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Syria Says Russian Military, Not UN Troops, To Police Safe Zones

A checkpoint maintained by Al-Qaeda's onetime affiliate, Nusra Front, in Syria's Idlib province
A checkpoint maintained by Al-Qaeda's onetime affiliate, Nusra Front, in Syria's Idlib province

Syria's foreign minister said on May 8 that Russian troops, not UN-supervised international forces, will enforce the cease-fire in safe zones established under a Russian-led agreement.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters that Damascus would not agree to admit any foreign troops to monitor whether the cease-fire, the delivery of aid, and other activities slated to occur in the zones are being carried out.

The zones, to be set up by next month, are expected to include checkpoints to ensure easy movement of unarmed civilians and safe delivery of humanitarian assistance.

"There will be no presence by any international forces supervised by the United Nations," Moallem said. "The Russian guarantor has clarified that there will be military police and observation centers."

Moallem said that while the Syrian government has agreed to establish the safe areas or "deescalation zones" as proposed last week by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, government forces would continue to respond "harshly" to any violations by rebel groups.

"We will see the extent of commitment to this agreement" by rebel groups, Moallem said.

Leaders of Syria's main rebel groups voiced serious concerns about the safe zone plan presented by Russia at peace talks in Astana last week. They particularly objected to the role Iran was slated to play as co-guarantor of the cease-fire.

The agreement to implement a cease-fire within the safe zones went into effect over the weekend, bringing a general reduction in violence. But sporadic clashes continued, particularly in central Syria.

Russia and Iran -- which support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- and Turkey -- which backs the rebels -- have indicated they will deploy armed forces to secure the four so-called "deescalation zones," in what would amount to unprecedented coordination between the three regional powers.

While Russia has not asked for UN involvement in the zones, it has asked for a UN Security Council vote early this week on a resolution supporting the safe zone deal, said the council's president, Uruguay Ambassador Elbio Rosselli.

Rosselli told reporters in New York on May 8 that council members are negotiating over the text of a possible resolution of support.

The United States did not sign onto the de-escalation agreement. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on May 8 that he is closely examining the plan, which he said leaves many questions unanswered.

The borders of the safe zones are "still being worked out," among other things, Mattis said, though "the general locations are well understood."

Mattis said it is not clear overall whether the plan will work.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to discuss the safe-zone plan on May 10.

Moallem said he hopes the agreement will, as a start, achieve a separation between Syrian rebel groups and extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which has been allied with various armed opposition groups fighting Assad in the past.

Moallem said moderate rebel groups must push their extremist allies out of the safe zones, otherwise the government will continue to bombard the extremist groups within the zones.

With reporting by AP and dpa
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