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Turkey, Iran and Russia advance plan for four 'de-escalation zones' in Syria

Turkey, Iran and Russia have signed an agreement calling for four "de-escalation zones" in Syria and said president Bashar Assad's air force would halt flights over the areas.

The latest attempt to reduce violence in the war-torn country calls for delineating zones where front lines between Syrian government forces and rebels would be frozen and fighting halted.

They include the provinces of Idlib, areas north of Homs, the eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus, and an area in the south of the country, according to a statement leaked by the rebels.

As officials from the three countries that back rival sides in the conflict signed the agreement at the Syria ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, some members of the Syrian opposition delegation shouted in protest and walked out.

The opposition is protesting against Iran's participation and role as a guarantor of the agreement, accusing it of being a party in the war that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country's population.

"Iran is a country that is killing the Syrian people and the killer cannot be the rescuer," said Abu Osama Golani, a rebel commander.

The Syrian government said that although it will abide by the agreement, it will continue fighting "terrorism" wherever it exists, parlance for most armed rebel groups fighting government troops.

A previous ceasefire signed in Astana on December 30 by Russia, Iran and Turkey helped reduce overall violence for several weeks but eventually collapsed. Other attempts at a ceasefire have ended in failure.

The presidents of Russia and Turkey as well as US president Donald Trump have recently supported the idea of creating safe zones in Syria.

Meeting in the Russian town of Sochi on Wednesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin expressed hope the Syrian government and rebels would adopt this latest proposal to "de-escalate" the conflict.

Mr Putin said Russian and Syrian government jets would halt flights over the specified zones if all sides respect the ceasefire.

Turkey's foreign ministry suggested the scope of the agreement was wider and would include the whole of Idlib province; parts of Lattakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; parts of Homs province; parts of Damascus and the East Ghouta region; and also parts of the southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

The head of Russia's delegation, Alexander Lavrentyev, said the Syrian government will abide by the agreement unless rebel groups inside those areas stage attacks.

"As of the sixth of this month all military operations will be ceased," he said. "All Syrian flights over these areas will cease."

Mr Lavrentyev said Turkey, Iran and Russia have agreed on the possibility of allowing international observers in case there is not "unanimity" on that issue.

He spoke at a press conference shortly after delegations of the three sponsor nations signed the agreement in the presence of the UN Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

Military operations are likely to continue against members of the al Qaida-linked group known as the Levant Liberation Committee, which is active in areas where the fours zones are meant to be.

Iran and Russia have been among the strongest backers of Syrian leader Assad, while Turkey is a main supporter of opposition groups that have been trying to remove him from power.

Turkey and Russia are deeply entangled in the war in Syria, with each country having troops on the ground there.

Osama Abu Zayd, a spokesman for the Syrian military factions in Astana said the zones raise "a number of questions".

He said Moscow still has no answers on how to deal with any violations from its ally Damascus or from Iran, which has a number of fighters on the ground in Syria on the government's side.

"If this (negotiating) table does not lead to solutions, we will return to the gun," he said.

AP

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