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Syria safe zones deal raises end game questions

By Junaid Salman in Beirut

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A Syrian man sits near his house in opposition-held Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on May 6th. Fighting subsided after a 'safe zones' deal signed May 4th in Astana began to take effect. [Sameer al-Doumy/AFP]

While hopes prevail that an agreement to create "de-escalation zones" in Syria's most violent areas will pave the way to a political solution, analysts who spoke with Diyaruna said that sentiment may be premature.

The May 4th agreement, forged in the Kazakh capital, Astana, between Russia, Turkey and Iran, reaffirmed the signatories' "strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria".

The parties agreed to establish four "safe zones" in northern, central and southern parts of Syria, and expressed their determination to decrease military tensions and to provide for the security of civilians.

The deal established the following de-escalation areas, which "aim to put a prompt end to violence, improve the humanitarian situation and create favourable conditions to advance political settlement of the conflict in Syria":

- Idlib and some parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces

- Parts of north Homs province

- Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus

- Parts of southern Syria, including Daraa and al-Quneitra

According to the agreement, "the creation of the de-escalation areas is a temporary measure, the duration of which will initially be six months, and will be automatically extended on the basis of consensus of the guarantors".

'Political settlement is premature'

According to military expert and retired Lebanese army officer Brig. Gen. Khalil Helou, however, "linking the safe zones to the political settlement is premature".

The agreement is merely an indication of the battle fatigue international parties involved in the Syrian conflict are experiencing, he told Diyaruna.

While the deal underscores a shared interest in curbing the conflict, he explained, "the achievement of a settlement faces a long process, as the balance of power does not indicate a willingness by any party to make concessions".

"The [Syrian] regime is not prepared to make constitutional amendments, agree to Assad's departure and agree to allow the opposition to participate in the decision-making process," Helou said.

Meanwhile, he said, he believes Iran is buying time to achieve an outcome that is more favourable to its interests.

"The opposition has proven that despite the divisions wracking it, [factions] still have capabilities on the ground that the regime cannot wipe out," he said, which makes it reluctant to compromise on a political solution.

"I do not think these areas will open a window to negotiations that can lead to political settlement in the near term," he said. "Everyone is buying time until they reach a situation that is favourable to them."

Many questions remain

"The talk about safe areas could be the opening for establishing the political solution," political analyst Tony Issa told Diyaruna.

But the agreement raises the question of whether Syria will return to the way it was before the outbreak of war or whether the de-escalation zones will become areas of influence for regional and international powers, he said.

"It was said that the agreed upon areas are meant to de-escalate the conflict and allow internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return, but the question is, How will this be accomplished?" he added.

"I do not think that a political solution that brings an end to the war is near, but the major war and the main conflict between the forces have ended," Issa said.

"We have moved to the phase of small wars and liquidations that may continue for years and be used to formulate a political solution," he said.

Issa said the agreement and the overall situation in Syria led Hizbullah -- whose initial objective was to reinforce regime positions -- to reassess its Syrian plans.

The group's withdrawal from the positions it had established at Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria signals the end of the major conflict, he added.

Underlying military objectives

"The agreement on [safe] areas is one of the phases of the Syrian war, and some parties aim with it to push forward the Astana talks," said al-Hadath Centre for Strategic Studies head Bahaa Abu Karroum.

The safe zones agreement "is not the desired solution", he said, because a political solution requires a change in the political system.

The solution lies in the Geneva talks, he added, "since it is the international process in which all concerned parties involved in the Syrian issue are taking part".

There are military objectives underlying the designation of the safe zones, Abu Karroum said.

He noted that these areas are not considered "safe" by organisations caring for refugees, and that refugees are not being encouraged to return to these areas.

Therefore they are still being tested, he said.

"These areas are referred to as 'de-escalation zones' and are not entirely safe, and thus not conducive for the return of the refugees," Beirut Arab University international relations professor Sana Hammoudi told Diyaruna.

They are the result of a "political agreement between certain involved parties who are awaiting the outcome of military developments, while the return of the refugees requires a clear-cut agreement", she said.

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