part of the ceasefire talks underway in Astana.  Moreover the Russians would have a role in monitoring and perhaps administering the ‘de-escalation zones, whilst they would have no such role in guarding the ‘safe havens’.  Setting up the ‘safe havens’ would amount to a US-Turkish invasion of Syria, which would dramatically worsen the crisis there.  “De-escalation zones’, in theory at least, would not.

From the Russian point of view (and possibly that of Damascus and Tehran) ‘de-escalation zones’ would also have the further advantage that their form and boundaries – unlike those of the ‘safe havens’ – would be agreed, at least in theory, by the Syrian government in Damascus, bringing them within the legal jurisdiction of the Syrian state.

That the ‘de-escalation zones’ are different, or are supposed to be different, from the ‘safe havens’ was implicitly admitted by President Erdogan during his joint news conference with Putin

There is a new initiative in this regard. As you may be aware, from the very outset, I have been using the term ”safe zone“. I will continue to use it. However, a new term – ”de-escalation zone“ – has gained currency recently

President Erdogan’s words however also point to the problem: even if the ‘de-escalation zones’ are supposed to be different from the ‘safe havens’, in practice they may amount to the same thing.

Ever since the Russian-Turkish ceasefire was agreed fighting has continued in Syria largely unabated, with the Turkish backed Jihadi groups which supposedly signed up to the ceasefire regularly joining Al-Qaeda in attacks against the Syrian army.  Some of these groups were for example involved in the recent offensives in northern Hama and in Damascus.

These same Jihadi groups have also repeatedly staged walk outs from the Astana talks, and they have just done so again.

Given this record there has to be a serious possibility that if ‘de-escalation zones’ are ever set up these same Jihadi groups will try to take them over and convert them into base areas from which to attack the Syrian army.  That after all is precisely what they intended that the ‘safe havens’ would be.  Needless to say in trying to do this the Jihadis would have the support of the US and the Turks, who would then have a pretext to come to the defence of the Jihadis in the ‘de-escalation zones’ if the Syrian army sought to attack them there.

The Russians and the Syrians will of course do everything they can to prevent this situation from arising.  However it is easy to see how setting up ‘de-escalation zones’ could go horribly wrong, and -more to the point – how, precisely because the Jihadi groups might try to convert the ‘de-escalation zones’ into base areas whilst the Russians and the Syrians would try to prevent them from doing so, the whole process of setting up the ‘de-escalation zones’ might become bogged down in furious argument.

Which however raises another possibility, which is that like the Russian draft for a ‘Syrian constitution’ about which so much was heard a few weeks ago, but which has since vanished without trace, this Russian proposal to set up ‘de-escalation zones’ may not be intended seriously and may be nothing more than a diplomatic stratagem.

From the Russian point of view the priority in Syria at the moment must be to prevent the various parties – the Syrians, the Turks, the US and the Kurds – from getting drawn into an all-out war with each other.  Donald Trump’s recent re-floating of the idea of ‘safe havens’ has however seriously increased that possibility. Proposing ‘de-escalation zones’ might be the Russians’ way of getting Trump off the hook – which may be why he has apparently welcomed this proposal so enthusiastically – whilst giving the parties a topic they can talk about and argue over instead of fight each other.  Meanwhile the Syrian army would be left alone to carry on the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS unhindered.

In that case even if actual agreement on the ‘de-escalation zones’ is never reached, floating the proposal would have served its purpose.

As I said before during my discussion of the Russian draft for a Syrian constitution, these sort of stratagems were once a commonplace of diplomacy, though they scarcely ever happen today because the US and the Western powers never use them.  The Russians however have retained a gift for them, and it may be that this whole nebulous idea of ‘de-escalation zones’ is just another example.

Whether that is so or not, and whether the proposal for ‘de-escalation zones’ is intended seriously or is in fact simply a stratagem, is something which the next few weeks should make clear. One way or the other however this proposal repays careful watching.

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