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July 9, the ceasefire in the south of Syria came into effect, agreed by US President and his Russian counterpart on July 7 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. The ceasefire regime extends to all parties to the conflict, with the exception of terrorist organizations, in the areas of Deraa, Kuneitra and Suweida, which are near the border with Jordan. De-escalation zones would be created, where the military operations stop. Russian military police will monitor security in the de-escalation zones and coordinate their actions with the United States and Jordan. Russia and the United States will provide humanitarian assistance to local residents.
According to the US National Security Adviser, General Herbert McMaster, the ceasefire agreement is an "important step" in the path of US victory over ISIS and the cessation of the civil war in Syria. Vladimir Putin stressed that the US position in Syria became "more pragmatic" during the press conference held July 8.
The very initiative to create zones of de-escalation belongs to Russia. The recent agreements between Trump and Putin resemble the memorandum of Russia, Iran and Turkey on the creation of four similar zones of de-escalation in the provinces of Idlib, Homs, in the enclave of East Guta, controlled by Syrian oppositionists. This memorandum was signed in May 2017 in Astana (Kazakhstan) from the Russian side, without the participation of the United States.
According to the memorandum, units of the armed forces of Russia, Iran, Turkey will be deployed in the zones of de-escalation to prevent new clashes of the Syrian opposition with the troops of Bashar Assad. Russia proposed to deploy in the de-escalation zones the military from the CIS member states - Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which are partners of the Kremlin in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Memorandum provides for the organization by member countries of logistics chains in the zones of de-escalation. The parties have not yet had time to implement the provisions of the memorandum. Russia, Iran, and Turkey have not finally agreed on the borders of the security zones, composition and location of their contingents. It is assumed that these issues will be discussed during the next meeting in Astana in late August.
The deployment of Russian military police in the zones of de-escalation in Syria was written in the American edition of The Daily Beast before it became known about the outcome of the negotiations between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Russia expects, under the pretext of ensuring security in the zones of de-escalation, to secure a military presence in various regions of Syria and to take the reins of settling the armed conflict in its own hands, with nominal participation of the United States and other countries. Russian and Iranian military can rebroad the political influence of Damascus in the zones of de-escalation and pave the way for the return of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the territories that are now under the control of the Syrian opposition.
Russians use American experience in Iraq of the 90s and 2000s in Syria. After the 1991 Desert Storm military operation, in the north and south of Iraq, "no-fly zones" were created, patrolled by US and British military aircraft to protect Kurds and Shiites from the repression of the regime of President Saddam Hussein. After the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein at the beginning of Iraqi Freedom military operation (2003-13), the territory of Iraq was divided into zones of occupation that were under the control of the US armed forces. Just as the US supports Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, Russia continues to support the regime of Bashar Assad, imitating peacekeeping activities.
With the help of controlled de-escalation zones in Syria, Vladimir Putin expects to work for Russia as a peacemaker and rid himself of the label of the aggressor country that was acquired after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas. The creation of zones of de-escalation will reduce the flow of refugees from Syria. Civilians can take refuge from military operations in these territories and receive humanitarian assistance. It is not without reason that Turkey and Jordan, who know firsthand about the problem of the Syrian refugees, take part in the initiative. On the territory of Turkey there are 2.9 million Syrian refugees, and in Jordan - 657 thousand. If peace comes at least in certain regions of Syria, the influx of refugees to the EU member states will be reduced. In 2016, 335,000 Syrian citizens applied for political asylum in European countries.
If the ceasefire regime in certain regions of Syria is respected, and the de-escalation zones become security oases, the Russian leadership will try to throw dust in the eyes of American colleagues. In case of success in Syria, Vladimir Putin can offer the US and EU the services of Russian military police for the settlement of the armed conflict in Donbas, without considering options for deployment along the line of delineation of international peacekeepers. This will enable Russia to implement the South Ossetian scenario of the 1990s in Donbas. From 1992 to 2008, the separatist formation of South Ossetia in the territory of Georgia was under the occupation of the Russian military, who posed as peacekeepers.
Will Trump step on Obama's rake?
The viability of Trump's accords with Putin over Syria is questionable. The new ceasefire regime can repeat the fate of the Munich agreement on February 12, 2016, which became one of the foreign policy failures of the administration of former President Barack Obama. The Munich agreement provided for the introduction of a ceasefire regime throughout Syria. The regime did not apply to terrorist organizations, including ISIS and Jebhat al-Nusra. Russia and the regime of Bashar Assad were to stop conducting offensive actions against the Syrian opposition. The United States and Russia were going to coordinate certain areas where air strikes should be applied. Humanitarian aid was planned to be delivered by air to the regions most affected by the conflict.
In practice, the cease-fire regime was violated by the parties to the conflict. Moscow and Damascus continued to conduct military operations against the Syrian opposition, arguing that they are terrorists. The Munich agreement was discredited after the destruction by Russian and Syrian troops of Aleppo, divided between oppositionists and supporters of the regime of President Bashar Assad. The Syrian oppositionist Ahmad al-Mashalmeh believes that the new ceasefire agreement is a concern, because there is no mechanism to comply with it. The same thing happened in the case of the Munich agreement: Moscow and Damascus did not bear any responsibility for its violation.
Trump and Putin did not determine the political future of Syria. It is impossible to achieve an effective settlement of the conflict, when the mediators support one of the parties. Russia and Iran are sponsoring Bashar Assad, and the United States and Turkey are Syrian opposition. Peacekeepers should not have interests in the conflict zone and must take a neutral position to all parties. The failure of the Hamburg agreements will strengthen the criticism of Donald Trump both from the Democrats and from the Republicans. Failure in Syria will mean that Donald Trump was unable to fulfill one of his election promises. The White House acts by old methods, repeating Barack Obama's mistakes.
Putin's verification of trust
It is not excluded that the recent agreements on a cease-fire in southern Syria is Trump’s attempt to check Vladimir Putin and make sure whether he can be trusted. There is a possibility that Moscow and Damascus will violate the ceasefire, given the failure of last year's Munich agreement. During the talks with Putin, Trump did not specifically focus on other problematic issues of US-Russian relations, Ukraine and interference in the US presidential campaign.
If the cease-fire regime is violated, then the US will have a convincing argument for increasing pressure on Russia. Donald Trump will be convinced that with the current Russian leadership it is impossible to negotiate anything and conduct business. The only question is when Donald Trump decides to move away from tactics of finding common ground with Russia to tighten anti-Russian sanctions. Syria is a more convincing argument for tightening anti-Russian sanctions. In Syria, there are oil fields, redistribution for which will begin after their release from the control of ISIS. There is a prospect of constructing a gas pipeline from Qatar through Syria with the participation of American companies if the US presidency takes the presidential seat in Damascus.
In the US Senate, there is an accumulated base of draft laws providing for the introduction of new sanctions against the Russian Federation. Recently, the bill "On Counteracting Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia" was approved. The bill implies the extension of restrictive measures to the oil and gas sector of the Russian Federation, the prohibition of foreign financing for the construction of new Russian gas pipelines. Republican Senator Ed Royce introduced on July 8 a bill to impose sanctions for Moscow's violation of the treaty on the elimination of medium and short-range missiles in 1987. Donald Trump will have to support the legislative initiatives of the senators and to tighten anti-Russian sanctions. Otherwise, the United States will not be able to force Russia to reckon with their interests.