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Russia: Syria "safe zones" plan to begin midnight Friday

Millions of Syrians have been internally displaced by conflict [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2017

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According to reports in Russian media a Moscow-backed de-escalation plan is set to come into effect imminently in northern Syria. However, the terms of the deal remain unclear.

An agreement on "safe zones" is set to come into force from midnight on Friday, but Russia's air force will continue to strike Islamic State group targets elsewhere in the country, according to reports in Russian media, citing the country's defence ministry.

The announcement that Russian strikes will continue in some fashion is certain to raise concerns among Syrian rebels, who are already objecting to the terms of the arrangement, as Moscow often claims to be bombing IS while in fact bombing rebel areas, frequently killing civilians.

The first and largest safe zone in northern Syria is set to include Idlib province, and adjoining areas of Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama – an area where over 1 million people are currently based, according to the reports.

Russian Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin was quoted in TASS news agency stating that the de-escalation in the six year-long conflict had been made possible because the safe zone plan was being supported by both the UN, and the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

However, conditions governing the "safe zone" remain unclear.

A provisional ceasefire deal was signed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's backers Russia and Iran on Thursday, in addition to Turkey, which supports rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime.

However, opposition forces have expressed opposition to the deal, with the US also appearing sceptical.

Additionally, earlier on Friday reports, also in Russian media, quoted Moscow's envoy at the Astana negotiations, stating that the safe zones set to be established in Syria would be closed to US and international coalition aircraft.

Moscow says its air force and that of the Syrian regime will also be grounded in safe zone areas.

In addition to the primary safe zone covering Idlib, and areas of Latakia, Aleppo, and Hama, additional safe zones are also set to come into place in Daraa, in the south of the country, and Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus.

The surprise announcement by Russia of "safe zones" have been a key demand of rebel-backers Turkey.

Analysts say that Moscow could be pushing the Assad regime to de-escalate the conflict and agree to the plan.

Assad has insisted throughout the conflict that he would only accept a regime victory to end the war, while the opposition have demanded that the president should depart from power before peace comes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly called US President Donald Trump before the peace deal was announced.

It comes after Washington sharpened its tone against Moscow and launched missile strikes on a regime air base following a chemical attack on an opposition Idlib village.

Syria has been embroiled in fighting since 2011 when anti-government protests were brutally put down by regime forces sparking a larger armed uprising.

The fighting has cost Syria nearly 500,000 lives, the vast majority victims of regime bombing.

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