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The Case for Safe Zones in Syria

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Homs, Syria © bwb-studio

May 13, 2017 08:28 EDT

Jordan’s unsecured borders pose a threat of even further chaos in the Middle East.

Six years into the Syrian Civil War, Russia and Syria have spread their special operation forces to Syria’s southern border with Jordan in an attempt to stop any sudden deployment of US or allied troops. This fact is going to change soon: According to Jordanian government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, American and British intelligence services are planning to start operating in Syria’s south to pave the way for a wider ground intervention in that area to help establish safe zones.

The future scenario of the war in Syria will be determined after June, when Americans and Russians will sit down together to decide the possibility of setting up a humanitarian buffer zone to address the issues of refugees in northern Jordan.

In mid-April, there were talks about an American-led military intervention in southern Syria to establish a safe haven for refugees who heavily burden Jordan financially. Talks are ongoing to determine priorities. One move is to start an all-out war on the Islamic State (or Daesh) in Raqqa and Deir Al Zour, which may force the faction’s fighters to seek an escape through southern Syria, imposing a threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. Another is creating a suitable and sustainable safe zone to soften the flow of refugees into Jordan, amid the violence following Daesh’s loss of its stronghold in Raqqa, to alleviate Jordan of the burdens associated with its already crowded refugee centers.

Thus, with intensified fighting in southern Syria, where the Russian and Syrian armed forces are increasing their military operation to retake the city of Deraa, the tactical result will be to isolate this pocket from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. This will mean the end of war in Syria, followed by a presidential election and a new constitution, with the Russians allowing Bashar al-Assad to decide whether he wants to proceed with his candidacy. Many Syrians would prefer to restore stability in the country rather than contest Assad’s position as many long for the days of peace before the Arab Spring.

A View from Amman

Currently, the situation at the Jordanian-Syrian border appears stable due to high levels of coordination between the Russians and Jordanians to avoid incursions into Jordanian airspace and strikes on Jordanian territory by any party fighting on Syrian soil. Some sources in Jordan say that security and military coordination between Moscow and Amman is higher than ever.

In addition, Russia knows that neither Amman nor Damascus is interested in a clash in southern Syria as Jordan believes in the state of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs. Amman, since the inception of Syria’s Arab Spring, has voiced support for a peaceful solution to the conflict, leaving it to the people of Syria to decide their own future. Jordan, like many Sunni Arab states, welcomed the American cruise-missile strikes on the Syrian regime’s Al Shuayrat Air Base near Homs.

The calls from various countries to establish a safe zone in southern Syria are important for Jordan. The Jordanian Armed Forces are stretched, with more than 50% of its troops deployed at the Jordanian-Syrian and Jordanian-Iraqi borders. In March, Sami Kafaween, chief of Jordan’s border guard force, said that more than half of the Hashemite Kingdom’s armed forces are devoted to securing Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria. Since Jordan witnessed a number of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in 2016, its armed forces are now coordinating with allies to keep the southern parts of Syria clear.

Safe Zones

Following the May peace talks in Astana, the opposition and the Syrian government — with Turkish, Iranian and Russian approval —agreed to create four safe zones. The first will be in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border, to avoid any spillover of Daesh fighters into the kingdom. The second will be in northwest Syria, stretching across Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia. The third will stretch from the suburbs of Homs down to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to avoid military escalation in that area between Israeli and Syrian armed forces, where Hezbollah fighters and Iranian troops have a presence — a concern for the Israeli security officials. The fourth zone will be around Damascus, to contain Daesh fighters and other terrorist groups who may flee into neighboring states in case of escalation of military action against its fighters. These areas will be announced at the end of the month.

This deal was a culmination of Russian and American coordination, and the meeting between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump at the G20 in July 2017 is in line with this cooperation. The agreement was achieved following weeks of talks in Astana, welcomed by the Syrian government as a prelude to ending the war, now in its seventh year, which has already claimed more than 400,000 dead, displacing more than 11 million and causing extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure estimated at $600 billion according to Syrian government figures.

Recent visits by Syrian and Jordanian officials to Moscow and Washington are to secure guarantees that the border dividing the two countries will be honored and protected by establishing safe zones in Syria. Both Damascus and Amman recognize the repercussions of a breakdown in order on the Jordanian border and the broader consequences for not only Middle Eastern powers but also international actors such as China, Russia and the United States. If Syria is weakened and new borders are demarcated, this will help set up new states in these zones that will consist mainly of non-state actors known to be uncontrollable, who present a threat to regional stability as well as to the interests of Beijing, Moscow and Washington in the Middle East.

Meetings between Iranian, Turkish and Russian defense ministers have led to these states shifting their positions on the concept of safe zones and a division of efforts may emerge between safe zones in both the north and the south of the country. Safe zones are a fundamental necessity that must be supported by a stronger military intervention in Syria to provide security and constabulary functions. Protecting Jordan’s border this year is a fundamental requirement. Any failure may lead to a change to the Middle Eastern map, further shattering the Sykes-Picot deal during its centennial anniversary.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: bwb-studio

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