Syrian FM: No international force for Syria safe zones


BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s foreign minister on Monday dismissed the idea of foreign forces patrolling four safe zones that are to be established under a deal struck by Russia, Iran and Turkey, suggesting Damascus would only settle for Russian “military police” who are already on the ground in the so-called de-escalation zones.

Damascus would abide by the agreement signed in the Kazakh capital of Astana last week, Walid al-Moallem told reporters at a news conference in the Syrian capital, but cautioned it was “premature” to tell whether the deal would succeed.

“There will be no presence by any international forces supervised by the United Nations,” al-Moallem said. “The Russian guarantor has clarified that there will be military police and observation centers.”

Though he did not specify who the military police would be, he appeared to be referring to Russian observers already in Syria.

Al-Moallem also vowed that Syrian government forces would respond “decisively” to any violation or attack from the opposition’s side.

“There are still logistical details that will be discussed in Damascus and we will see the extent of commitment to this agreement,” al-Moallem said.

The Russia-Iran-Turkey cease-fire deal went into effect over the weekend and brought a general reduction in violence across the country, but clashes continued, particularly in central Syria. There are still questions about how it will be enforced.

According to statements in Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran, which support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, may deploy armed forces to secure the four so-called “de-escalation zones,” in what would amount to unprecedented coordination between the three regional powers.

The United States is not party to the de-escalation agreement. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. owes it to the people of Syria to take a close look at the proposal for “safe zones” in Syria. But Mattis also said the plan poses many unanswered questions, including whether it would be effective.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him to Copenhagen, he suggested that it’s still not yet clear what impact the plan could have on the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State group militants.

“We’ll look at the proposal, see if it can work,” said Mattis, who will attend a meeting of the anti-IS coalition in the Danish capital. “Will it affect the fight against ISIS? I think the international community is united in the sense of wanting to see ISIS put on its back foot.”

For his part, al-Moallem said the government hopes the agreement will, as a start, achieve a separation between Syrian armed opposition groups and extremist groups such as the al-Qaida branch in Syria.

“It is the duty of these armed groups to force the Nusra Front (al-Qaida branch) and others to leave their areas in order for this area to become an area of de-escalation,” he said.

Even if the agreement is enforced, it is unlikely to end the conflict. Despite several rounds of U.N.-mediated negotiations in Geneva, the government and opposition remain at odds over President Bashar Assad’s future role in Syria.

Al-Moallem also warned neighboring Jordan not to send troops to Syria, adding that Damascus does not want confrontation but “if Jordanian forces enter our land without coordination with Syria, we will consider them hostile forces.”

The Syrian foreign minister also suggested the government forces’ next target is Deir el-Zour, where IS militants are besieging parts of the eastern city that are under government control and are home to tens of thousands of people. Al-Moallem said the government plans to liberate all parts of Syria that are not under government control, adding that areas bordering Iraq will be a priority.

Al-Moallem said the Syrian government’s alternative to stalled negotiations has been the implementation of “reconciliation agreements” around the country.

Such agreements have seen the surrender of rebel-held areas to government forces and their allies on the ground, often after a prolonged period of siege in exchange for safe relocation to opposition-held areas elsewhere in the country.

As the foreign minister spoke to reporters, hundreds of rebels and their families left aboard buses from a besieged opposition-held neighborhood of Damascus for rebel-held areas in the country’s north, according to state TV and opposition activists.

Meanwhile, about 20 wounded people were put into ambulances in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus, and the northwestern government-held villages of Foua and Kfaraya that are besieged by the rebels, for evacuation later Monday, opposition activists said.

The development is the latest in a series of population transfers in the war-torn country over the past year. However, the evacuation of more than 1,000 people from Damascus’ northeastern Barzeh neighborhood is the first in this area.

Barzeh came under siege last month, after government forces captured a major road near the area separating it from rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Over the past months, tens of thousands of people living in besieged areas around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — have surrendered under similar agreements.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hundreds are expected to leave Barzeh, with around 1,500 expected to leave on Monday and more in the coming weeks. Syrian state TV said some 60 buses and ambulances of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were on hand for the evacuations.

Syrian state TV said 1,022 fighters and their families have moved from Barzeh toward northern Syria while opposition activist Mazen al-Shami said more than 900 people have left Barzeh and are now on their way to Idlib.

Some opposition activists have criticized the population movements as “forced displacement.”

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report from Copenhagen, Denmark.