During the last round of talks in Astana last week, Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed to set up de-escalation zones in parts of Syria for six months. The zones will include eastern Ghouta and the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama.
According to the agreement, the three countries will act as guarantors, while anti-government groups and forces loyal to the Syrian regime are supposed to respect the cease-fire. To supervise the process, Turkey, Iran and Russia will send 500 soldiers each to be deployed in the de-escalation zones.
When you look at the map, you may notice that this new de-escalation zone, added to the formerly announced de-escalation zones in the Lebanon-Israel-Jordan border areas, includes quite an important part of Syria. All these de-escalation zones, from the North to the South, are to make sure that there will be no more fighting in Syria's Mediterranean provinces.
The de-escalation zones are all strategically located in the hope of ending the fighting on the ground. This doesn't mean, however, that Syrian government forces will have full control over these areas once the fighting stops. In fact, these zones are not given either to the Syrian government nor the opposition, and their status remains to be decided later.
It is reminiscent of the U.S.'s decision to impose a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Washington had hoped to make sure that Saddam Hussein wouldn't control these mainly Kurdish populated areas anymore, and indeed, Baghdad lost all authority over the region from that moment. Even after the fall of Saddam, the situation didn't really change. During all these years, the U.S. has seen local Kurdish leaders as its interlocutors and hinted that northern Iraq may one day become an independent entity, allied to Turkey and Israel, but an antagonist toward Iran.
After a long period during which it has de facto acted independently of Baghdad, northern Iraq now wants to make the independence official and recognized by the international community through a referendum. Nevertheless, the region's main ally, namely the U.S., keeps saying that the timing is not right. Iraqi Kurdish leaders don't seem to be paying much attention to the warnings, however.
This scenario may be repeated in Syria; that's why Turkey, Russia and Iran want to have boots on the ground simultaneously. The de-escalation zones are the result of a will for compromise, as these zones will not be ruled by Bashar Assad or any opposition group. These will be like international territories that are separate from the direct supervision of any single nation-state. The main motivation of the three involved countries is the U.S.'s relations with Syrian Kurds. They fear the U.S. may try to do in Syria what it did in Iraq; in other words: Push Syrian Kurds toward independence.
First, no one is sure if Syria's dismemberment is a good idea; besides, no one can tell if the eventual Syrian Kurdish entity will be friendly toward Turkey and/or Iran. The position of Iraqi Kurds, however, was clear: They preferred to remain friends with Turkey and foes with Iran. As for an eventual Kurdish independent entity in Syria, it will apparently have only one friend: the U.S. All regional players are against it; thus, they are acting together to prevent it. Moreover, Israel doesn't seem to be complaining about the creation of de-escalation zones; so the U.S. can hardly find good arguments to oppose it.
The U.S.'s hesitations in Syria have turned against it: It has lost the trust of its regional allies over the issue, while Russia has greatly benefited from the void. If the U.S. wants to reverse this failure, it would be wise to start by healing its relations with Turkey.