- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2017

Trump administration officials are reportedly weighing plans to set up a series of “safe zones” in Syria in an attempt to stem the violence and protect millions of civilians caught up in the country’s brutal six-year civil war.

The general outlines of the so-called “de-escalation zones,” agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran earlier this month, are “well understood,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters while en route to Copenhagen for a summit with military leaders involved in the anti-Islamic State coalition.

But critical details — including who will patrol those areas, who will be allowed into the areas and how they will affect the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria — still need to be worked out, Mr. Mattis said.

“It’s all in process right now,” the Pentagon chief said. “Who is going to be ensuring they’re safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them?”

Diplomats from Tehran, Ankara and Moscow were also tight-lipped on the details of the trilateral deal, reached during peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Washington is not participating in the talks, designed to end the conflict between the regime and rebel groups battling to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones is attending as an observer.

On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the regime would abide by any agreement reached in Astana regarding the safe zones. But the Assad government would not allow “international forces” to patrol the zones, hinting that Russian forces would be the primary enforcers, Mr. al-Moallem told reporters during a press conference in Damascus.

“There will be no presence by any international forces supervised by the United Nations,” Mr. al-Moallem said.

Under the terms of the deal, Iranian, Turkish and Russian forces would all play a role in administering and defending the de-escalation zones. But the deal did not specifically call for a military police force to keep the peace within the zones, Reuters reports.

Representatives of the anti-Assad forces walked out of the talks in Astana last week, shortly after the announcement of the de-escalation zones, protesting Iran’s involvement in the plan.

The Trump White House has expressed support for the safe zones, saying the measure would protect the thousands of Syrian civilians caught between the coalition offensive against Islamic State and the Syrian civil war. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the safe zones during a May 2 call ahead of the new round of peace talks in Astana.

In Damascus, Mr. Moualem praised the Trump administration’s efforts, noting the White House’s more positive interactions with the Moscow and Assad regime overall.

“It seems the United States … might have come to the conclusion that there must be an understanding with Russia on a solution,” he said, according to Reuters.

The safe zone established by the U.S. over northern Iraq’s Kurdish region required a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. Any move to create such a zone by the council would likely be blocked by Russia, who is backing Mr. Assad’s forces with air power and heavy artillery.

“The devil is always in the details, right? So we have to look at the details, see if we can work them out, see if we think they’re going to be effective,” Mr. Mattis said.

But regional experts — as Turkish government officials have — warn that Mr. Assad would be the biggest beneficiary of any new no-fly zones, as government forces could use the zones as a haven and to aid Kurdish elements deemed an enemy of Turkey.

The Pentagon chief acknowledged the complicated role Turkish and Kurdish forces play in the anti-Islamic State coalition. But he noted that the zones could be the first step in ending a long and bloody civil war.

“All wars eventually come to an end,” Mr. Mattis said. “And we’ve been looking, for a long time, how to bring this one to an end.”

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