BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s foreign minister said on Monday Damascus would abide by Russia’s plan for “de-escalation” zones if rebels observed it, adding the insurgents should help drive jihadists from opposition-controlled areas.
Walid al-Moualem told a news conference there would be no role for the United Nations or other “international forces” in the de-escalation zones but Russia saw an observer role for military police. He gave no further details.
Syria’s ally Russia and regional power Iran have helped President Bashar al-Assad gain the military advantage against rebels fighting for six years to unseat him, and Moscow has led most of the recent diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.
Russia brokered the deal for de-escalation zones with backing from Iran and opposition supporter Turkey during ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week. The deal took effect at midnight on Friday.
Some fighting has continued in those areas, particularly north of Hama city, but the overall intensity has reduced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Rebel officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Moualem’s comments on Monday.
“It is the duty of the groups which signed the ceasefire agreement to expel Nusra from these zones until the areas really become de-escalated. It is for the guarantors to help these factions,” Moualem said, referring specifically to rebel-held Idlib province as a place where jihadist groups were present.
The now-rebranded Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, earlier this year routed more moderate rebels in fighting in Idlib in an assault on parts of the armed opposition that participated in talks.
Rebels participating in the Astana talks were signatories to a ceasefire agreement reached in December, which excluded the jihadists.
Moualem said separate peace talks under U.N. auspices in Geneva were not progressing. Local reconciliation deals that the government is pursuing with rebels were an alternative to that, he said.
Such deals have been criticized by the opposition as being imposed on civilians through siege tactics. The United Nations has said the evacuation of some people as part of those agreements is a form of forced displacement.
The memorandum signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey last week setting up the de-escalation areas said that the forces of those countries would ensure the administration of security zones by consensus, but did not specifically mention military police.
A spokesman for the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declined to comment on those remarks.
Moualem also addressed what he described as an apparent change of attitude toward Syria by the U.S. administration.
“It seems the United States, where (President Donald) Trump has said the Syrian crisis has dragged on too long, might have come to the conclusion that there must be an understanding with Russia on a solution,” he said.
He warned that if forces from Jordan, a supporter of rebel groups in southern Syria, entered the country without coordinating with Damascus, it would be considered an act of aggression, but added Syria was not about to confront Jordan.
Speaking about the military situation inside Syria, Moualem said Deir al-Zor, a city and province occupied by Islamic State in the east, was the “fundamental objective” for government forces and more important to the average Syrian than Idlib.
Asked about U.S. backing for Kurdish groups fighting Islamic State in northeast Syria, he said that what Syrian Kurds were doing against the jihadist group was “legitimate” at this stage and fell within the framework of preserving Syrian unity.
Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and John Davison in Beirut; Editing by Tom Heneghan