Fighting subsides in Syria’s de-escalation zones

Next stage of ceasefire deal involves determining boundaries of the four zones controlled by insurgent forces

A Syrian man rides a horse cart in a rebel-held area of Maaret al-Numan, in the country’s northern province of Idlib. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian man rides a horse cart in a rebel-held area of Maaret al-Numan, in the country’s northern province of Idlib. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

The level of violence in Syria has fallen since the “de-escalation” deal forged by Russia, Iran and Turkey came into force at midnight on Friday, despite clashes between government forces and insurgents, and bombings in several areas.

The imposition of ceasefires and the freezing of situations on the ground in four areas of intense conflict is the first step in the process of winding down the war agreed by three powers with military muscle in Syria.

The next stage involves determining the boundaries of four de-escalation zones controlled by insurgent forces: northwest Idlib and parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces; Homs; countryside east of Damascus, and the Jordan border region in the south. Some 2.7 million civilians live in these areas.

This effort is expected to be completed in June when checkpoints are to be established, the warring sides separated and monitors deployed.

Humanitarian aid

Once de-escalation zones are secure, refugees will be encouraged to return to towns and villages they fled and provided with humanitarian aid.

Russia, prime mover of the deal, and Iran are allied militarily and politically with the Syrian government, while Turkey sponsors several insurgent factions and the expatriate opposition. Damascus has accepted the de-escalation plan but insists government forces will continue to battle “terrorism”.

Saudi-sponsored armed groups and the Riyadh-based opposition High Negotiations Committee have dismissed the deal.

Russia argues the de-escalation zones will enable Damascus – which has had to fight on multiple fronts – to focus on the battle against Islamic State terror group in central Syria and to mount a major offensive against the group in the eastern Deir al-Zor province.

Political settlement

At the same time, the government and insurgent groups based in these zones could be pressed to agree to a political settlement. Russia and Iran, having invested blood and treasure in the battle for Syria, and Turkey, suffering violent spill-over from the war, are eager to see it end.

US armed forces chief Gen Joseph Dunford affirmed Washington’s support for the de-escalation effort in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Gen Valery Gerasimov.

The US also pressed the Russians to return to an agreement intended to avoid accidents between Russian and US aircraft targeting Islamic State, also known as Isis, which was suspended by Moscow after the April 7th US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air field following an apparent Syrian air force nerve gas attack in Idlib province.