During the latest round of talks on Syrian settlement held in Astana on May 3-4, 2017, Iran, Russia and Turkey, the Syrian ceasefire guarantor states, signed a Memorandum on the creation of four zones of de-escalation of tensions in Syria aimed to stop violence, provide the conditions for the safe, voluntary return of refugees and allow immediate delivery of humanitarian aid. The signing of the Astana Memorandum has provoked resonance among the international community triggering an intense debate over its possible effectiveness and feasibility. In fact, there is a great deal of concerns on the issues of both the practical implementation of the memorandum and possible geopolitical consequences that may take place as a result of putting it into effect.
It is quite understandable that the most attendees of the fourth round of the high-level international meeting on Syria in Astana including the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and Syria’s UN Ambassador and the Head of the Government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, welcomed the launch of the de-escalation zones initiative. In fact, the UN Special Envoy for Syria stated that in order to deepen the discussions within the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, especially after the Astana Memorandum that was signed by three major players in the Syrian conflict settlement, it was decided to reshape the negotiations by making them more interactive and proactive implementing business-like approach. (Mistura, 2017) Moreover, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Jaberi Ansari, stated that being properly implemented, the memorandum may lead to crucial changes in the country. (Sputnik International, 2017) The other ceasefire guarantor states also share cautious optimism that significant positive change may be possible after the implementation of the memorandum.
According to the signed memorandum prepared by the Russian Ministry of Defense under the direct order of the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, the guarantor states of the Syrian ceasefire will set up security zones around the four main areas, which are still in the hands of rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State. For instance, Russia proposed to create the following de-escalation zones where displaced Syrian civilians could voluntarily return:
- the northern province of Idlib, the northeast areas in the Latakia province, the western parts of Aleppo and northern part of Hama provinces;
- the northern part in the province of Homs, namely, areas between Hama and Homs cities;
- the East Ghouta region near Damascus excluding the Qaboun district, which is still under control of al-Nusra Front;
- the southern Syria along the Jordanian border in the certain parts of the Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
Figure 1. De-escalation zones proposed by Russia in Syria
The proposed memorandum, which officially came into effect on the fifth day after its signing, envisaged a pause in fighting and airstrikes between the Syrian Army and militants who have already joined or will join the ceasefire regime. (Sott.net, 2017) However, the cessation regime would not extend to the airstrikes and combat actions in the fight against terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front. Therefore, according to the Astana Memorandum, the Syrian Army and Syrian armed opposition assisted by the guarantor states, especially supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces, would continue the fight against the terrorists and affiliated groups in the central and eastern parts of the country including the area of the Euphrates.
In order to guarantee the security within the de-escalation zones preventing military incidents between the conflicting parties, the guarantor states agreed to create the security cordons around the borders of the safe zones, which would include the establishment of observation points for ensuring joint efficient control over compliance with the ceasefire regime and border checkpoints aimed to ensure unhindered movement of unarmed civilians and delivery of humanitarian assistance as well as to facilitate economic activities. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, 2017) It is planned that the forces of the guarantor states would provide the checkpoints and observation posts maintenance, as well as the administration of the security cordons by consensus with the possibility to deploy, if necessary, the third parties.
Since there is a need to define the exact borders of the de-escalation zones and security cordon lines Iran, Russia and Turkey decided to form a Joint Working Group (JWG) on de-escalation composed of their authorized representatives in order to address the issue. The JWG should finish mapping the de-escalation areas and security zones and present maps dissociating groups of armed opposition from the Islamic State and Nusra Front by June 4, 2017.
It should be mentioned that some of the above-mentioned provisions of the Astana Memorandum were already in the process of being implemented even before the actual signing of the document. For instance, according to the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the Russian Aerospace Forces has already ceased activities in areas corresponding to the de-escalation zones defined by the memorandum as of 00.00 on May 1, 2017. Moreover, on May 2-3, 2017, the Syrian Army and the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria established a humanitarian corridor in the East Ghouta region providing humanitarian aid to the city of Douma, which is controlled by the armed opposition group, joined the ceasefire regime. The Syrian side has already deployed eight checkpoints in this de-escalation zone.
It could be seen that Moscow felt confident that the memorandum would be signed in Astana. In fact, the Russian military authorities held extensive consultations with Turkey, Iran, the U.S. and other states in order to guarantee that the proposed initiative will not be rejected at a minimum. However, despite the fact that the Russian proposal was in one way or another agreed with key players in the Syrian conflict settlement, there are still major concerns over its successful implementation. Firstly, there is a necessity to persuade the Syrian armed opposition to support the implementation of the memorandum instead of rejecting it by saying that the document threatens Syria’s territorial integrity. Moreover, taking into account the Syrian opposition skepticism about Russia’s credibility to fully ensure the de-escalation zones maintenance, Moscow needs to minimize the “gap” between the promises and the actions. Furthermore, the persistence of high level of mistrust to Tehran among the armed opposition groups, which openly express dissatisfaction over Iran’s involvement as a cease-fire guarantor country, causes further complications in relations to the Astana Memorandum fulfilment. In fact, the U.S. adhere to similar position stating that Iran’s activity mostly contributes to the escalation of violence in Syria.
