Russia, Iran, Turkey strike deal to police Idlib ‘safe zone’ in Syria
ASTANA/BEIRUT: Russia, Iran and Turkey struck a deal Friday to jointly police a fourth “safe zone” around Syria’s Idlib province as part of a Moscow-led plan to ease the six-year conflict in the country.
In a joint statement after two days of talks in Kazakhstan, the three powers said they agreed “to allocate” their forces to patrol the zone covering rebel-held Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions.
The talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital, are the sixth round of negotiations Moscow has spearheaded since the start of the year as it seeks to pacify Syria after its game-changing intervention on the side of leader Bashar Assad.
Regime backers Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey agreed in May to set four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory around Syria to halt fighting between the government and moderate opposition.
Since then Russia has forged ahead with establishing three of the zones by deploying military police to patrol the boundaries of safe areas in the south of Syria, in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, and in part of the central Homs province.
However, the three powers had struggled to agree the details of the final zone around Idlib on the border with Turkey, as Ankara and Tehran vied to expand their influence.
Idlib was captured in 2015 by an alliance of Islamist militants and rebels and remains beyond the control of the government.
The statement Friday said Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces would be deployed according to maps agreed earlier this month in Ankara, the Turkish capital, but gave no further details of their exact positions or the timing.
A joint Russia-Turkish-Iranian coordination center will be set up “aimed at coordinating the activities of de-escalation forces,” the joint declaration said.
Russia’s chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev hailed the deal as the “final stage” in the creation of the four safe zones, insisting it would “create a real path to the cessation of bloodshed” and offer hope for “a return to peaceful life.”
Nevertheless, Lavrentyev, acknowledged there remains a “long journey ahead to strengthen trust” between Assad’s government and the armed opposition, both of whom sent delegations to the negotiations.
A statement on its Facebook page said that the armed opposition noted no “monitoring mechanism” had been agreed for the new zone in Idlib.
“Assad’s forces or militias will not be present in any area or part of the de-escalation zones and will not have a role in our liberated zones,” the statement said.
On the ground the “de-escalation zones” have already seen fighting drop and allowed Damascus and Moscow to turn more of their firepower against Daesh (ISIS) militants.
The participants agreed to a fresh round of talks in Astana in October.
The United Nations envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called to “bring the momentum of Astana” to broader talks on finding a political solution to the war that the U.N. has hosted without much success in Geneva.
Some observers have viewed the Astana process as a means for Russia, Iran and Turkey to keep the West on the sidelines of any resolution to the Syrian conflict, which has already led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.
The deal comes as Syrian government forces pressed their offensive in the province of Hama Friday in an attack aimed at clearing central Syria of Daesh militants, opposition activists and state media said.
Troops have been on the offensive against Daesh for weeks under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
In August, troops were able to besiege a wide area controlled by the militants that has been shrinking ever since.
One of the main battles has been taking place near the central town of Okeirbat, which government forces captured in mid-August.
Earlier this month, Daesh fighters regained control of the town only to lose it again Thursday after a crushing attack that involved intense airstrikes, according to the Britainbased Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group.
Okeirbat was the largest town Daesh held in the central province of Hama. The area is important because it is close to villages loyal to Assad and earlier this week the militants shelled the government stronghold of Salamiya that is home to members of the minority Ismaili sect, a branch of Shiite Islam.
By losing the central region, Daesh will be mostly left in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor as well as in a third of the northern city of Raqqa, once the group’s de facto capital.
The Observatory said Friday that more than two weeks of fighting has left hundreds dead on both sides.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media reported the clashes, saying that Daesh positions are being targeted with artillery and rockets.
In eastern Syria, government forces captured the Al-Bogheliyah neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the city of Deir al-Zor, according to the SCMM. The capture of Al-Bogheliyah came a week after government forces broke a nearly three-year siege by Daesh on a government-controlled part of the city and a nearby air base.
Mohammad Ibrahim Samra, governor of Deir al-Zor province, said the city has been completely liberated from Daesh. The Syrian army took the key heights around the area, he said.
But despite Samra’s comments, opposition activists say that the militants still control almost 35 percent of the city.
Daesh positions are 5 kilometers from the city, the governor said. He added that basic services have been restored and a hospital reopened.
The parties reached agreement after two days of talks in Astana.