Archive for June, 2017

Tensions rise between Turkey, US along Syrian border

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Tensions rose Saturday along the Turkish-Syrian border as both Turkey and the U.S. moved armored vehicles to the region and Turkey’s leader once again demanded that the United States stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish militants there.

The relocation of Turkish troops to an area near the border with Syria comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. Those patrols followed a Turkish airstrike against bases of Syrian Kurdish militia, Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria.

More U.S. troops were seen Saturday in armored vehicles in Syria in Kurdish areas. Kurdish officials describe U.S. troop movement as “buffer” between them and Turkey. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores. The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat its attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

On Saturday, more U.S. troops in armored vehicles arrived in Kurdish areas, passing through Qamishli town, close to the border with Turkey. The town is mostly controlled by Kurdish forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport.

The convoy was followed by another of YPG militia. Some footage posted online showed Kurdish residents cheering American-flagged vehicles as they drove by. U.S. officials say the troop movement is part of its operations with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Claiming that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces were not building up in the area.

El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

Turkey demands US stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s leader on Saturday urged the United States to stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants as local media reported the Turkish military has moved armored vehicles and personnel carriers to a base near the Syrian border.

The relocation comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish militia is Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base in the area is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Turkish officials announced the conclusion of the operation in March but have said they would continue combating terror to make its borders safe and rid of IS and Kurdish militants. Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores.

The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes between the two sides. The military said the YPG has targeted the Turkish border from Tal Abyad and further west in Afrin. Turkey’s military responded with howitzers.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat it attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Stating that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said his group has information that Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts. He said the purpose of the military reinforcement was not clear.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces are not building up in the area and added that the international coalition is now “monitoring” the border.

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

In Istanbul’s ‘Little Syria,’ refugees want more from US

April 08, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — The fast-moving developments in Syria are never far from people’s minds in an Istanbul neighborhood that is home to thousands of refugees from the country’s civil war. In the Aksaray neighborhood — now known as “Little Syria” — the signs are in Arabic, the cuisine is seasoned with nostalgia and the weary residents are hoping for change after the first U.S. strike on President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The U.S. fired nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base early Friday, days after a chemical attack widely blamed on government forces killed nearly 90 people in the opposition-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. Opponents of Assad welcomed the move, but many in Little Syria feel that more should be done to end the grinding, six-year civil war.

“We are fed up of bombings, what we already lived through is enough,” said Samer Maydani, who hails from Damascus and owns a coffee shop in Little Syria. “We need political solutions through the U.N. and the Security Council.”

“After seven years of destroying us, we don’t trust anyone,” he said. “If (U.S. President Donald) Trump and the international community want change, they should just ask Assad to leave.” Turkey is home to some three million Syrian refugees, 480,000 of whom live in Istanbul. The Turkish government welcomed the U.S. strike and has called for renewed efforts to remove Assad from power.

Across the street from Maydani’s coffee shop, Hussein Esfira, from the Syrian city of Aleppo, works 14-hour shifts as a butcher in a Syrian restaurant. He says he has little time left to follow politics, but feels the U.S. could do more.

“Why are they bombing?” he asked. “Everyone is seeking to take a piece of the cake.” “Instead of bombing, the U.S. can intervene for the sake of a peaceful solution,” he said. The owner of a nearby pastry shop agrees. Anas Jamous, who also comes from Aleppo, said that if the international community wanted to end the war, “they would have done so five years ago.”

He is still angry about Trump’s travel ban, which would have barred people from Syria and five other Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States until stricter vetting procedures are put in place. The ban also temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee program.

He said the ban, which has been blocked by the courts, “expresses a deep hatred against Muslims from the American government.”

Turkey ends ‘Euphrates Shield’ military operation in Syria, PM says

30th of March 2017, Thursday

Turkey has ended the “Euphrates Shield” military operation it launched in Syria, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said.

However, Mr Yildirim suggested there might be more cross-border campaigns to come.

Last August, Turkey sent troops, tanks and warplanes to support Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, push Isis fighters away from its border and stop the advance of Kurdish militia fighters.

“Operation Euphrates Shield has been successful and is finished,” Mr Yildirim said in an interview with broadcaster NTV. “Any operation following this one will have a different name.”

Under Euphrates Shield, Turkey took the border town of Jarablus on the Euphrates river, cleared Isis fighters from a roughly 100km (60 mile) stretch of the border, then moved south to al-Bab, an Isis stronghold where the Prime Minister said “everything is under control”.

Turkish troops are still stationed in the secured regions and along the border.

The number of Turkish troops involved in Euphrates Shield has not been disclosed.

One aim was to stop the Kurdish YPG militia from crossing the Euphrates westwards and linking up three mainly Kurdish cantons it holds in northern Syria.