It should be noted that Washington cautiously welcomed the Russia-backed proposal to launch the de-escalation zones in Syria. However, despite the fact that the Astana Memorandum includes proposals previously made by the U.S. officials at the beginning of the year, the document does not seem to fully correspond with Washington’s military strategy towards Syria. The U.S. side asserted that Russia-proposed initiative posed many unanswered questions, including whether it would be effective in the fight against the Islamic State. Theoretically, the establishment of the de-escalation zones could help to deploy forces of both the Syrian Army and armed opposition groups to enhance offensive attack against terrorist organizations. However, in practice even if the combating parties stop all clashes and the use of any kinds of weapons in the de-escalation zones this will not necessarily result in redirecting their military actions towards the fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, since the Russian side has already declared that the de-escalation zones would be closed for all US-led coalition warplanes at least for six months, there is a need that adjustments be made to the airstrikes planning. Taking into account the fact that in April 2017 Russia suspended the agreement with the U.S. that prevented incidents and ensured flight safety in Syria in response to the U.S. missiles airstrikes against the Syrian government forces in the Homs province, Moscow and Washington could be deprived of an important consultation mechanism aimed to avoid mid-air collisions over Syria. In fact, after the visit of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to Washington held in May 2017, the parties announced their intention to restore their cooperation within the framework of the agreement. However, it is unclear how long it takes for the parties to resume the exchange of information about the warplanes flights.
It is worth mentioning that for the first time the U.S. put the idea of the creation of the safe zone in Syria on the agenda in 2013. Moreover, in 2015 the Obama administration put forward the proposal to establish a safe-zone between Afrin and Kobane in the northern Syria. However, due to insufficient support from the Turkish side, which wanted to guarantee the security in the area addressing the threat posed by the Kurdish fighters from the Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG), while the U.S. was mostly concerned over the fight against the Islamic State, the proposal failed. In fact, there is a little chance that Ankara and Washington would agree on the issue of the safe zone establishment unless the U.S. will not cease its support for the YPG.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S., both political camps also advocated for implementing safe zones in Syria. However, after Donald Trump was elected as a President the backgrounds for the launch of the safe zone in Syria have undergone a significant transformation. Nowadays, the Trump administration prefer to regard the safe zone debate according to the U.S. domestic security perspective. (Macaron, 2017) For instance, in the draft project of Donald Trump’s executive order aimed to freeze the U.S. refugee resettlement program restricting immigration from a number of Muslim countries, the President instructed the Secretary of Defense to draft a plan within 90 days to create the safe zones to protect vulnerable Syrian population. (Huffingtonpost, 2017) Despite the fact that the safe zones proposal was omitted from the final version of the document, which was released on January 27, 2017, it appears that Washington considers its creation as a measure to lower the refugee inflow in the country. However, since the creation of the safe zones would definitely place an additional burden on the U.S. budget, Washington called Saudi Arabia to support the implementation of the safe zones initiative by ensuring its funding. In fact, to date, the U.S. demonstrate their reluctance to transforming its role from defeating the Islamic State to policing a safe zone in Syria.
On the other hand, Russia together with Turkey and Iran showed its intention to provide heavy involvement in the Syrian conflict settlement. The absence of the U.S. well-developed security policy toward Syria together with the U.S. negative experience of establishing the safe zones in Iraq allowed Russia to take the lead in playing a check-and-balance role filling the geopolitical vacuum in the region. This situation would definitely trigger some changes in the U.S. strategy in the Middle East. In fact, Washington still has the opportunity to develop its own safe zone proposal, which could be implemented it in parallel with the Russia-backed initiative. However, such efforts would be doomed to failure, unless the U.S. take concrete measures to establish the dialogue with all regional powers involved. By contrast, the joining to the Astana Memorandum implementation as a third party could allow the White House both to preserve significant resources required for the de-escalation zone protection and to ensure that Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus would not be in breach of that treaty violating the ceasefire regime.
In conclusion, there are still significant tactical disagreements among the key players in the Syrian conflict resolving. However, Iran-Russia-Turkey-backed de-escalation zones agreement offered an opportunity to be the starting point for reaching consensus over the overall conflict-resolution strategy. It appears that working in tandem with the Geneva consultation under the auspices of the UN, the Astana talks initiated by Iran, Russia, and Turkey have gained a particular relevance. However, the Astana Memorandum implementation will mostly depend on the success of the parties in detailing the practical mechanisms of observing and ensuring security within the de-escalation zones. Moreover, in order to achieve to create a no-fly zone, there is a need to continue the consultations with the U.S., which actually do not agree to “limit” their air campaign against the Islamic State. Therefore, achieving success in realizing the de-escalation zone strategy could become more apparent only in forthcoming months.
Huffingtonpost. (2017). Read Draft Text Of Trump’s Executive Order Limiting Muslim Entry To The U.S.
Macaron, J. (2017). Trump’s ‘real estate’ approach to safe zones in Syria.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. (2017). Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic.
Mistura, S. d. (2017, May 15). Special Envoy for Syria: Intra-Syrian Talks – Press Conference . Geneva.
Sott.net. (2017). Safe zones aimed to stop war in Syria as Russia-brokered plan enjoys global acclaim.
Sputnik International. (2017). afe Zones Memorandum May ‘Lead to Fundamental Changes’ in Syria – Tehran.
 According to the estimations of the Russian Defense Ministry, over 1 million civilians are living in the mentioned region, which is controlled by nearly 14,500 militants.
 There are over 180,000 civilians in the region and it is currently controlled by up to 3,000 militants.
 There are almost 700,000 civilians. The Syrian Army has already established eight checkpoints along the perimeters of the area. Over 9,000 militants are based near to the region.
 There are up to 800,000 civilians. 15,000 militants control the area.
 The delivery of a humanitarian convoy of the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was organized.
 Recently, the White House gave the Pentagon greater flexibility to determine the number of the U.S. troops in Syria to assist the U.S.-backed local troops as they move to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State.
 According to primary estimations of the Pentagon, it will take between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops to secure a safe zone in Syria with a cost of at least $1 billion a month.