Russia ‘very close’ to fourth Syria safe zone
ASTANA, Kazakhstan/ABOARD THE ADMIRAL ESSEN: Russia’s envoy for Syria said Thursday that an agreement was “very close” on a fourth safe zone in the country as a new round of talks began in Kazakhstan on ending the 6-year-old war.
Speaking after negotiations involving regime backers Russia and Iran as well as rebel-supporting Turkey, Alexander Lavrentyev expressed confidence that deals for zones in four parts of the country would be finalized Friday.
“We are very close to signing an agreement on all these four de-escalation zones,” he told journalists in the capital Astana.
The two-day talks are the sixth round of negotiations Moscow has spearheaded this year as it seeks to pacify Syria after its game-changing intervention on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The negotiators are looking to nail down details of a proposed “de-escalation” zone in the northern Idlib province, after Moscow ploughed on with setting up three other safe areas around the country in a move that has seen violence drop.
The talks were also attended by representatives of the Syrian government and opposition, the United Nations and observers from the United States and Jordan.
There are still major disagreements over which force will be sent to police the zone covering rebelheld Idlib – on Syria’s northern border with Turkey – as Ankara and Tehran jockey for influence.
Russia has so far deployed military police to patrol the boundaries of three zones agreed in the south, in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, and in part of the central Homs province.
Idlib is the only province in Syria that remains entirely beyond regime control after having been captured in 2015 by an alliance of Islamist militants and rebels.
On the ground, Russia’s military fired seven cruise missiles Thursday at Daesh (ISIS) targets in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor as pro-government forces closed in on the militants holed up in the provincial capital of the same name.
Journalists on a trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry watched from the deck of Russia’s Admiral Essen frigate as two submarines launched seven missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air cover, last week broke a three-year siege around the city on the Euphrates river.
Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told reporters later that intelligence showed the missiles hit the targets southeast of Deir al-Zor, destroying a command center, a communications hub, an ammunition depot and an unspecified number of Daesh fighters.
Russia has provided military backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2015. It has repeatedly fired salvoes of Kalibr missiles into Syria, from both surface warships and submarines. It has also launched cruise missiles from strategic bombers.
An Associated Press reporter on the deck of the Admiral Essen frigate saw three missiles and later four more flying into the air, leaving trails of smoke. Two submarines emerged and
were visible on the horizon shortly after.
Backed by an intense aerial campaign, Syrian and allied forces pushed their way toward the city last week, breaking a nearly 3-year-old siege on its troops on the western edge of Deir al-Zor. It was a major symbolic victory for the pro-government forces. Since then, they have been battling remnants of the militants inside the city, seizing more than 60 percent of it.
Pro-government forces were closing in Thursday on the extremists from three sides along the river, pounding al-Bogheliyah neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the city. The militants are currently encircled by Syrian troops from three sides, with their backs to the Euphrates River. However, they still control rural areas outside the city and the border with Iraq.
As Daesh reels from significant losses in Syria and Iraq, there is a race for control of the border with Iraq, currently still in the militants’ hands. U.S.-backed Syrian forces are meanwhile advancing in the surrounding province from the east and north, on the other side of the river.
Bassem Aziz, a spokesman for the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said his troops have taken control of an industrial area on the eastern bank of the river, a few miles from the government troops. Aziz said they are about 6 kilometers away from the city’s eastern entrance.
In its statement last week, the U.S.-led coalition said it will back its partners on the ground to defeat Daesh and “will do our utmost to ensure that [Daesh] terrorists do not move toward the border of our Iraqi partners.” –
Russian soldiers distribute humanitarian aid at the check-point of the de-escalation zones near Homs, Syria.