Russia Must Bring Assad, “Pragmatic” Opposition to Table to Set Safe Zones

By Alexander A. Decina

Alexander A. Decina is a research associate for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has previously worked in think tanks and NGOs in Lebanon, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

By Jesse Marks

Jesse Marks is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Stimson Center, where he principally works with the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program. His primary research focus is civilian protection, stabilization, and peacebuilding in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. He has published analyses with the Hill, Huffington Post, and the U.S.-Middle East Youth Network. Prior to joining Stimson, Marks interned with the Migration Policy Institute in the international migration program and with Blue Path Labs LLC as an Arabic Research Analyst. Previously, he served as a David L. Boren scholar in Jordan where he studied Arabic from 2015-2016 at the Qasid Language Institute. While in Jordan, he interned for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative to Jordan and with Jordan Center for Strategic Studies as a Research Assistant. He holds a B.A. in Middle East Studies with a focus in national security and Arabic.

Early last month, Russia put forward a “de-escalation” plan for Syria under which major opposition-held territories in western parts of the country, including northwestern Idlib province, northern Homs countryside, the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, and parts of southern Syria, would become safe zones and fall under ceasefires to be enforced by the so-called guarantors — Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Even though neither the Syrian opposition factions nor their Western or Persian Gulf backers have accepted the plan, the three guarantors declared these safe zones to be in effect as of May 5.

The agreement has reduced violence along Syria’s western spine during the last month, and further negotiations about specific boundaries and the details of the implementation of these safe zones are supposed to be held. However, the plan has a crucial pitfall. Without a realistic framework for peace agreed upon in direct talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and pragmatic groups within the opposition, Syrians on both sides will be unlikely to maintain the ceasefires, and these safe zones will inevitably collapse. Such a framework needs to reckon with the undeniable reality on the ground – both Assad and the opposition will remain forces in Syria for the foreseeable future.

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