It is not easy to follow what has been happening in Syria. After six years of war and between 300,000 and 400,000 people killed — with half the population displaced and a dizzying array of factions, foreign armies and extremist groups fighting — it is hard to know who shares what interest with whom or how the killing stops.
Over the last few weeks, the fight for Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian capital, and the battle for Deir Ezzor, the gateway to Iraq and the location of oil fields, have heated up, but the intensity of fighting in some other parts of the country has diminished. This is because Syrian government forces and their allies — Hezbollah, Shia militias from Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Russian bombers — have taken and held territory. The Russians have also taken the lead in establishing “de-escalation zones” in parts of seven provinces and in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Last weekend while the world was focused on North Korea and the referendum in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Turkish military pushed into a buffer area south of Turkey’s border with Syria and dropped a significant amount of equipment there. This is in preparation for the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib governorate — a 2,300-square-mile area that is sandwiched between Aleppo to the east and the Turkish province of Hatay to the west.
Under an agreement establishing these zones that the Russian, Iranian and Turkish governments hammered out in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last May, hostilities must come to an end, humanitarian assistance must be expedited and infrastructure must be repaired. The parties — or “guarantors” as they are referred to in the “Memorandum on the Creation of De-Escalation Areas in the Syrian Arab Republic” — also agree to “take all necessary measures to ensure the fulfillment” of the ceasefire; continue to fight the Islamic State, the “Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL”; and encourage those who have not joined the ceasefire to do so. The agreement is renewable every six months so long as the governments of Russia, Turkey and Iran consent to it. The hope is that de-escalation will produce a durable ceasefire that will eventually bring the war in Syria to an end.