Author: Seth J. Frantzman
Posted on May 7, 2017
On Thursday, Iran, Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum on the creation of “de-escalation” zones in Syria. The agreement represents a new phase in the six-year-old Syrian civil war. If the agreement and the cease-fires it envisions hold up, it represents a de facto partition of the country into various zones of influence and a recognition that neither side, the regime or the rebels, can win this conflict at the present time.
The text of the agreement says it is to allow for an improvement of the humanitarian situation and to “create favorable conditions to advance a political settlement of the conflict.” In the zones mapped out under the agreement, the use of weapons, including “aerial assets, shall be ceased.”
The agreement was not signed by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, which is interesting, rather it says that Iran, Turkey and Russia will be the guarantors of the agreement. That quietly shifts the conflict from one between the regime and the opposition rebel groups, to one between powerful foreign nations that have sent their armed forces or proxies into the country.
In Russia’s case this is the Russian Air Force and Special Forces. Turkey has carved out an area of influence between Jarabulus and Kilis in northern Syria as well as supporting certain rebel groups such as Faylaq al-Sham (the Sham Legion, also known as the Homs Legion). Iran has sent its Revolutionary Guards to Syria along with supporting Hezbollah’s intervention and the recruitment of Shia volunteers such as the Afghans who serve in the Fatemiyoun Division.
The agreement says that the three signatory powers will prepare maps of the zones and that they will “separate the armed opposition groups from the terrorist groups.” This clause has existed in previous cease-fire agreements but has been difficult for the Syrian rebel groups to adhere to because the “terrorist groups” often referenced refer not only to Islamic State but also to Al-Qaida in Syria which is known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or the Nusra Front.
In the patchwork mosaic of groups that makes up some rebel areas, the presence of Nusra has allowed the Russians and the regime to continue bombing under the pretext of “fighting terror” even after cease-fires are created. Similarly, rebel groups and groups such as Nusra may exploit cease-fires to infiltrate terrorists into regime-controlled areas.
The agreement maps out four de-escalation areas. The largest is in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. The zone is about the size of half of Israel or the size of the whole state of Connecticut.
This is what is left of the rebel heartland that once stretched to Aleppo and beyond. Another area north of the city of Homs, is a smaller pocket of rebels. An even smaller enclave known as eastern Ghouta is located next to Damascus. In southern Syria along the border with Israel and Jordan, an area in Deraa and Quneitra provinces is also included in the agreement.
The inclusion of Quneitra, which borders the Golan, is of particular interest to Israel. For almost two years there has been a series of cease-fires and relative quiet along this front. But the regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies have wanted to push the rebels away from the Israeli border. Prior to the agreement this posed a threat to Jerusalem because it meant the Lebanese group and Tehran could threaten Israel on a new front.
Up to now, this has been prevented by Syrian rebels in Quneitra who have fought against these common enemies. Thousands of Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals, coming from this rebel-held area. The rebels have kept the border relatively quiet and this is of essential importance for Israel. The de-escalation agreement could be welcomed in Jerusalem but its barring “aerial assets” in theory warns off Israel against any strikes in Syria.
The Syrian opposition has criticized the agreement as vague, yet another attempt to reinforce the regime’s power. The fact that two of the three signatories to the agreement support Assad, suggests that [this is] the case. The rebels were so angry at the inclusion of Iran as a signatory, [that] they walked out of the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, where the agreement was signed.
The United States was not a direct participant in the negotiations for the agreement and the State Department warned that Iran’s role in Syria has “perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”
The reality is that the agreement shows the degree to which Russia has outmaneuvered the US and others and is dictating terms in Syria. After the agreement was signed, reports claimed that Russia would attempt to bar US-led coalition aircraft from the de-escalation zones.
This sends a clear message to Washington that while the Americans are setting down roots in northeast Syria with the Kurdish YPG, the US role is not recognized by Turkey, Iran or Russia. It is no surprise that the de-escalation agreement doesn’t mention northeast Syria, even though that area is de facto a safe zone already under US protection. It remains to be seen if Thursday’s agreement is the beginning of a map for a kind of partition of Syria or just breathing space before the next round of war.