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A Syrian Plan Worth a Look,
11 May 2017

The Editorial Board

After six years and with some 400,000 people killed, almost any plan to end or reduce the carnage in Syria would be welcome. So the Trump administration would be derelict if it did not give serious consideration to a plan for a cease-fire and safe zones brokered by Russia, with the backing of Turkey and Iran.

The plan contains flaws, and President Trump could make the situation worse if he is too eager to make common cause with his erstwhile buddy, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who cares most about securing his own legacy and Russian interests in the Middle East. Syria will be a main focus when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets Russia`s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Washington on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced on Tuesday that it would provide Syrian Kurds near the Turkish border with heavy weapons so they can help retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. Like Barack Obama before him, Mr. Trump has faced a choice between arming the Syrian Kurds - a move deeply opposed by Turkey - and not arming them and thus weakening the fight against ISIS. The Kurds have been among the most effective American allies in the war against the Islamic State, but Turkey regards them as allies of Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

It is not clear how the administration intends to avoid a backlash from Turkey, or whether its decision will in some way affect the cease-fire deal, which went into effect at midnight Friday. Under the deal, Russia, Turkey and Iran pledged to enforce a cease-fire between Syrian government and opposition forces in Idlib Province, part of Homs Province, the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and parts of Syria`s southern provinces.

The plan would allow displaced or embattled Syrians to relocate to the designated safe areas, still held by rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State, and enable aid deliveries to some 4.5 million people at risk. It also calls for all parties to fight jihadists like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front.

Previous cease-fires have been short-lived. The new deal has led to reduced fighting, but hardly a cessation. On Sunday, the army of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government agreed to the cease-fire, seized control of the village of al-Zalakiyat north of Hama, a war monitor reported.

Syrian opposition groups, mostly Sunni Muslims, including some backed by the United States, rejected the deal because they have little faith that Russia and Iran can get Mr. Assad to fulfill his promise to halt the slaughter of civilians. And they object to the role of Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation that has a religious kinship with Mr. Assad`s Alawite sect.

Insuring compliance is a big question. The Russian negotiator at the talks, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, reportedly told Russian news outlets that Moscow could "work more closely" with countries that back the rebels, including the United States and Saudi Arabia. Other reports suggested that Russia, Turkey and Iran could send armed forces to secure the zones.

In Copenhagen on Monday for a meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States owed it to the Syrian people to take a close look at the deal but emphasized the many questions, including whether it could be effective.

Although President Trump raised the idea of safe zones during the campaign, the Pentagon has long been opposed because they could lead to a new commitment of American forces in a messy civil war.

Dividing Syria into government and rebel sectors, even temporarily, as this agreement does, is not ideal. The last thing the region needs is another fractured state. But after years of fruitless attempts to end the killing and forge a comprehensive political solution that would replace Mr. Assad with a more inclusive government, it may be the only way to stop the bloodshed.

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