Russia, Iran, Turkey Agree on Idlib ‘Safe Zones’

Russia, Turkey and Iran have agreed to set up de-escalation zones in Syria for six months, negotiators for the three countries have said in a joint statement during the sixth round of talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

The zones will include, fully or partly, Eastern Ghouta and the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama, according to a statement issued on Friday. The six-month term may be extended in the future, PressTV reports.

The original agreement on the creation of the four zones, which came about in May, has been one of the substantive results of the talks, many rounds of which have taken place since January. So far, agreements had been reached on the demarcation of three of the zones in Idlib’s neighboring provinces of Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama.

Turkey’s pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said in an unsourced report on Friday that the three countries planned to divide the Idlib region in three, with Turkish forces and opposition fighters in the northwest region bordering Turkey. It said Iranian and Syrian army forces would be deployed to the southeast, with Russian forces in between those two zones.

The plan calls for the cessation of hostilities between anti-government groups and forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in four so-called de-escalation zones in mainly opposition-held areas of the country, with Russia, Turkey and Iran to act as guarantors.

But while Iranian government plays the guarantor, its acts prompted a debate in Iran over its role in the Syrian tragedy with one question repeatedly posed – “What are we doing there?” As Amir Taheri, former newspaper editor and columnist, named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards in 2012, writes in his column for Asharq al-Awsat, the initial answer provided by the Khomeinist authorities was that Iran is fighting in Syria to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime which had been an ally during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and now a member of the Resistance Front led by Iran.

That answer, however, failed to convince many people, even within the regime’s base, Taheri says.

Then another reason was cited: Iran was fighting in Syria to prevent the destruction of Shi’ite holy shrines. Official media published lists of such shrines, sometimes with photos. But that, too, was challenged by “troublemakers” who pick holes in the regime’s shaky claims. More than 90 per cent of Syrian “Shi’ite holy sites” turned out to be burial places of ancient Jewish prophets or Sunni Muslim theologians and scholars.

The latest and current justification cited by the regime for Iran’s role in Syria, which means helping President Assad kill more Syrians, is that the Islamic Republic needs a secure land access to the Lebanese border where, thanks to Hezbollah, it sets the agenda.

If put into practice, the Russian “de-escalation” project will freeze the division of Syria into five segments, with Russia, Turkey, Iran dominating three, and the US and its Kurdish and Arab allies present in the remaining two. However, a closer look at Syrian realities might show that the Russo-Irano-Turkish scheme is doomed to fail. From what I know of Syria, a country I have observed and visited wince 1970, despite almost seven years of tragedy, the sense of “Syrian-ness” is still strong enough to frustrate putative imperial appetites, Taheri says.

In that context, Iran has even less chance of succeeding than Turkey or Russia. Tehran’s attempts to cast Syrian Alawites as “almost Shi’ites”, thus deserving” protection” as Lebanese Shi’ites do, have failed. Not a single Ayatollah has agreed to cancel the countless historic fatwas that castigate Alawites as “heretics” or even crypto-Zoroastrians. This means that, unlike Lebanon where at least part of the Shi’ite community is sympathetic to Iran under any regime, in Syria today Iran lacks a local popular base.

Iranian general Hussein Hamadani, killed in action in Syria, admitted that much in a revealing interview he granted weeks before his demise. In it he reveals that even supporters of Assad within the Syrian army and Ba’ath Party were hostile to Iranian presence in Syria. “The way we think, the way we live is abhorrent to them,” he said.

In a recent TV interview, Assad indirectly echoed that sentiment: “We look east to Russia,” he said. No mention of Iran. Empire building isn’t easy, especially when you have neither the military power nor the religious and cultural charisma needed to win native support.

Iran is bound to learn that, unfortunately, the hard way.