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Expert Views: Does a ‘Unified Syria’ Contradict De-Escalation Zones?

Syria Deeply’s expert community weighed in on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent remarks about working with Russia to create a “unified Syria,” and whether or not this contradicts Moscow’s de-escalation zone proposal.

Written by Kim Bode, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Us russia diplomacy tillerson lavrov
U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the Treaty Room of the State Department in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017. AFP/MANDEL NGAN

At first glance, the stated willingness of United States secretary of state Rex Tillerson to work with Russia toward a “unified Syria” seems to contradict Moscow’s de-escalation zone proposal, which some experts say could lead to the de facto partitioning of the country.

However, a deeper look at both countries’ stated goals and interests reveals that their long-term aims are actually more closely aligned. As part of our ongoing series, Syria Deeply reached out to its expert community to unpack this complex issue.

Jasmine El-Gamal, senior fellow, Atlantic Council

At this point in the conflict, it is worth taking stock of the core interests at stake as the two great powers in the Middle East attempt to carve out their respective zones of influence in Syria. One must ask, why are these two countries proposing the solutions they have put forth? What are each of their interests, and what are their stated goals?

Russia’s foremost interest is to exert strategic and tactical dominance over the U.S. in Syria. Second is to protect and ensure the survival of the Assad regime – not because it cares about President Bashar al-Assad, but because his political survival merely hammers home the first point: Russian dominance. Third on Russia’s list of priorities is to eradicate ISIS in Syria; mostly because it does not want copycat jihadists popping up and giving it a headache in the Caucasus.

As the Obama and Trump administrations have demonstrated, the core U.S. interest in Syria is the containment and defeat of ISIS. This means Washington is willing to cede territorial and strategic control of Syria to Russia. The most telling sign of this acquiescence is the fact that Russia has signed multiple bilateral agreements with the Syrian opposition for de-escalation and safe zones. This clearly signifies a tacit understanding between the two countries: cooperate with us on defeating ISIS, and the rest of Syria is yours.

So, there is no contradiction in the two countries’ stated goals, only opportunities for coordination and deconfliction.

Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council

In principle, the stated intention of the U.S. to work with Moscow toward a “unified Syria” does not contradict the Russian idea of creating de-escalation zones on the ground. The statement emphasizes the preferred political outcome of the Syrian conflict, which is to avoid redrawing borders and partitioning the country. The Kremlin would definitely support this approach.

On the other hand, de-escalation zones are not about political settlement; they are about military tactics. Moscow would like to see this tactic work out with the U.S. in the southwest of Syria, and it would also like to see the U.S. as an active and committed participant to the multilateral Astana process.

At some point, de-escalation zones might constitute a potential challenge to maintaining the political integrity of the future Syrian state. If these zones imply a long-term foreign military presence in certain parts of Syria, they might eventually lead to a de facto “soft partition” of the country into a number of “spheres of influence” permanently controlled by regional or overseas powers.

Nevertheless, at the current stage the most important immediate goal, as Moscow sees it, is to reduce the level of military violence and avoid a direct confrontation between external players directly involved in combat operations on the territory of Syria. The U.S. generally shares this goal; the devil is in the details, as always.

Perry Cammack, fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Formally, the recently negotiated U.S.-Russian de-escalation zone in southern Syria that stretches from from Quneitra in the Syrian Golan to Daraa and Sweida just north of Jordan is an addition to Russia’s earlier proposal in cooperation with Turkey and Iran. That said, the new location matches one of the [originally proposed de-escalation] zones.

Russia has begun to establish military checkpoints to support these zones, including near the Israel-Syrian buffer zone in the Golan. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Russia is slowly codifying its military and diplomatic initiative along Syria’s populated western coastal regions.

Tillerson has stated that the de-escalation zones could serve as a foundation for future U.S.-Russian cooperation toward a broader political settlement. It’s true that Moscow and Washington agree, as do most neighboring states, on the need for both a unified Syria and a negotiated settlement. Any sustained reduction of violence that saves civilian lives and provides for increased humanitarian assistance is certainly welcome.

But beyond these abstract principles and notwithstanding the Assad regime’s significant military momentum, a political solution still appears distant. All previous cease-fire efforts have failed amid the proliferation of local fighting groups and contradictory foreign interests. Although Arab states have been de-emphasizing Syria and perhaps even beginning to make [peace] with Assad’s survival, the matter of Iran’s role in a future Syria remains highly contentious. Israel has expressed loud concerns that the southern de-escalation zone opens the door to an Iranian presence along its border, which could lead to the opening of a new military front.

Lastly, there is the issue of U.S.-Russian relations, which President Donald Trump recently declared, with typical hyperbole, are at an “all-time and very dangerous low.” Relations are likely to deteriorate further still, amid the congressionally mandated imposition of new economic sanctions on Russia and multiple investigations into [allegations of] Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, furthering complicating diplomatic efforts to resolve the [conflict] in Syria.

Vladimir Frolov, Russian political analyst

It does not contradict Moscow’s long-term vision for Syria as a unified sovereign state under a power-sharing arrangement that brings together all the major groups. But it is a long way from happening. De-escalation zones are just a short-term arrangement to end the violence and give some space for a political process; they are not designed for permanent partition, but could become a vehicle for one.

I think here Russia and the U.S. are largely on the same wavelength. The U.S. has moved toward the Russian vision – an “Assad-lite” regime. The devil is in their ability to implement their vision. Iran, Assad and [al-Qaida-linked militants] are players that have their own vision for Syria and a U.S.-Russian mind-meld is their worst nightmare. They will act as spoilers for any deal reached between Moscow and Washington.

Raisa Sheynberg, director of APCO Global Solutions and former senior adviser to the U.S. Treasury and the White House

Rex Tillerson’s stated desire to work with Moscow toward a unified Syria does not have to contradict Russia’s more immediate objective of establishing de-escalation zones. A unified Syria is a long-term objective for the U.S., and, arguably, for most of the parties involved in the conflict.

Russia’s push for de-escalation zones is an interim step toward cessation of hostilities and, while the proposal is … opportunistic for Russia, as well as Iran, it could be a step in the right direction if in fact the violence abates and civilians in the de-escalation zones are protected.

Moreover, working with Moscow quietly on a concrete initiative that Moscow feels it is driving could serve to build trust between Washington and Moscow, something that is in short supply these days.

Alexander Bratersky, senior foreign policy writer for Gazeta.ru

I don’t think it goes against Moscow’s plans because the U.S. had previously been OK with the [de-escalation] zones. Since Syria is the only area where Moscow and Washington can work together, keeping the zones is the only solution. However, both countries understand, despite their rhetoric, that Syria will not survive as a unified state but as several smaller countries. These zones may be a first step to that, but both countries are reluctant to acknowledge this.

The statements have been edited for length and clarity.

For more original reporting, our own in-depth analysis and thought-provoking expert commentary, visit our Safe Zones platform.

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