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Many people claimed that Donald Trump’s proposals for so-called ‘safe zones’ in Syria for internally displaced people, would drive an insurmountable wedge between the US and Russia on Syria.
The idea of setting up special areas, effective ‘quarantine zones’ for the displaced, needn’t imply a no-fly zone nor the bifurcation of Syrian territory. If it did – the proposals would not only be an impossibility, but would be very dangerous if someone tried to implement them. But as it were, Trump seems not to be clutching at those dangerous straws.
Today, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that such zones could be set up in Syria so long as done with the permission of the Syrian government and so long as they can be adequately monitored and policed by the UN. In other words, they would need to conform to the requirements of international law and that includes respecting Syrian sovereignty.
Lavrov seems to understand what many in America and Russia do not. For Trump, the Syria crisis is all about how to limit the outflow of individuals from Syria into other countries whether it be Turkey, European states or the US. Russia has set up many areas in Syria to provide temporary shelter, food and medical care to internally displaced Syrians. Trump’s proposals ought to be understood as an extension of this concept.
Lavrov went on to say:
“If this is about the people who were forced to leave their homes by the conflict…getting their basic needs covered…then I think that the idea to create areas within Syria for those internally displaced could be discussed with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and other organisations.”
When understood in this context, it would mean the US would simply be doing what Russia has done almost since the inception of Russian assistance in the conflict. Lavrov was, however, careful to warn that such zones must be purely humanitarian zones rather than places used to set up an ‘alternative’/illegal Syrian government. Addressing this matter, he said:
“There have been ideas of creating some areas where an alternative Syrian government could sit, and use those areas for regime change”.
Lavrov, who has always expressed a healthy skepticism about the rapidity with which the US might begin cooperating with Russia over Syria, has struck an optimistic tone after the lengthy phone call between Presidents Putin and Trump. It is still very early to say that anything concrete has been achieved by the phone call, but in the sense that things have not got worse, it is fair to say the possibility for things to get better remains open.