Turkey, Russia and Iran, the main sponsors of the Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan, have signed a deal to create “safe zones” inside the war-torn country, in one of the most concrete steps yet to ending the conflict.
Ankara, chief backer of the Syrian opposition, Moscow and Tehran, which provide military support for Bashar al-Assad’s government, agreed to establish four “deconfliction zones” which will be monitored by international troops.
However parts of the rebel delegation, which is not a signatory, stormed out the room as the document was being signed in the Kazakh capital Astana on Thursday, objecting to the memorandum which they said “violated the country’s territorial sovereignty.”
"We are against the division of Syria,” said opposition delegate Osama Abu Zaid. “As for the agreements, we are not a party to that agreement and of course we will never be in favour (of it) as long as Iran is called a guarantor state."
The rebels see Iran, a Shia-majority country, as responsible for stoking the sectarian nature of the war in Syria.
The deal, which will see the use of all weapons banned and flights grounded from Saturday, covers four of the country’s most contested areas: Idlib province, largely controlled by jihadist and other rebel groups; Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburbs besieged by government forces; a pocket north of the central city of Homs; and southern Syria along the Jordanian border.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and formerly al-Qaeda-aligned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which operates in Idlib, are excluded from the agreement. This means regime forces can continue to target the groups’ militants in any areas they believe they are present.
Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria who was present at the signing, hailed the plan as a step in the right direction towards a real cessation of hostilities.
The logic of implementing safe zones in a conflict is to create secure, contained areas in which displaced people could flee and receive protection from violence and humanitarian relief.
Turkey has long been advocating for “deconfliction” zones and has spent months securing a buffer zone along its border with Syria, in the hoping of creating de facto safe areas to which refugees can return.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan said on Thursday that the deal would see “50 per cent of the conflict” solved.
US President Donald Trump campaigned for the creation of safe zones throughout his presidential campaign and is understood to have discussed the proposal with Russian president Vladimir Putin in a telephone call earlier this week.
The deal was also reached a day after a meeting between Mr Putin and his counterpart Mr Erdogan, and reflects the growing cooperation between nations once deeply at odds over Syria’s conflict.
One rebel source told the Telegraph: “Turkey now has Russia as a friend again, and that relationship is more important to them than its one with the Syrian opposition. They are making greater concessions in our name to make sure they don’t do anything to harm that.”
The three guarantor states also agreed on the possibility of allowing international observers to act as peacekeepers in the four zones.
It is so far unclear which countries the monitors could be drawn from. The opposition has already refused to accept any Russian or Iranian troops, while Russian media reports suggest they could include forces from former Soviet states such as Kazakhstan, or Brazil or India.
Kyle Orton, Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, said he was sceptical of the deal, as like many previous ceasefire agreements there are loopholes which the government could exploit.
“The same areas can be targeted under the pretext of hitting terrorist targets,’ he told the Telegraph. "It's a fundamental problem."