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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Ceasefire deal for southern Syria could set template

The wide-ranging ceasefire should take effect on Sunday at noon Damascus time and suggests a larger agreement between Washington and Moscow on Syrian influence zones

Regime soldiers stands guard in Syria's southwestern Quneitra province on July 2, 2017 during ongoing clashes for control of the city of Al Baath. AFP
Regime soldiers stands guard in Syria's southwestern Quneitra province on July 2, 2017 during ongoing clashes for control of the city of Al Baath. AFP

A ceasefire for southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia could offer a template to halt fighting in other parts of the country when it comes into effect on Sunday.

The deal was announced by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face talks at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

The wide-ranging ceasefire should take effect on Sunday at noon Damascus time (1pm in the UAE). It would allow anti-government rebels in south-western Syria to focus on fighting ISIL.

The deal suggests a larger agreement between Washington and Moscow on Syrian influence zones and that a decision to ignore the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is now seen as possible.

Mr Putin described the ceasefire as a breakthrough that could become a prototype for a series of zones across Syria administered in coordination with the government in Damascus.

“If we succeed in doing this, we will create an undoubtedly good base and the prerequisites for a political solution in Syria in general,” the Russian president said on Saturday.

Mr Putin added that the deal was the result of the United States altering its stance and becoming more pragmatic about the situation there.

Earlier, Mr Trump said he had a "tremendous meeting" with Mr Putin on Friday, which included the Syrian ceasefire.

Mr Tillerson said the agreement, if it holds, may be a rolled out for other parts of the country. “This area in the south is our first show of success. We hope we can replicate that elsewhere,” he said.

The deal was welcomed as a positive development that could support the political process to end the six-year war, the UN deputy special envoy for Syria, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy said on Saturday.

"This is a step in the right direction,” he said in Damascus.

Diplomatic sources in Washington told The National that Brett McGurk, the US Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has been “instrumental in panning out the deal” and that “intricate details and areas of influence are discussed with the players involved.” Reports last month said Mr McGurk and US Syria envoy Michael Ratney held secret talks with Russia in Jordan in May.

On Wednesday, Mr Tillerson said: “The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance” that “would lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future”.

On Friday, he added: “We have a very clear picture of who will provide the security forces, but we have a few more details to work out.” Those discussions should be finalised within a week.

Randa Slim, director of The Middle East Institute's Track II Dialogues initiative, said the ceasefire deal defines “the negotiation framework for US-Russia coordination in Syria.”

Ms Slim believes Russia would look to establish no-fly zones, ceasefire observer missions, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.

For the US, the priority will be to “ensure that areas liberated from ISIL are not taken illegally by the Assad regime… and to prevent any future regime use of Chemical Weapons.”

The approach towards Syria seems to be more straight forward from the Trump administration, said Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

“The Trump team is much more candid and honest than the Obama administration about the need to have Russia bought into the framework that de-escalates the Syrian civil war,” Mr Heras said. “Syria is already partitioned into zones of control, and the American zone of control in eastern Syria is growing every day.”

Mr Heras added that reinforcing this soft partition of zones and assigning control is implementable because Syria is not a cohesive state under one government.

The diplomatic sources in Washington said the American zone of influence would “stretch into the Jazeera region in Syria” which covers some of the border areas with Iraq, Raqqa, Tal Abyad and areas controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

The new ceasefire between Syrian government forces and associated troops on one side and rebels on the other will be implemented along a line of contact near the Jordanian border.

It is not known who would control the border with Israel, but a key goal for Israel is to drive out Iranian proxies from the area. Jordan’s King Abdullah made a private visit to Washington last week where he met US secretaries of state and defense Mr Tillerson and James Mattis.

Ms Slim said this is the only "plan on the table right now that the US could live with and around which there is an emerging international and regional consensus.”

The plan does not concretely address the fate of Mr Al Assad whom the US called on to step down in August of 2011.

“We see no long-term role for the Assad family or the Assad regime,” Mr Tillerson said.

A US state department official added: “the Syrian people should determine their country’s political future through a political process.”

Jordan and Israel were also involved in the negotiations for the ceasefire. The two countries are critical US allies who have voiced concerns over the heightened military activity on their border with Syria.

Mr Heras believes Iran remains a wild card in this plan and whether it challenges the US zone of influence or remains present through proxies by the Syrian-Israeli border. “Assad and Iran will try to target the local Syrian partner forces that are waging the coalition's counter-ISIL campaign” but “agreement between the Americans and Russians can restrain both” the expert said.

For Ms Slim, however, Iran’s role “all depends on how Tehran sees this plan affecting Mr Al Assad's long-term survival and what costs it will incur as far as its relationship with Moscow is concerned if it were to act as a spoiler.”

“If his survival is secured and the costs are high, it will not spoil it,” she added.

* Additional reporting by Reuters

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