Rus­sia, Iran, Turkey strike deal to po­lice Idlib ‘safe zone’ in Syria

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION -

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.

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