Syria “safe zones”–Russia wants out

Four “safe zones” in Syria–that’s the plan for starting to wind down the civil war. I talked about the idea with host P.J. Maloney a few minutes ago on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

This emerges from peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that bring together many of the parties to the Syria conflict. The sponsors of the safe zone plan are Russia and Iran, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

The safe zones would mean an end to much of the fighting in Syria–if this works. The main issue is who enforces these safe zones, who stops the fighting. That’s because whoever enforces the plan controls the zones.

The three sponsors want to take their plan to the UN Security Council for endorsement, and that means it would need the agreement of the other permanent members, including the US, Britain, and France. They’re looking for clarifications, mainly about that question of who would wield the power in the four zones.

What’s behind this is that Russia appears to be looking to wind down the fighting–a clear signal, probably unintentional, that it wants to find a way out of the Syria mess. Russian involvement has been costly and complicated. The Russians want to preserve their military bases near the Syrian coast, but otherwise they have little actual interest in Syria–yet they’re up to their ears in backing Assad militarily. That has costs beyond the monetary–that’s the same Assad who used sarin gas against his own people and brought world condemnation down on himself just last month. There are those who charge that Russia was involved in the attack, a charge Moscow denies.

It would be silly to say that Russia cares about issues like human rights and battlefield niceties, but it’s struggling for its international standing, and being associated with a gas attack doesn’t help.

Another lesson that can be learned from all this, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that even Russia, with a material stake in the game (its bases), is looking for a way out of the military conflict. So it would be stupid for some other power, say the US, to come wading in now under the guise of controlling the safe zones. The US government says it’s actively engaged in working out the details of the plan–but that’s coming from the Pentagon, not the State Department (if there still is a State Department).

There is, of course, a precedent. In 1954, France was kicked out of Vietnam by local rebel forces. The US marched right in to replace the French. We all know how that turned out.


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