Turkey fears the Syrian Kurds carving out a self-governing territory analogous to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, a move that might embolden Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority to try to forge a similar territory inside its borders.

It views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdish PKK militant group, which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union.

With the second largest army in NATO, Turkey is seeking a role for its military in a planned offensive on Raqqa, one of the so-called Islamic State’s two de facto capitals along with Mosul in Iraq — but the US is veering towards enlisting the YPG.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey is saddened by the US and Russian readiness to work with the YPG in Syria.

Source: The Independent.

Link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-syria-ends-euphrates-shield-military-operation-binali-yildirim-jarablus-isis-islamic-state-a7657156.html.

Syria refugees still stranded between Morocco and Algeria

2017-06-07

ALGIERS – Dozens of Syrian refugees remained stranded in no-man’s land between Morocco and Algeria on Tuesday, non-governmental groups said, despite an Algerian offer to help.

Algiers said last week it would take in the refugees after the United Nations urged both sides to help the Syrians, who include a pregnant woman and have been stranded in the desert area since April 17.

“The Syrian refugee families are still blocked on the border between Algeria and Morocco. Authorities on both sides are passing each other the buck,” said Noureddine Benissad of the Algerian League of Human Rights.

Saida Benhabiles, the head of the Algerian Red Crescent, said a joint team from her organisation and the UN refugee agency have been waiting on the Algerian border since late Monday.

“There’s no obstacle on the Algerian side,” she said. “But the problem is they’re in Moroccan territory and we can’t go to get them.”

In a statement, non-governmental groups including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights and the Algerian League of Human Rights urged “authorities in both countries to find an immediate solution”.

The zone between the two countries has been closed since 1994. The North African rivals have very difficult relations, especially over the question of Western Sahara.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=83429.

Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

June 01, 2017

GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival. “We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone. Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.

THE TATTOOED FIGHTER

Nothing blurs Muharram’s vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies. “We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida’s alliance.

The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming “a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates.” He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, “giving up the revolution’s principles … and accepting Assad for a longer period,” he said.

Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.

But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it. The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib’s and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don’t interfere in residents’ affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.

Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara’s side.

The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said. “The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections.”

THE REBEL WITHOUT A LAND

He defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad’s troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.

It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella. Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad’s forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib’s overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.

The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters. “This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us,” al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.

The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in. “We were insulated in Daraya,” he said. “Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many.”

The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to “create a separate state in the north.” Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.

“Syria can’t be one unified state except by expelling all those parties,” al-Nokrashi said. His fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area’s cuisine to Idlib.

A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — “just like the regime’s security agencies,” said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.

Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined, al-Nokrashi said.

The alliance has yet to fight a battle, but he’s hopeful. “I feel there are lessons learned … from previous mistakes.”

THE AL-QAIDA HUNTER

He drives around Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.

Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group’s fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

Al-Saoud’s claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.

Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad’s military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias. “We can’t be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please,” al-Saoud said.

What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. “Aren’t we worthy of defending?” he said. He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds’ determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.

During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds. In one call, he reassured a commander bewildered by the Americans working with the Kurds. Another complained how hard it is to negotiate with Islamist factions, which are also trying out alliances to counter the power of al-Qaida.

Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical. It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his “charisma,” as he puts it.

Moreover, he sees it as imposed by outside powers that can’t agree among themselves, dooming it to fail. “Unify your vision, then pick a leader for a unified (rebel) front,” he said. “My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said. “We will remain the popular face of this fight.”

Russia-backed Syrian safe zones plan goes into effect

May 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A deal hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in mostly opposition-held parts of Syria went into effect in the early hours of Saturday. The plan is the latest international attempt to reduce violence in the war-ravaged country, and is the first to envisage armed foreign monitors on the ground in Syria. The United States is not party to the agreement and the Syrian rivals have not signed on to the deal. The armed opposition, instead, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it lacks legitimacy.

The plan, details of which will still be worked out over the next several weeks, went into effect at midnight Friday. There were limited reports of bombing in northern Homs and Hama, two areas expected to be part of the “de-escalation zones,” activists said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

It is not clear how the cease-fire or “de-escalation zones” will be enforced in areas still to be determined in maps to emerge a month from now. Russian officials said it will be at least another month until the details are worked out and the safe areas established.

In the tangled mess that constitutes Syria’s battlefields, there is much that can go wrong with the plan, agreed on in talks Thursday in Kazakhstan. There is no clear mechanism to resolve conflict and violations— like most other previous deals struck by backers of the warring sides.

