Syria ‘de-escalation zones’ will not be open to US-led coalition planes – Russia

Russian president Vladimir Putin

The “de-escalation zones” to be established in Syria will be closed to military aircraft from the US-led coalition, the Russian official who signed the new agreement said. Alexander Lavrentyev spoke a day after he and officials from Turkey and Iran agreed to establish the zones, in the latest attempt to reduce violence in the Arab country.

Russia’s military said the agreement will go into effect at midnight. It also said the deal could be extended to more areas. Under the Russian plan, President Bashar Assad’s air force would halt flights over the designated areas. Mr Lavrentyev suggested that all military aircraft, including Russian and Turkish, also were prohibited.

The same was suggested in a UN statement, which said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “welcomes the commitments to ceasing the use of all weapons, particularly aerial assets”. Mr Lavrentyev, whose remarks were carried by Russian news agencies, said: “The operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without. This question is closed.” He said the US-led coalition aircraft would still be able to operate against Islamic State in specific areas.

As the agreement was being signed in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, some members of the Syrian opposition delegation shouted in protest and walked out. The opposition was protesting against Iran’s participation at the conference and role as a guarantor of the agreement. They accuse it of fuelling the sectarian nature of the conflict that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population.

The Syrian government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.
The Pentagon says the de-escalation agreement will not affect the US-led air campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Marine Major Adrian JT Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said “the coalition will continue to target Isis wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary”. He noted that the US government is not party to the agreement. The United States was represented at the talks but was not part of it.

Russia’s military said it wants to restore an agreement with the United States to coordinate air operations over Syria and reduce the risk of aircraft colliding. Russia suspended the agreement a month ago following a US missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to a deadly chemical gas attack that has been blamed on the Syrian government forces.

A Syrian rebel spokesman who attended the cease fire talks in Kazakhstan says Syrian opposition fighters have “fears and doubts” over the deal. Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions said it was “incomprehensible” for Iran to play the role of a guarantor of the deal.

He said the Shiite-majority country is fuelling the sectarian nature of the conflict and “Iran can’t play the role of a peace maker”. He says a cease fire is unsustainable in the presence of the Iranian-backed militias in Syria, accusing them of also forcefully displacing people to replace them with a loyal population. Mr Abo Zayd says rebel leaders are now meeting to come up with a formal stance on the Russian proposal.

Meanwhile, an international team set up to apportion blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria has started investigating the deadly April 4 sarin gas attack in Idlib province. Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Ahmet Uzumcu said the team is already working.
The probe by experts from the Organisation and the United Nations will come under intense scrutiny amid widespread claims that Assad’s regime was responsible for dozens of deaths in Khan Sheikhoun. Assad denies responsibility.

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