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Strategic Importance of ‘Safe Zones’ in Syria for Global Anti-Terrorist Fight

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By Shehab Al Makahleh •

Recent ceasefire agreement reached by representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey ― as guarantors ― on establishment of four ‘safe zones’ in Syria, during latest round of Astana peace talks on May 4, has an important strategic aspect to it, especially from the military perspective.

While negotiations are the long term solution for more political inclusiveness of diverse parties in the future Syrian governments, armed terrorists can only be defeated by arms ― captured alive or killed in battle. Nobody should for a moment be deceived that there is another way. The ideology of Daesh and Al-Qaeda linked groups fighting in Syria has its fighters brainwashed with ‘fight to death for jihad’ ― negotiating would lead nowhere as their ideology does not recognize it as an option.

The proposed ‘safe zones’, in the provinces of Idlib, Hama, Aleppo, northern part of Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Quneitra, will allow the anti-terrorist units in Syria, including the Syrian Arab Army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with their allies’ support, to concentrate their military efforts on the liberation of key areas still held by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh).

From the civilian and humanitarian perspective, the ‘safe zones’ would allow for establishment of supply corridors for humanitarian, and medical aid to reach the civilians and non-combatants in these zones, as well as provision of psycho-social support to the most vulnerable segments of the population, including women, children, and the elderly, and the traumatized former fighters.

The ‘safe zones’ agreement comes at a very auspicious time, when the key terrorist organizations fighting in Syria have lost significant amount of territory, funding, and fighters. The pressure that terrorist factions are currently undergoing has pushed them against one another, with in-fighting reported from several towns and provinces in Syria. In-fighting is but another sign that the terrorists are waging the ultimate battle for supremacy and survival.

In comparison with similar militant groups from the past, this stage of organizational disarray across the factions indicates that the hour of their military defeat is rapidly approaching, although the struggle to defeat their inhumane ideology is likely to last for decade, if not longer.

In parallel, it is noteworthy that the representatives of the Syrian armed opposition have walked out of the latest round of Astana talks, reportedly because the proposed ‘safe zones’ were not what they hoped for, in addition to the explanation that their rejection of ceasefire in the four ‘safe zones’ is based on the fact that the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has not respected previous ceasefire agreements.

While not entirely untrue that the Syrian Army (with the Syrian president as a commander-in-chief) has engaged in fire exchange with the armed groupings during previous ceasefires, it is also important to understand in which locations and under what conditions the fire exchanges happened, without a priori assigning blame to the Syrian government. This is especially important to consider as many of the ‘armed factions’ are different to key designated terrorists groups ISIS, and Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham only in name. The goals and the methods are the same, as is well documented both by numerous official sources and independent researchers.

In addition to loss of territory, during past several months, many of the groups who were lavishly funded from abroad, including from Turkey and some Arab Gulf states, in addition to the taxes imposed on local population under their rule, slave trade, war booty and the oil smuggling income, have lost the outside financial support making the survival of the terrorist groupings extremely hard if not fatal to their very existence.

If the ‘safe zones’ memorandum is implemented to the letter, it would allow all the parties interested in reaching lasting peace and a political rather than military solution to the Syrian crisis, in accordance with the international law and the respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic, to leave their mark by extending support to the civilians and non-combatants by providing humanitarian assistance to the war torn country.

While the ‘safe zones’ agreement was spear-headed by Russia and Iran, and supported by vacillating Erdogan’s Turkey, Western countries should not oppose this historic agreement purely on the political disagreement grounds with its initiators.

This is not a time for politicking over Syrian solution, as the six years of war have shown that the support to so-called ‘rebels’ has only helped terrorism mushroom across the globe, where even Europe has not been spared of tragedy and hundreds of lives lost in the course of the past year alone.

Moreover, Russia has submitted a draft resolution in support of the ‘safe zones’ memorandum reached on May 4, in Astana to the UN Security Council for vote. According to Russian officials the vote might take place 8-9 May. Russian Foreign Ministry believes that the implementation of the memorandum will put an end to the six years long Syrian war, and so do the other two guarantors of the agreement. Even the US administration seems to be in agreement with the idea, despite some dissent from within its ranks.

The ‘safe zones’ agreement is indeed a moment for the international community to give full support to the initiative and work in unison with the three guarantor states to ensure its durability and success, and give peace in the greater Middle East a real chance.

It remains to be seen how the UN Security Council will vote on the Russian draft resolution, as well as the subsequent actions on the ground by the key international players supporting opposing sides. The question of whether the anti-terrorist fight would take primacy over individual power-players’ agendas will be answered in the coming weeks and months.

Shehab Al Makahleh is Geostrategic Media co-founder, political and media advisor and analyst.