• Ola Rifai - University of St Andrews

The Escalation of ‘De-escalation Zones’ Policy

Syria pulses with life" was the motto for Damascus International Fair which was held in Damascus (August 17 - 26). This annual trade fair, established in the mid-fifties, became a top economic, cultural and social festival in the Syrian calendar. Yet it was suspended for five years due to the vehement war. This year, however, the Syrian regime vied to re-launch as a sign that the country is recovering as well as signifying its grip on power. Free transportation, food and tickets for music concerts were offered to everyone. According to state- run media 43 foreign countries took part in the fair in addition to companies from France, Germany and England participating in a private capacity. One video of French young men and women singing je vais danser (I'm going to dance), while Syrian crowds applauded in the Fair yard, was widely circulated among pro-regime Syrians on social media with the same comments that officials and the regime propaganda machine have been reiterating for a long time now; khalset (it is over) referring to the war, and intsarna (we won). Sadly though, a mortar bomb that hit the entrance of the Fair killing six civilians was a reminder that neither the war is over nor has the regime accomplished an absolute victory. However, in such a zero sum game the Syrian regime’s position seems to be boosting.

The Fair was only a few kilometers away from east Ghouta; a rebel strong foothold that is included in the so called "de-escalation zones". The term de-escalation zones is not a technical one under international law; it denotes the reduction of violence in particular areas which –at some point of the conflict- have witnessed heavy clashes. The term was coined through a memorandum signed in May by Assad backers (Russia and Iran), and rebel ally; Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan. It calls for the cessation of hostilities between rebels and regime forces in the main four zones: Idlib Province as well as suburbs of Latakia and Hama. Rastan and Talbiseh in north Homs. Eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of northern Damascus and parts of Daraa in the south alongside the borders with Jordan. Although the ceasefires were violated a myriad times and its boundaries are still vaguely defined, these de-escalation zones would pose serious hurdles for any political end for the conflict. Furthermore, the deal seems to work for the benefit of Assad and regional powers instead of Syria’s future.

Politically speaking it credits the regime as a peace maker and a reliable governor (addressing daily services for citizens in the controlled areas; such like water, fuel, flour, education and transportation etc.) whereby militarily, after taking control of Aleppo in the North, regime forces are advancing (thanks to Russian jets and Iranian militias) in eastern Syria in the pursue of controlling Deir al-Zour. In addition, the de-escalation zones deal emphasises Moscow (the original sponsor of the deal) as a supreme power in the Syrian drama while marginalizing UN resolutions and efforts by the so-called friends of Syria group – who, in fact, did nothing to reduce the suffering of their friend. For Turkey, the deal is a good opportunity to keep an eye on her southern border and to enhance its role as a Sunni champion (while Gulf States are busy with their internal struggle for power). On the other hand, the establishment of these four de-escalation zones would empower lords of war (who are predominantly jihadists) as it yields them official influence zones to control with ideology and guns. Henceforth, it undermines the political opposition and civil resistance and thus, it won't establish the required context for a political resolution. Instead, it would prolong the conflict and has a backfiring effect. Certainly, any form of local, national or international agreement to stop the – almost 7 Years old - bloodshed is very much needed, yet a break of fighting should eventually aim at drawing an end of the war. Critical steps for this is instituting no fly zones (supported by the International Community rather than influence zones brokered by actors who are engaged in the war): the withdrawal of sectarian militias, empowering the political opposition rather than dividing the already divided and fractured opposition between Geneva, Astana, Riyadh and Cairo Resolutions. Alas, for now, these steps sound impossible, as the West has lost interest in Syria. The new administrations in the U.S and France are shifting the focus to local issues whereby Gulf States are embarking on an intra struggle for power. Whilst Turkey, paranoid of Kurds, seems ready to negotiate stances with the regime.

Lately, American officials have announced that there are more than 10,000 fighters associated with al-Qaeda in Idlib. The de-escalation zone is absolutely a golden opportunity for them to mushroom and U.S missiles won't be able to eliminate their cross-border ideology. The fragile political opposition and the secular youth who were the backbone of the 2011 Revolution are being marginalized more than ever. In this vein, last month, Fadwa Suliman, an icon in the revolution was buried in Paris (after struggling with cancer). She was an actress of Alawite descent who believed in democracy and, bravely, joined besieged protesters in Homs (during the early months of 2012) to emphasise the national sense of the uprising. She very loudly chanted ‘Syrian people are one’ and ‘Syria needs freedom’ while the crowds in Khaldiyya and Baiyyadda (that are now controlled by Salafists) in the suburbs of Homs were cheering her. Many Syrian activists who fled to Europe attended Fadwa’s funeral and were weeping their fellow, as if they were weeping the big loss of their desired state. Indeed, de-escalation zones allow war lords to prevail over the political opposition and they were designed to serve the interests of regional powers rather than that of Syrians. Although for now the agreement has yielded a relative lull, it would make Syria pulse with death and jihadists for years to come.

*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.

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