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Syrian Foreign Minister Says Damascus Supports Deal Creating 'De-Escalation Zones'

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem holds a news conference in the capital, Damascus, on Monday.
Louai Beshara
AFP/Getty Images
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem holds a news conference in the capital, Damascus, on Monday.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET

Syria's foreign minister said Monday that the government supports a new Russian-backed deal to create "de-escalation zones," though it does not support the presence of international forces to enforce them.

But it remains to be seen whether this latest international effort will be any different than numerous other attempts that have thus far failed to end the six-year conflict.

Later Monday, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said he is convening a new round of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition on May 16.

This track is separate from the Russia-backed deal signed last week in Astana, Kazakhstan, though de Mistura said in a statement that he hopes the Astana agreement "will be implemented in full — thus bringing about a significant de-escalation in violence, and helping shape an environment conducive to the political intra-Syrian talks in Geneva."

The Astana agreement "foresees four de-escalation zones between rebels and pro-government forces," NPR's Alison Meuse reports from Beirut. "Regional heavyweights Iran and Turkey, which back rival sides, have also backed the deal."

It gives Russia, Iran and Turkey until June 4 to map out the boundaries of the de-escalation zones.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem "asserted that there will not be international forces under the supervision of the UN, and the Russian guarantor clarified that military police forces will be deployed, according to Syrian state media.

While his comments were not explicit, they seemed to suggest that the Syria government expects its allied Russian forces to enforce the de-escalation zones, which would initially be set up for six months.

The agreement also calls on the parties to continue fighting ISIS and groups linked to al-Qaida. "The de-escalation zones are intended to shore up a partial cessation of hostilities brokered by Russia and Turkey at the end of last year, which both sides have accused each other of violating repeatedly," the BBC reports.

"The agreement to halt air strikes on the designated rebel areas is already in forces and strikes have dropped off, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights," Alison reports. But she adds that government forces continue to consolidate their gains near the capital.

The current deal has some similarities with previous attempts that fell apart, as Alison explains:

"More than a year ago, Russia partnered with the U.S. to broker a similar truce. Dubbed a 'cessation of hostilities,' the deal was meant to end clashes between government troops and opposition factions and focus the fight on extremist groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida. It also set out to allow greater humanitarian access.

"Like the current truce attempt, that deal initially saw a drop-off in airstrikes. But with Al-Qaida present throughout many rebel-held areas, the airstrikes slowly ramped up again. Ground offensives persisted. And aid access remained subject to Syrian government permissions.

She adds that there are many unanswered questions about how the deal would work in practice:

"The current deal aims to create buffer zones between government and opposition forces, but there is little detail on who would man the checkpoints or approve who comes and goes. Damascus has vowed to continue its fight against al-Qaida, so rebel-held areas will remain vulnerable to bombing. On the other hand, localized factions could still play spoiler. It is unclear how humanitarians will find it any easier to navigate rebel-held territory, namely large lawless areas in the north."

Compared with U.N.-led efforts in Geneva, Alison says this is a "depoliticized truce attempt":

"Perhaps the most notable part of the deal is its bare bones focus on dampening hostilities. This is a far cry from Western-backed Geneva talks, which aimed for eventual political transition. The Astana track represents a depoliticized truce attempt — further acknowledgement that Assad's fate may be off the table."

The U.S. did not directly participate in the Astana negotiations last week, but sent a representative. According to The Associated Press, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis "said the U.S. owes it to the people of Syria to take a close look at the proposal for 'safe zones' in Syria. But Mattis also said the plan poses many unanswered questions, including whether it would be effective."

It's also worth noting that neither the Syrian government nor rebel forces are signatories to the agreement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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