Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has vowed to defend proposed Russian de-escalation zones, punish violators with the aid of Iran and Hizbullah, and reconcile with rebels seeking to lay down their weapons.
Although he said the primary goal of the zones is to protect civilians, other objectives are to give militants an opportunity to opt for amnesty and to urge them to drive from the zones Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters, which are regarded as terrorists by the international community.
Assad said he was not “tired” and would continue to fight “terrorists”: all those who take up arms against the government. Although he dismissed as “fruitless” peace talks between the government and opposition, his delegation is expected in Geneva on Tuesday for the fifth round of talks which UN mediator Staffan de Mistura has said achieved progress in earlier rounds this year.
The de-escalation zones, guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, went into effect a week ago in the northwest Idlib province, in the central Homs and Hama provinces, in the south along the Jordanian border, and east of Damascus.
Despite rejection by a dozen armed opposition groups bound by the often breached ceasefire agreed last December, violence has diminished in and around the zones. Furthermore, the jihadi alliance headed by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has, so far, failed to deliver on a threat to launch attacks from the zones against government forces.
A possible reason for the early success of de-escalation could be the May 10th White House meeting between US president Donald Trump and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Syria had been discussed without giving details.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, sponsors of both non-al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda factions, would hesitate to authorise them to act at spoilers at this time. Trump has declared support for de-escalation and is due to visit Riyadh next week where he will meet Saudi King Salman, Qatari leader Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and other Arab leaders.
Since the de-escalation process was introduced, the government has been negotiating or implementing “reconciliation” agreements with insurgents holding the remaining suburbs east of Damascus. Under these agreements, militants determined to fight the government are evacuated with side arms to al-Qaeda-held Idlib while those who surrender are given amnesty.
Firm ceasefires in the de-escalation zones and stabilisation of greater Damascus could enable the Syrian army, reinforced by Hizbullah fighters and Iranian guardsmen and given air support by Russia, to mount a long-awaited campaign to liberate Deir al-Zor from Islamic State. This is a major strategic goal for Damascus and its allies.
They insist Islamic State must be destroyed wherever it has established bases to prevent it from reviving and resuming attacks in Syria and Iraq. They do not want eastern Syria to be dominated by the US-backed, mainly Kurdish Democratic Forces engaged in expelling Islamic State from the city of Raqqa.
And, reasserting government control over the oil-producing province, its capital, and Syria’s eastern border with Iraq are essential if Assad and his allies are to achieve their declared goal of reuniting Syria.