WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday that the U.S. is reviewing proposed de-escalation zones in Syria meant to ease the six-year-running civil war, but warned that many questions remain to be worked out — including if the plan will be effective.
“All wars eventually come to an end and we’ve been looking for a long time how to bring this one to an end. So we’ll look at the proposal and see if it can work,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him to Copenhagen, Denmark.
“It’s all in process right now,” Mattis said. “It’s not been decided, in the sense that these are the specific safe zones, here’s who’s going to be ensuring they’re safe, who is signing up for it, who is specifically to be kept out of them. All these details are to be worked out and we’re engaged.”
When pressed about whether he thought the de-escalation zones could help end the conflict, in which some 400,000 people have died, Mattis said that that it’s not clear at this time and that “the devil’s always in the details.”
“There’s a lot of decisions to be made … in planning, coordination among a number of nations and obviously in execution,” he said.
A deal to create de-escalation zones in areas of conflict in western Syria went into effect Saturday. The deal, the details of which are expected to be worked out over the next month, had been brokered between Turkey, Iran and Russia, which proposed it. Russia and Iran are closely allied to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. is not party to the agreement, although an assistant secretary of state did observe the talks in Kazakhstan. The Syrian government and conflicting rebel forces have not signed onto it.
The deal is meant to allow medical and humanitarian access to besieged areas and encourage refugees to return home to the protected de-escalation zones. The zones would be in effect for six months, according to a plan released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and then be extended if the three parties chose to vote to do so.
Syria has said it won’t allow international peace keepers, under the supervision of the United Nations to monitor the zones, but rather wants Russian military police to be in charge.
Mattis said the borders of the de-escalation zones are still being worked out, but their general locations are “well understood.” The four proposed areas in Western Syria cover territory where the regime and rebels are located, and not where ISIS is not active or U.S.-backed Kurds present.
Mattis said it’s not clear yet what effect the zones — in Idlib province, north Homs province, the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and parts of Syria’s southern provinces — could have on the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS. Russia has said the establishment of the zones would include a ban on U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying over the area, but the U.S. is generally operating in the east of the country against ISIS.
The deal calls for continued fighting against ISIS and the former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Mattis, who will attend a meeting of the top contributors to the anti-ISIS coalition in Copenhagen, said the “international community is united in the sense of wanting to see ISIS put on its back foot.”
The U.S. State Department has expressed initial concerns about the agreement, largely about Iran’s role as a guarantor for the Syrian government and its failure to hold the Syrian government accountable in the past.
“In light of the failures of past agreements, we have reason to be cautious,” the State Department said in a statement after the deal was agreed to last week. “We expect the regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done. We expect Russia to ensure regime compliance.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, Wednesday in Washington to “discuss Ukraine, Syria and bilateral issues,” according to a State Department release.
Tillerson and Lavrov last met in April, when they expressed conflicting views on whether the Syrian government was to blame for a sarin gas attack against the Syrian people.
Mattis noted that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, about the de-escalation zones Saturday.