Syria deconfliction zones ‘not dead’ despite Deir ez-Zor incident – Tillerson
The incident near Deir ez-Zor during which US-backed opposition forces were allegedly injured by a Russian airstrike did not derail the US-Russia deconfliction agreement, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, adding that both countries remain committed to the process.
Despite what was presented as a major setback in communication between Moscow and Washington in Syria last week, the US military accused their Russian counterparts of hitting US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in an Islamic State-held area in the eastern part of Deir ez-Zor. However, the deconfliction mechanism has not ceased to exist, Tillerson said at the meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria Group that took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York on Monday.
“The Secretary noted to the group we are working closely on deconfliction of operations in Deir ez-Zor and Euphrates valley area. We are confident that the deconfliction process can work and can succeed,” US Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield said following the meeting, attended by Tillerson and the foreign ministers of about a dozen western and Arab counties, including France, Great Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
Tillerson was reportedly responding to a question by a reporter if he believes the incident put a nail in the coffin of the deconfliction agreement, adding that it has a considerable potential to freeze the hostilities.
Satterfield said that Washington and Moscow are working together to prevent any further incidents.
“That's what we are committed to and that what our Russian counterparts tell us they are committed to,” he said, as cited by Sputnik.
The Russian military steadily denied Pentagon’s claims that it had targeted US-allied militia, while arguing that it had informed the US partners of the area of the strike in advance.
Noting the decline in violence and in the number of displaced persons in Syria, Satterfield underscored the role of de-escalation zones, initiative, proposed by Russia and also brokered by Iran and Turkey. De-escalation zones are aimed at separating the extremist groups, including Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), former Al-Nusra Front, from the so-called moderate opposition. The boundaries of the final fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib were agreed Friday.
The alleged bombing of the SDF was far from being the only incident related to the province of Deir ez-Zor, where the Syrian Army forces backed by Russian airstrikes have recently breached the three-year-long siege of the government-controlled city of Deir ez-Zor. On Sunday, the US-led coalition admitted to carrying out an airstrike that reportedly killed 12 civilians in the city of Mayadin, not confirming civilian casualties but saying that it will investigate. In September 2016, the US-led coalition planes bombed Syrian Army positions near the Deir ez-Zor Airport, killing more than 100 soldiers and injuring dozens of others. The coalition admitted that it targeted the Syrian forces by mistake but an internal probe “found no evidence of misconduct” in the picking of target. It has been revealed, however, that the US central command misinformed Russia about the precise location of the planned strike via the deconfliction hotline, resulting in the strikes going ahead.
Meanwhile, the US continues to stress that it does not see deconfliction zones as a solution to the Syrian war, saying that only a political solution can pave the way for a stable and violence-free country.
“The reconstruction of Syria depends very much on that credible political process,” Satterfield said, adding that major responsibility in achieving political settlement lies with the Geneva process and the United Nations.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has repeated the UK’s stance on Syria, saying that such a political process should be aimed at “a transition away from Assad.”
For its part, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday the establishment of de-escalation zones lay foundation for a political settlement envisioned in the UN resolutions, noting “positive processes,” such as advances by the Syrian forces in the fight against terrorism.
The implementation of the zones will also enable “more than a million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon” get back home, the ministry said in a statement issued after Russia’s Deputy FM Mikhail Bogdanov’s meeting with Lebanese prime minister's Adviser for Russian Affairs George Shaaban.
Tillerson was set to meet with Russia’s Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov on Thursday at 21:00 GMT on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Announcing the summit, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that they were looking forward to the face-to-face meeting describing the US-Russia relationship as “an important one.”