Friday 26 May 2017 News Updated at 03:05 AM IST
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De-escalation plan, Russia's strike at IS - Deccan Herald
De-escalation plan, Russia's strike at IS
Michael Jansen,
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Moscow's "de-escalation" plan for Syria has, so far, reduced fighting in the four zones where it has been enforced and prompted the United Nations to resume negotiations on a political settlement in Geneva. The de-escalation plan was endorsed on May 10 by US President Donald Trump when he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office of the White House.

Since invitations to the Oval Office are normally reserved for heads of state and government rather than mere foreign ministers, this encounter could have serious significance for Syrian peace-making if Russia - the prime mover in Syria as it has forces on the ground and in the air - and the US cooperate on the ceasefire and press the government and opposition to negotiate a political deal that ends the six-year war.

The plan, put forward by Russia and co-sponsored by Iran and Turkey, was presented on May 4 at a gathering seeking to consolidate the cessation of hostilities. The meeting, convened in Astana, Kazakhstan, was attended by Syrian government and armed opposition representatives, the plan's sponsors, and the US and Jordanian observers.

Damascus had no option but to agree as Russia and Iran are its allies but armed factions, supported by Saudi Arabia, rejected the plan although Saudi and opposition ally, Turkey, are sponsors. The plan calls for halting hostilities and freezing front lines between the government and opposition forces in four locations held by insurgents: the north-western Idlib province, the central provinces of Homs and Hama, the southern border with Jordan and the countryside east of Damascus. The number of people living in these areas is 26.4 million while the estimated number of insurgents is about 41,500, the majority radical fundamentalists.

Implementation of the zones began on May 6, although delineation could take until June. Once this is achieved, buffer zones are to be established and monitors deployed. After the de-escalation areas are firmly established, refugees could return, aid could be delivered, and water and other services provided. This could ease pressure on Damascus and its ally Moscow to open routes for food and medical supplies for civilians living in insurgent-controlled areas.

The Syrian government and Russia have been severely castigated by Western powers and media for besieging and blockading these areas to force militants to surrender although they are to blame for such treatment as they base themselves in urban areas among civilians, putting them at risk.
Before tabling the proposal, Russian President Vladimir Putin secured backing from his US and Turkish counterparts Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had called for the creation of "safe zones" and suspension of Russian and Syrian air operations. Russian and US military chiefs have also discussed coordination.

Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda's Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Nusra), dubbed "terrorist" organisations, are excluded from ceasefires and Russia seeks to mount joint or coordinated operations with the US against both groups. So far, the US has not agreed.

Defeating IS

Successful imposition of the de-escalation zones will meet key Russian objectives. First, this could free Syrian army units fighting on multiple fronts for an operation to liberate from IS the eastern province of Deir al-Zor and its capital. Such an operation is essential if Russia, the US, and other world powers are to defeat IS in the region.

Since the US-backed Iraqi army and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces began battling IS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the north-central Syrian city of Raqqa, IS commanders, their families, and fighters have fled to Deir al-Zor, located near the Syria-Iraq border. Therefore, the last bastion of IS must also fall for the cult to be eliminated as a force holding strategic territory.

Second, for more than two years, Moscow has been pressing Washington and other sponsors of non-al-Qaeda factions belonging to the alliance forged by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to honour a commitment to cut ties with the Jabhat. They have not complied as the group has the most motivated and largest number of fighters and provides considerable military muscle in operations. The Jabhat - which continues to receive funds and arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia - has also recruited IS fighters fleeing Raqqa and Mosul.

Russia hopes the imposition of de-escalation zones could force Washington to deliver on this pledge, particularly since the Jabhat-led alliance has denounced the de-escalation plan and threatens to continue fighting, undermining Russia's efforts to wind down the deadly and destructive six-year Syrian war. If Russia manages this Herculean feat, it would become the major external player in West Asia at a time the US influence is waning.
Washington has been repeatedly warned that failing to separate its allies from al-Qaeda could lead to its rise once IS has been driven from cities and lands it holds and is contained or crushed.

If al-Qaeda's Syrian allies survive, they could establish an operational base for al-Qaeda central, located in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan and continue to menace West Asia and the wider world.