What are ‘de-escalation zones’ agreed for Syria?

BEIRUT: After six years of conflict in Syria, Russia and Iran and Turkey have signed a deal to create four “de-escalation zones” in the country.
Here are some questions and answers about the deal and the planned zones:
What are ‘de-escalation zones?’
The zones are four areas located across eight of Syria’s 14 provinces.
The first includes Idlib in the northwest, which is controlled by a coalition of armed groups including a former Al Qaeda affiliate, along with neighbouring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, each of which have rebel-held areas. The second is in the north of central Homs province, where rebels hold a stretch of territory, with the third covering the Eastern Ghouta area, a rebel stronghold outside the capital Damascus.
The fourth zone covers southern Syria, particularly Daraa and Quneitra province, which both have large rebel-held areas, though a armed faction close to the IS is also present in Quneitra.
The zones do not cover the three areas held entirely by the government, Damascus city, Tartus and Sweida, or areas in the northeast held by IS or a Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting the militant group.
Along the lines of the “de-escalation zones” will be “security zones” with checkpoints and observation posts to monitor and secure access.
What’s the timescale?
The memorandum agreed during talks in Astana does not specify a start date for the implementation of the zones, but calls on the signatories to form a joint working group within two weeks.
The group will then “take steps to complete by 4 June 2017 the preparation of the maps of the de-escalation areas and security zones and to separate the armed opposition groups from the terrorist groups.”
The document defines “terrorist groups” as IS, the former Al Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al Nusra Front, as well as groups or individuals affiliated with them.
Once established, the zones will be in place for an initial period of six months, but may be extended.
How will it look on the ground?
Government forces and rebels who have signed onto the deal will agree to halt all hostilities, including the use of warplanes, in the zones.
Several forces have carried out air strikes within Syria, including Russia and a US-led coalition battling IS.
A Russian diplomat confirmed on Friday that the terms would prevent the coalition from carrying out strikes in the zones.
The deal calls for “rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access” in the areas in question, as well as measures to restore basic infrastructure and allow the “safe and voluntary return” of displaced people and refugees.
Access to the areas will be controlled via security zones complete with checkpoints and observation posts. The deal calls for security to be “ensured by the forces of the guarantors by consensus,” adding that “third parties might be deployed.”
What chance of success?
The deal builds on a ceasefire agreed between Russia and Turkey last December that reduced violence for a period but gradually fell apart.
This proposal is significantly more ambitious, involving the deployment of forces from the guarantor countries and seeking to ground all warplanes.
But it also calls for the continued fight against IS and former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al Sham Front, which could pose challenges.
In Idlib province in particular, Fateh al Sham is a leading and powerful component of the opposition forces controlling the region, and a key ally for other rebel groups against the regime.
Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the agreement “looks more serious than previous Astana efforts.” — AFP