A potential complication to implementing the plan is the crowded airspace over Syria. The deal calls for all aircraft to be banned from flying over the safe zones. Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operate in different, sometimes same areas in Syria. It is not yet clear how the new plan would affect flightpaths of U.S.-led coalition warplanes battling Islamic State militants and other radical groups — and whether the American air force would abide by a diminished air space.

Russia and Iran — two of the plan’s three sponsors — are key allies of President Bashar Assad’s government and both are viewed as foreign occupation forces by his opponents. Rebels fighting to topple Assad are enraged by Iran’s role in the deal and blame the Shiite power for fueling the sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict, now in its seventh year.

Turkey, the third sponsor, is a major backer of opposition factions and has also sent troops into northern Syria, drawing the ire of Assad and his government. Yet troops from the three countries are now expected to secure four safe zones. An official with Russia’s military general staff said other countries may eventually have a role in enforcing the de-escalation areas.

Russian Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi told reporters on Friday personnel and formations from Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate checkpoints and observation posts. He said “security belts” will be created along the borders of the “de-escalation zones” to prevent incidents and fighting between opposing sides. The checkpoints and observation posts will ensure free movement of unarmed civilians and humanitarian aid and will facilitate economic activities, he said.

Rebels have expressed concerns the deal is a prelude to a de facto partitioning of Syria into spheres of influence. Osama Abo Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions at the Kazakhstan talks, told The Associated Press it was “incomprehensible” for Iran to act as a guarantor of the deal. A cease-fire is unsustainable in the presence of the Iranian-backed militias in Syria, he said.

“We can’t imagine Iran playing a role of peace,” Abo Zayd said. The U.S. sent a senior White House official to the Kazakh capital of Astana, where representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran signed the deal, but had no role in the deal.

The idea of armed monitors is a new element — observers deployed in the early years of the Syrian conflict, including U.N. and Arab League observers, were unarmed. But it’s difficult to imagine how many boots on the ground would be needed to monitor the yet to be mapped areas or how and where exactly Russian, Iranian and Turkish troops would patrol.

“If that happens, we would be looking at a more serious effort than anything in the past,” Aron Lund, a Syria expert wrote in an article Friday. Lund said that from the outside, the agreement “does not look like it has great chances of success” and seems to “lack a clear mechanism to resolve conflicting claims and interpretations.”

Late Friday, a Syrian opposition coalition, the High Negotiations Committee, denounced the deal in a strongly worded statement. The Western, Saudi-backed HNC said the deal lacks legitimacy and seeks to divide the country.

The HNC also said the deal was an attempt to give Syrian government troops military victories they could not achieve on the battleground by neutralizing rebel-held areas. It called on the U.S. and other Arab allied countries, to prevent the implementation of the deal.

A rebel commander in northern Hama said nearly an hour after the deal went into effect, battles raged with government forces. The area, south of Latamneh, is expected to be part of the deal. Jamil al-Saleh, the commander, said government shelling was intense amid an attempt to advance in the area, scene to fierce battles for weeks. “What deal?” he scoffed.

A previous cease-fire agreement signed in Astana on Dec. 30 helped reduce overall violence in Syria for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a cease-fire in Syria have all ended in failure.

The “de-escalation zones” will be closed to military aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition, the Russian official who signed the agreement, Alexander Lavrentye, said Friday. Under the plan, Assad’s air force — and presumably Russian, too — would also halt flights over those areas.

In rebel-held Idlib, a protest was held Friday against the plan, denounced as a plot to “divide Syria.” “Any person or state who enters this land to divide it is the enemy of the Syrian people” activist Abed al-Basset Sarout told the crowd.

Some refugees were skeptical. Ahmad Rabah, a Syrian refugee from Homs now in Lebanon, said he did not trust Assad’s forces and going back to so-called safe zones would be tantamount to living in a “big prison.”

The Pentagon said the de-escalation agreement would not affect the U.S.-led air campaign against IS. “The coalition will continue to target ISIS wherever they operate to ensure they have no sanctuary,” said Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Sunni militant group.

Rudskoi also suggested that Syrian government forces, freed up as a result of the safe areas, could be rerouted to fight against IS in the central and eastern part of Syria. Another question left unanswered is how the deal would affect U.S. airstrikes targeting al-Qaida’s positions in Syria.

U.S. warplanes have frequently struck the al-Qaida affiliate in the northern Idlib province, where the militant group dominates. But under Thursday’s deal, the entire province is designated to be one of the four “de-escalation zones.”

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that if implemented the deal will allow for the separation of the opposition from IS fighters and those of the al-Qaida affiliate. He did not elaborate.

Syria’s government has said that although it will abide by the agreement, it would continue fighting “terrorism” wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

Berry reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Robert Burs in Washington contributed to this report.