As Russia Pushes Safe Zones in Syria, Mattis Asks, Who Will Ensure Safety?

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2017 | 4:11am EDT
Defense Secretary James Mattis at the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark on Monday, May 8, 2017. (Photo: DoD/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

( – Russia has presented a draft U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing safe or “de-escalation” zones in Syria, but Defense Secretary James Mattis cautioned Monday that the proposal leaves many questions unanswered.

“There’s a lot of details to be worked out,” Mattis told reporters en route to Copenhagen, saying these included “who’s going to be ensuring they’re safe, who is signing up for it, who is specifically to be kept out of them.”

Also unclear at this point was whether the zones would be effective in helping to end the conflict, he said, adding that there were many decision yet to be made, regarding “planning, coordination among a number of nations, and obviously in execution.”

Mattis stressed that the U.S. was engaged on the issue, and examining the proposal carefully.

Although the U.S. attended in an observer capacity, it was not party to the decision reached by Russia, Iran and Turkey at a May 4 meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, to set up four “de-escalation” zones as part of ceasefire efforts in Syria.

Russia and Iran are the Assad regime’s closest allies, while Turkey is supportive of some of the anti-Assad rebel groups.

The proposal comes against the backdrop of the broader campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (now reconstituted as Tahrir al-Sham). Mattis is attending a meeting of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in the Danish capital.

Under the proposal hammered out in Astana, the four areas will provide secure locations to enable displaced Syrians to return and provide for humanitarian aid to get in and services to be restored.

Combat operations in those areas, including overflights by military aircraft, will be prohibited under the agreement, which is meant to hold for at least six months.

The wording, according to the Russian foreign ministry, reads as follows: “hostilities between the conflicting parties (the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the armed opposition groups that have joined and will join the ceasefire regime) with the use of any kinds of weapons, including aerial assets, shall be ceased.”

All parties pledged to continue fighting against ISIS and al Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham, both inside and outside the four demarcated zones.

The zones are located in rebel-controlled areas in the south near the border with Jordan; in the Ghouta area east of Damascus; in an enclave north of Homs; and in a rebel-controlled enclave in and around Idlib in the north-west.

The declaration signed in Astana was to have taken effect from Saturday, with Russia, Iran and Turkey acting as “guarantors.”

Among other things, the guarantors agreed “to separate the armed opposition groups from the terrorist groups” – ISIS and al Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham – by June 4.

The Russian draft resolution could be voted on in New York later this week, diplomats indicated. A successful Security Council resolution on Syria will be a rare occurrence; Russia has vetoed eight previous Syria measures since the civil war began in 2011, while China has vetoed six.

Damascus: No international forces

Meanwhile the Assad regime’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, said Monday Damascus would not accept the presence of U.N. or other “international forces” to monitor the safe zones.

But al-Muallem did not appear to be ruling out the presence of Russian observers, some of whom are already in Syria. He said Russia has already indicated there will be “military police and observation centers” on the ground.

Al-Muallem stressed the importance of rebel fighters in the zones helping to clear the areas of what he called “takfiri” terror groups like al Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham, assisted by the three guarantor governments. (“Takfiri” is a label used mostly by Shi’ites to describe radical Sunnis who view Muslims not sharing their ideology as infidels.)

The regime and its Russian and Iranian allies continue to insinuate that the U.S. and other foreign supporters of some rebel groups in Syria are complicit with Islamists like al Nusra/Tahrir al-Sham.

“The Syrians and their allies are not just struggling for peace and security; they are also fighting US-backed terrorism and extremism,” Iran’s Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said in a commentary Monday.

“In all cases, it comes down to their struggle for regional peace and security and a future where today’s Syrians and future generations can forge their own future outside the yoke of Washington, its regional vassals, and their terror proxy forces.”

For its part, the State Department earlier questioned the notion of Iran serving as a so-called guarantor for the safe zone agreement.

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement responding to the Astana announcement.

During the Republican primary campaign, candidate Donald Trump argued in 2015 that the U.S. should support the creation of safe zones in Syria, rather than admit large numbers of Syrian refugees “who could be ISIS.”

He reiterated that stance during the subsequent general election campaign, again linking the need for safe zones inside Syria to refugee-related security concerns – and adding that others, such as the Arab Gulf states, should pay for them.

Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton also called for a safe zone over parts of Syria, as did Trump’s running-mate, now Vice-President Mike Pence.

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