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By Anne Barnard,
The New York Times,
7 May 2017

Russia Says Deal Bars American Jets From Much of Syria`s Skies. U.S. Says No

BEIRUT, Lebanon. United States and allied aircraft will be banned from flying over much of Syria as part of a deal struck by Iran, Russia and Turkey to foster a cease-fire in the Syrian war, a senior Russian diplomat said Friday.

But a State Department spokesman later said that the agreement, which the United States did not sign, does not "preclude anyone from going after terrorists wherever they may be in Syria." The spokesman, Edgar Vasquez, said Russian officials` interpretation of their own agreement "makes no sense."

A senior State Department official was at the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that led to the deal, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The agreement aims to establish four "de-escalation zones," where Syrian government and rebel forces are supposed to stop fighting each other.

The accord raised the prospect that after years of government opponents asking the United States and its allies for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the Syrian military`s bombings, it could end up being Russia, Syria`s ally, that imposes one.

But there are many factors that could undermine the deal, as with previous cease-fires. It has not been accepted by all opposition groups, and the Syrian government reserved the right to continue fighting what it called terrorist organizations across the country.

The Russian statements could also signal an effort to limit American strikes against Syrian government forces like the one carried out in retaliation for a chemical attack last month. They suggested that United States warplanes could be barred from all of the most important areas contested by the government and rebels that are not affiliated with the Islamic State.

The Russian diplomat, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, suggested that Russian and Turkish warplanes would, like the United States-led coalition, be prohibited from flying over the zones.

But Mr. Lavrentiev, Russia`s special envoy on Syria, seemed to sketch out a broader geographical no-fly zone for American and coalition military planes. He said they would be allowed to fly only in eastern Syria over Islamic State-held areas, apparently excluding the entire western spine of the country.

Capt. Jeff Davis of the Pentagon would not say if the United States military would honor the zones and promise not to fly over them.

No-fly zones have been a contentious issue in the Syrian conflict, now in its seventh year; they have long been requested by rebel groups and rejected by the government. Disputes about who can fly planes and when - "subtle professional issues," the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, called them recently - are likely to continue under the new deal.

Nevertheless, one of the representatives of the Syrian opposition groups at the talks, Col. Ahmad Berri, sounded a more optimistic note than some other rebel leaders, saying he expected to see a full cease-fire in the designated zones.

"The Russians this time are more serious, we sensed it, more than last time," he said in a telephone interview. "The regime will be committed to the deal because the Russians are the guarantor, so if the Russians said no bombing, the regime will stop."

On Friday evening, even before the official start of the cease-fire, families in rebel-held areas that have been routinely bombed went to parks, picnicked and organized antigovernment demonstrations.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in a statement late Wednesday that it "supports" the initiative on de-escalation zones, "including not shelling those areas."

But the statement also said the Syrian military would continue to fight banned terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Qaeda-linked militants and "affiliated terrorist organizations" anywhere in Syria.

Government opponents saw the statement as signaling that the Syrian military intended to keep bombing wherever it chose on the pretext of fighting terrorism.

"Aviation over these territories ceases," Mr. Lavrentiev told reporters in Astana on Friday, a day after the deal was signed between Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian government, and Turkey, which backs some rebels.

But in response to a question about the United States-led coalition formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, Mr. Lavrentiev did not mince words: "The work of aviation, especially the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged," he said. "This issue is now closed."

He added that "the only place" where the coalition could operate was against Islamic State targets in Raqqa, along the Euphrates, Deir al-Zour and into Iraqi territory.

The excluded area encompasses Idlib Province, where American warplanes have been carrying out an intensifying series of airstrikes against what officials say are Qaeda operatives. It also includes some of the areas where Turkey, a NATO ally, has skirmished with Kurdish militias also backed, sometimes with airstrikes, by the United States.

And it includes most of the Syrian government`s military installations, such as the Shayrat air base, which the United States struck with missiles in retaliation for chemical attacks that killed scores of people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib last month.

The de-escalation zones cover virtually all areas held by non-Islamic-State insurgents - a zone encompassing Idlib and neighboring parts of Latakia, Aleppo and Hama; another along Syria`s southern border with Jordan, a third in the eastern Damascus suburbs and a fourth in a pocket of the central province of Homs.

In some ways, such discussions are academic. The United States has never had Syrian government permission for its airstrikes on the Islamic State and on Qaeda targets on Syrian territory. The Syrian government calls the American strikes violations of its sovereignty.

And Russia and the Syrian government have liberally interpreted exceptions to previous cease-fire deals, continuing to carry out strikes, including some that hit rescue workers and hospitals and that were followed by declarations from Moscow and Damascus that terrorists had been present in the areas targeted.

Rebel groups, too, have argued about the meaning of provisions requiring them to separate from banned terrorist groups, asserting that they lack the ability to push out well-funded and well-armed extremists. But, at the same time, some rebel groups have entered into tactical alliances with the extremists.

Still, United Nations officials have held out hope that the new deal will fare better than others that have evaporated under the weight of those contradictions. American officials said they shared the stated goals of the plan but expressed skepticism that Russia could restrain the Syrian government and concern about the role of Iran.

What makes this agreement different is that some of the countries backing different sides in Syria have agreed at least on the possibility of bringing in outside forces to monitor a cease-fire.

Mr. Putin said on Wednesday that aircraft would not operate over the designated zones, "provided that these zones show no sign of military activity."

Government opponents said that a real end to bombings across the country was the top demand of their supporters. But they saw the deal as something else: as a pretext to make sure that there would be no repeat of the strikes ordered by President Trump, or as an attempt to shore up Mr. Assad politically. They said the latest deal recalled the agreement to remove Syria`s chemical weapons that Russia and the United States struck as an alternative to punitive strikes for chemical attacks in 2013.

"This deal is like when the Russians rescued Bashar in 2013, and now they`re trying to rescue him again with plastic surgery agreements," said Hisham Marwa, a member of an opposition coalition.


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