BEIRUT – Hundreds of civilians have been killed in attacks on so-called de-escalation zones in Syria in January, undermining a Russian-led agreement that world powers have touted as a step toward a comprehensive cease-fire in the country.
While the de-escalation zones may have failed to reduce violence and protect civilians, analysts and experts argue that these were not the agreement’s main impetus. Recent developments have shown that the deal was instead designed as a war management strategy aimed at weakening the opposition, they say.
“In the beginning, there was an illusion that this initiative to introduce de-escalation zones would help establish a comprehensive cease-fire,” said Anton Mardasov, a nonresident expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and columnist for Al-Monitor. “But after a few months it has become clear – this is all just a ploy to intensify military operations in [other parts] of Syria and imitate the desire for a political settlement.”
The agreement, signed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana in May, was supposedly meant to reduce violence, protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access to besieged communities. Under the terms of the deal, the guarantors would refrain from carrying out attacks in protected areas, unless they were targeting the so-called Islamic State or the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is dominated by al-Qaida’s former affiliate in Syria.
The exact borders of the de-escalation zones remain unclear. However, they cover parts of Idlib, northern Hama, Eastern Ghouta and southern Syria. Those include some of the last remaining opposition enclaves, which led to skepticism early on that the deal was designed to help President Bashar al-Assad widen his control over the country.
Despite early criticism, the four de-escalation areas witnessed a relative reduction in fighting in the months after the deal was signed, contributing to a narrative that the conflict was now winding down ahead of a political settlement.
But the reduction in fighting in de-escalation zones was likely because pro-government forces were moving toward eastern Syria to battle ISIS in its last strongholds. As soon as fighting dialed down in eastern Syria, the government activated front lines in Idlib, Hama and Eastern Ghouta, leading some analysts to question whether the de-escalation zone agreement was used to help the Syrian government time its battles.
“These de-escalation zones are used to allow the regime to choose which battles it wants to fight at any particular point in time while other zones are de-escalated,” Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council said.
“And in fact, that is the pattern we have seen over the past year or two. It is the pattern we saw with the localized cease-fires as well. This is a kind of war management strategy on the part of the regime.”
The government has been on the offensive in northern Hama and Idlib since October. In December, the government stepped up attacks in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta after battles slowed down further east.
More than 200 civilians have been killed by airstrikes on Idlib since at least December 25, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Airstrikes have also targeted a number of hospitals and medical facilities in the opposition stronghold. The ICRC warned on Monday that continued attacks will deprive tens of thousands of life-saving care.
Supported by Russian warplanes, Syrian troops and allied militias are also advancing on the ground in Idlib, where they have seized a string of villages and a strategic air base from rebels in recent weeks. Pro-government forces are now approaching the strategic town of Saraqib, which is an important military center for the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance. The offensive marks the government’s deepest incursion into the province since it fell to rebels nearly three years ago.
The government has also stepped up attacks on the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, killing more than 287 people since December 29, the SOHR said on Monday. The military offensive has tightened the siege on some 400,000 people who are trapped in the suburbs with limited access to food and medicine.
“If this is de-escalation, then I would hate to imagine what escalation looks like,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“We are seeing an escalation in hostilities that goes beyond what is needed for the war and is actively killing civilians, who are simultaneously trapped in these zones with no way out. That’s a death trap, not a safe zone,” she added.
Meanwhile, the southern de-escalation zone, which some analysts have hailed as a success, has not been spared. The government captured a rebel pocket in the town of Beit Jinn, near the Golan Heights in January, in blatant violation of the accord. What’s more, the Institute for the Study of War warned last week that pro-government forces are preparing for an “imminent assault” in southern Syria in further violation of the deal. This throws into question the durability of the only de-escalation zone that is sponsored by Washington.
Where Are the Guarantors
The government has been able to bend the de-escalation zone agreement in its favor partially because the guarantors, which were supposed to uphold and ensure compliance, have done little to sanction violations and, in some instances, have been responsible for blatant breaches of the accord.
Washington, which has only sponsored one de-escalation zone in the southwest, has shown that it is either not willing or not able to stop government violations, as evidenced by its nonresponse to the government’s capture of a rebel enclave in Beit Jinn.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been vocally critical of the government’s violations in Idlib, however, Ankara has done little to stop the fighting.
Turkey deployed troops to Idlib in October with the stated aim of enforcing compliance in the de-escalation zone there. However, rather than deploying on front lines between rebels and the regime, Turkish observers were dispatched to areas adjacent to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which is now coming under attack by Ankara. This has led some to accuse Turkey of using the arrangement to push its own agenda in northern Syria, rather than working to ensure compliance among warring parties.
Rather than sanctioning the government, Iran, a primary backer of President Assad, reportedly helped its ally capture territory around Beit Jinn via its proxies, including the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Russia, also a key ally of Assad, has helped the Syrian army pound areas in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks, leading some to question Moscow’s intentions.
“While Russia talks of ‘peacemaking’… it is committing war crimes on the ground in Syria. No Russian ‘peacemaking’ initiative is credible as long as Russia continues its blitzkrieg against the Syrian people,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairperson of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said in a report last month.
According to Mardasov, Russia is manipulating the de-escalation zone agreement as a war management strategy of its own, with the aim of weakening the opposition and forcing them to concede in talks, all while posing as a peace broker in Syria.
Russia has been able to do this because Washington and the Gulf have abandoned their support for the Syrian opposition. The lack of international backing, he said, allows Moscow to “manipulate the situation rather successfully.”
“Moscow will continue to position itself as a player who is seeking a political settlement,” he said. “But behind Moscow’s rhetoric of a political settlement, there is a drive to weaken the opposition as much as possible and force it to make any compromises.”