Powerbrokers Russia, Turkey and Iran failed yesterday to iron out the details of four safe zones in war-torn Syria after two days of peace talks in Kazakhstan.
Moscow and Tehran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and rebel supporter Ankara agreed in May to establish four “de-escalation” zones in a potential breakthrough after more than six years of fighting that has claimed more than 320,000 lives.
While fighting dropped off in the weeks after the deal, it has since returned in several areas, and the international players have yet to agree the exact boundaries of the zones or determine who will police them.
Chief Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev said seven documents outlining how the zones should work “need finalising” despite being “essentially agreed” between the three key powerbrokers in Astana.
“We have not yet managed directly to establish the de-escalation zones,” Lavrentiev said, insisting however that “de-facto” safe zones already exist on the ground.
Lavrentiev said that the borders of two zones — covering rebel-held parts of Homs province and Eastern Ghouta near Damascus — have been agreed in principle.
One major stumbling block appears to be over who will ensure security in all four areas, with Turkey and Iran in particular reportedly wrangling to bolster their influence.
Lavrentiev said that it had been agreed that Russian military police carrying light weapons would be involved in patrolling buffer areas around some of the zones.
He also accepted that a zone meant to cover swathes of southern Syria would likely need to involve the United States and Jordan in some capacity.
A source close to the Syrian rebel delegation that attended the talks said that they would refuse a proposal to have Iran monitor the safe zone in central Homs province.
Turkish and Russian forces are likely to be deployed in the northern de-escalation zone’s “buffer territory, separating the opposition and regime” in parts of Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo province, the source suggested.
The lack of progress shows how tough the going has been for Moscow as it pushes the Astana talks in a bid to turn its game-changing intervention on the side of Assad into a concerted push to pacify Syria.
A working group of experts from Russia, Iran and Turkey is set to meet in Tehran on August 1-2 to try to thrash out the details, before another round of meetings in Astana later that month.
The talks in Astana have largely seen the West sidelined, but they are intended to complement broader political negotiations the United Nations is backing in Geneva, which are due to restart next week.
Talking in Astana, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there had been “small progress” in the work on de-escalating the conflict and called for “progress on the political side”.

Russia hits IS with advanced cruise missiles
Russian strategic bombers fired advanced cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria yesterday from a distance of 1,000 kilometres in a show of force Moscow said demolished three ammunition depots and a command post.
Moscow carried out the attack just two days before President Vladimir Putin and US counterpart Donald Trump are due to hold heir first face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, and after the Kremlin said they would discuss whether they were ready to team up against Islamic State in Syria. The Russian Defence Ministry said the attack was carried out by Tupolev-95MS strategic bombers which had taken off from a base on Russian soil and refuelled mid-air before firing at targets on the border between the Hama and Homs provinces. 
“The strikes were carried out using high-precision Kh-101 missiles from a distance of about 1,000 kilometres,” the ministry said in a statement.

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