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Russia has a plan for winding down Syria's war. Too bad both sides want to keep fighting.

Russia’s new plan for “deescalation” zones in Syria, explained.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following talks on Syria on May 3, 2017.
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool

The good news is that four of the biggest players in Syria’s brutal civil war have a plan to reduce the carnage by creating so-called “deescalation zones” for civilians fleeing the fighting. The bad news is that the plan is almost certain to fail.

That’s because one of the most important parties in the war — the Syrian opposition — hasn’t agreed to it. In fact, they angrily walked out of talks about the proposal Wednesday. And they’re not likely to agree to it, in part because the current draft would still allow Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes to bomb those who manage to reach the nominal safe havens.

At issue is a new Russian-crafted initiative to create four separate safe zones designed to "provide the conditions for the safe, voluntary return of refugees" as well as the immediate delivery of relief supplies and medical aid.

The Kremlin plan is one of the most ambitious to be put forward in recent months, and has drawn the support of the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. All four countries have sent weapons and money into Syria; Moscow and Tehran have deployed combat forces to help Assad, while Turkey has provided weapons and cash to anti-Assad rebels.

In a statement Thursday, the State Department noted that in “light of the failures of past agreements, we have reason to be cautious” about the new Russian plan — and made clear the ball is in Moscow’s court.

“We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done,” the statement said. “We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”

But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whether the plan actually succeeds may only be of secondary concern. What matters most is that Russia — not the US — is again seen as shaping the future of the Syrian conflict.

“Russia is not really on the sides of the Sunni or the Shias,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a reporter with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, told the BBC. “Russia’s on the side of Russia, to increase and sustain overall control and influence in the entire region.”

The plan

According to the New York Times, the draft proposal calls for “deescalation zones” to be set up in four areas:

  • Idlib province, which is almost entirely held by jihadist and other rebel groups
  • Eastern Ghouta, a large area in the suburbs of Damascus that’s besieged by government forces
  • An area north of the central city of Homs
  • An area in southern Syria along the Jordanian border
Javier Zarracina/Vox

“Under the proposal, checkpoints ringing those areas would be maintained by both government and rebel forces to allow the free movement of civilians and relief aid,” the Times writes.

How exactly that would work in practice, though, isn’t clear yet. Putin said Wednesday that the details on how to monitor the safe zones would be an issue for separate talks. A senior Russian negotiator has said that under the plan, Russia, Iran, and Turkey could send observers to monitor the zones, Reuters reports.

The agreement would only be with rebel groups that the Russians and Syrians determine to be “moderates”; terrorist groups including ISIS and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front (now called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) would not be covered. Indeed, the proposal actually says that rebel groups would be required to fight those terrorist groups.

In fact, that’s kind of the whole point. Russia is essentially saying to the opposition: “We’ll stop bombing you if you stop fighting the regime and instead start fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.”

“The prime tactic right now is to split the opposition,” Felgenhauer told the BBC.

“It’s kind of the same tactics that the Russian military were running about 10 years or more in Chechnya. To split the resistance, to single out the ones who are going to collaborate, and then use them to fight the bad guys, the die-hards,” Felgenhauer said.

As Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told my colleague Zeeshan Aleem back in April, Russia’s first priority is to protect the Assad regime — its chief proxy force in the region — from rebel forces. But it also wants to take down ISIS and considers unchallenged Islamist extremism in the Middle East to be a threat to its own national security.

By getting the rebels to stop fighting the Assad regime and start fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda instead, Russia essentially kills two birds with one stone.

Why it probably won’t work

All of that sounds great, in theory. But there are some major flaws that basically make the plan dead on arrival.

First, the entire reason the Syrian opposition is involved in the war in the first place is to fight and topple the Assad regime. That’s who the opposition is, you know, opposing. And one of the most effective fighting forces among the opposition groups is the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front — one of the groups the Russian proposal explicitly calls on rebel groups to fight as part of the deal.

The second big question is whether, even if they were to agree to sign on to the Russian proposal, the opposition groups would really be safe from bombing by pro-Assad forces.

Damascus says it supports the Russian plan, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA, but it hasn’t yet signed on to the proposal. And while an early draft of the proposal included language banning Assad’s air force from operating inside the deescalation zones, that language was stripped from later drafts. It was removed, people involved told the New York Times, because of Syrian government objections.

All of that means there’s no guarantee that Assad would actually stop bombing the groups trying to overthrow him, temporary truce or no.

“Assad, and he’s said so publicly, wants to just simply win the war by killing all his opponents, and expelling those he doesn’t kill out of the country and having it all back again,” said Felgenhauer.

As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor aptly notes, “[T]here have been cease-fires in Syria before — and they didn't stop the sustained and withering strikes carried out by Assad and Russian planes on civilian areas.”

"We have an agreement already (in) our hands, why isn’t it implemented? There is an agreement ... signed five months ago, why hasn't it been implemented?" Osama Abu Zaid, an opposition delegate involved in the peace talks, told Reuters, referring to a Russian-led truce in December.

"Russia was not able to or does not want to implement the pledges it makes, and this is a fundamental problem," Zaid said.

Hisham Skeif, a political spokesperson for one of the opposition groups, told the Times he was skeptical of the Russian proposal, saying it needed clarification on the precise boundaries of the ceasefire zones and the identities of the monitoring forces.

“It was thrown by the Russians as a step in the air,” he said.

It’s still a win for Russia

The fact that Russia put forward this proposal — not the Syrian regime, not Turkey, not Iran, and especially not the United States — is no accident. Russia is by far the most powerful backer of the Assad regime, and its military intervention beginning in September 2015 has been largely responsible for turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

But it’s also become increasingly active throughout the region, seeking to exert influence and forge relationships from Libya to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Israel. According to a 2017 analysis by Newsweek, “over the past two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has received the leaders of Middle Eastern states 25 times — five more than former U.S. President Barack Obama.”

And now that Donald Trump is president, it’s likely this trend will continue. Countering Russian influence in the Middle East (or anywhere else, for that matter) seems not merely unimportant to Trump but actually counterproductive. Trump has long argued against US intervention in Syria to topple Assad and proposed working with Russia and Assad to fight ISIS.

Trump’s decision to carry out a missile strike against Assad’s forces last month suggested he might be moving away from that position. But during a phone call with Putin on Tuesday, Trump seemed to return to that original policy of cooperation.

“President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” read the White House readout of the call. “The conversation was a very good one, and included the discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.”

After the call, Trump announced he would be sending a delegation to the peace talks in Kazakhstan — something he’d previously declined to do. But the fact that he’s sending Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones to represent the United States at the talks — and not a higher-level official, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — suggests Trump is more than fine with letting Russia take the lead.

“Putin wants to be the arbiter supreme of the bigger Middle East, having good relationships with everyone and making Russia indispensable,” Felgenhauer, the Russian journalist, told the BBC.

Now, thanks in part to Trump, Russia may succeed at doing just that.

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