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Efforts To Create Safe Zone in Southern Syria

May 30, 2017

A Syrian woman walks past a placard bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Damascus on March 4, 2015. (Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
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France warns Syria against using chemical weapons

As the conflict in Syria grinds into its sixth year, a Jordanian newspaper is reporting that officials from the US and Russia have recently discussed the establishment of a safe zone in southern Syria and that the talks were expected to resume soon. According to the report, Jordan is participating in the talks to determine the nature of the safe zone and the composition of the forces which will be deployed. The report says that Jordan would agree to any force stationed on its border except for the forces of Islamic State (ISIS) or militia forces supported by Iran.

Israel is also closely watching the issue, as any safe zone would presumably include the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed after the Six Day War in 1967. There have been stray mortars from Syria that have landed in Israel over the past few years, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been busy fighting both ISIS and Syrian rebel groups, has been careful not to open another front with Israel.

Earlier this month, Iran and Turkey agreed to a Russian proposal for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, in which all sides would agree not to attack. Russian officials said the zones would help secure a truce in Syria. Russia has been a crucial ally of Assad, and many analysts credit Russian aid and air support to the fact that Assad is still in power in Syria. Turkey has supported rebel groups, and its relations with Russia has been tense. According to the plan, these de-escalation zones would be under direct control of Russia.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman is visiting Moscow Tuesday to discuss the Syrian conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Saudi crown prince’s trip to Moscow, reported by Al Arabiya news channel, comes after last week’s visit by US President Donald Trump to Riyadh in what was his first official trip abroad.

The big question for all of the parties involved in any safe zone is the role of Iran. The rebel groups in Syria do not want any Iranian presence in the safe zone, a position which Israel and Jordan would also support. They are all wary of any agreement that would give Iran a permanent foothold in Syria.

Talk of possible safe zones comes as new French President Emmanuel Macron held his first meeting as president of France with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Putin openly supported Macron’s chief rival Marine Le Pen.

“Any use of chemical weapons would result in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Putin. Macron is part of the western coalition that has accused Assad of using chemical weapons in the past.

Despite the failure to reach a peace deal, evacuation agreements on the ground in Syria are being carried out in some besieged areas. On Monday, more than 1,000 people left the opposition-held Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus for another opposition territory.

Assad is strengthening his position as Russian-backed Syrian forces take more territory from ISIS.

“It’s looking more and more like Russia and the US are going to decide to keep Assad in power,” Renad Mansour, an expert on Syria at Chatham House in the UK told The Media Line. “They seem to be closer to a settlement but many Syrians are asking themselves if that happens what was the point of the past six years of fighting?”

Human rights groups also say that the Assad regime has been responsible for a series of human rights abuses. In a recent report, Amnesty International reported that up to 13,000 people were killed  in a secret campaign of extrajudicial executions at Saydnaya prison, usually by mass hangings.

“Based on witness testimony with former detainees who were lucky enough to be released as well as guards and prison officials, we reported that as many as 13,000 people have been executed inside Saydnaya prison between 2011 and 2015,” Diana Semaan, a Syria researcher at Amnesty International told The Media Line. “We have been calling on the US to pressure the Syrian government to allow independent monitors to access the prison to investigate these findings and to look into allegations of torture as well as prison conditions.”

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