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‘Relative calm’ in Syrian safe zones after deal implemented

Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin attends a briefing in the Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, May 5, 2017. Russia’s military says the agreement setting up four de-escalation zones in Syria will go into effect at midnight. The military also says the deal, which was signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Kazakhstan the day before, could be extended to more areas of the war-torn country. (Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)
By Bassem Mroue Associated Press

BEIRUT – Violence left at least four opposition fighters dead and a child wounded in central and southern Syria on Saturday despite relative calm prevailing across the war-ravaged country after a deal to set up “de-escalation zones” in mostly opposition-held areas went into effect, opposition activists and government media outlets said.

The casualties were the first after the implementation of the agreement hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran – the latest attempt to bring calm to the country – commenced at midnight Friday.

The establishment of safe zones is the latest international attempt to reduce violence amid a six-year civil war that has left more than 400,000 dead, and is the first to envisage armed foreign monitors on the ground in Syria. The United States is not party to the agreement and the Syrian rivals have not signed on to the deal. The armed opposition, instead, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it lacks legitimacy.

Details of the plan must still be worked out over the next several weeks. There were limited reports of bombing in northern Homs and Hama, and the southern province of Daraa, areas expected to be part of the “de-escalation zones,” activists said.

It is not clear how the cease-fire or “de-escalation zones” will be enforced in areas still to be determined in maps to emerge a month from now.

Russian officials said it will be at least another month until the details are worked out and the safe areas established.

In the tangled mess that constitutes Syria’s battlefields, there is much that can go wrong with the plan agreed on in talks Thursday in Kazakhstan.

Syria’s government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

The armed opposition delegation to the talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana said in a statement released early Saturday that the truce should include all Syria and not just specific areas. It said some maps of the “de-escalation zones” that were released are not accurate and will not be accepted because the armed opposition did not negotiate them.

Still, opposition activists in southern, central and northern Syria told the Associated Press on Saturday that the situation was more clam Saturday than previous days, with little shelling and airstrikes reported.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media reported there was “relative calm” Saturday morning in the “de-escalation zones” nine hours after the deal went into effect.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has activists on the ground across the country, said the government’s helicopter gunships dropped at least 10 barrel bombs on the rebel-held Latamneh area and its surroundings in central Syria where fighting was reported between rebels and troops. It added that government forces shelled rebel-held neighborhoods of the capital Damascus.

“Despite some violations the situation is much calmer than before,” said opposition activist Mohammed al-Homsi, speaking via Skype from northern Syria.

Ahmad al-Masalmeh, who is based in the southern province of Daraa that borders Jordan, said there were six breaches in the province when government forces shelled opposition-held areas.

The Observatory and al-Masalmeh said government forces targeted a rebel position near the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, killing four fighters. It was not immediately clear if the fighters were members of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee that is usually excluded from cease-fires.

The Observatory and the Ghouta Media Center, an activist collective, said a child was wounded when government forces shelled the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna.

Syrian state TV said rebels shelled the central government-held town of Mahrade but had no immediate word on casualties.

Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft sometimes operate in the same areas in Syria. It is not yet clear how the new plan would affect flight paths of coalition warplanes battling militants from the Islamic State group and other radical groups – and whether the American Air Force would abide by a diminished airspace.

The Pentagon said the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against IS.

The U.S. military said in a statement that Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Saturday with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Federation Chief of General Staff, about the recent Astana agreement and affirmed their commitment to de-conflicting operations in Syria. Both also agreed to maintain regular contact, the statement said.

Russia and Iran – two of the plan’s three sponsors – are key allies of President Bashar Assad’s government and both are viewed as foreign occupation forces by his opponents. Rebels fighting to topple Assad are enraged by Iran’s role in the deal and blame the Shiite power for fueling the sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict, now in its seventh year.

Turkey, the third sponsor, is a major backer of opposition factions and has also sent troops into northern Syria, drawing the ire of Assad and his government.

Yet troops from the three countries are now expected to secure four safe zones. An official with Russia’s military general staff said other countries may eventually have a role in enforcing the de-escalation areas.

Russian Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi told reporters on Friday that personnel from Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate checkpoints and observation posts.

But it’s difficult to imagine how many boots on the ground would be needed to monitor the yet to be mapped areas or how and where exactly Russian, Iranian and Turkish troops would patrol.

A previous cease-fire agreement that went into effect on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence in Syria for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have all ended in failure.