DEBKAfile, May 6, 2017:
The widely reported Kremlin plan to set up four safe or “de-escalation” zones, that were supposed to have gone into effect in Syria Friday night, May 5, turns out to be nothing but a propaganda ploy. The spin factor leaps to the eye from the small print of the plan that was released by Gen. Sergey Rudskoy, head of Russian General Staffs Operations Division, Friday night. He outlined four steps that may never take off
1. Observation points will be set up to monitor the ceasefire (in the four designated de-escalation zones).
So when the putative safe zones were to have started operating Friday night, there were no observation points to monitor them.
2. The boundaries of the zones will be determined in accordance with the observation points.
This means that the zones don’t exist.
3. By June 4, a working team made up of officers of the three guarantors, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be created to administer the observation points.
Who can tell what will happen in Syrian in a month’s time.
4. Only after the observation groups of the three sponsor-nations’ armies finish mapping the ceasefire zones can it be determined whether the plan is doable or not.
Still no zones.
The Russian propaganda machine worked overtime this weekend to convince the Western media that the ceasefire zones plan had won the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The truth is that US President Donald Trump did not commit himself one way or another when he talked on the phone with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, May 2, although most of their conversation was devoted to Syria, rather than the North Korean crisis. There was no agreement between them on any Syrian issue, except for a decision that American and Russian forces in the war-torn country would stay out of each other’s way.
In sum, Moscow’s ceasefire zones plan, though effectively propagandized, has changed nothing in Syria’s bloody predicament.
With so much still up in the air, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked by phone Friday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after which he gave the following statement: “The secretary looks forward to further meetings with the foreign minister to discuss the respective roles of the United States and Russia in de-escalating the conflict and supporting the talks in Geneva to move the political solution forward.”
Tillerson made no mention of any safe zones which Moscow claims to be setting up with Ankara and Tehran, or of the Russian-sponsored Syrian peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Rebel groups, supposed to be holding a dialogue with Assad regime representatives, walked out of its fourth round last week. And the Trump administration appears unwilling to throw its support behind the Russian-sponsored peace initiative, preferring to stand solidly behind the UN-sponsored Geneva process.
Turkey and Iran, the other two “sponsors” of the Astana framework, and putative “guarantors” of the safe zones, are strangely silent about the roles assigned them by the Kremlin. And no wonder. As rivals in the Syrian arena, their forces are ranged against each other in both Syria and Iraq. It is hard to see them working shoulder to shoulder alongside Russian officers to monitor safety zones which are still pie in the sky.
The situation at the moment is this: In Iraq, Turkish and Iranian troops – essentially pro-Iranian militias under the command of Revolutionary Guards officers – glare at each other across two warfronts, Tel Afar and Sinjar. In Syria, each of their armies is poised to grab Al-Bab in the Aleppo province.
The only real change in Syria’s military situation is a surreptitious one, which may present a fresh, wide-ranging peril: The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah has agreed to place the 8,000 members fighting in Syria for Bashar Assad under direct Iranian command. This is part of a radical reorganization of all the military outfits Iran has deployed in Syria, whereby all the Shiite militias including Hizballah fall henceforth directly under a single centralized Iranian command.
This fundamental shift in the military balance in Syria was initiated by Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Suleiman, commander of Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. He convinced supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that there was no other way to safeguard Iran’s military supremacy in the Syrian war arena, guarantee a land bridge to Lebanon, or mobilize tactically for future confrontations with Israel.
The Syrian ruler also submitted to this step. Therefore, Hizballah and the Shiite militias will henceforth operate under the orders of the Iranian military mission which has its seat at Syrian High Command Headquarters in Damascus.
This “reorganization” opens the door for Hizballah officers to assume Iranian army uniforms and act as “ceasefire monitors” if Russia’s fictitious safe zones ever get off the ground.