Rus­sia ‘very close’ to fourth Syria safe zone

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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