Jordan, September 12, 2017
Saudi Arabia, Jordan back Syria safe zones after talks with Russian FM

Saudi Arabia has assured Russia that it supports a gradual process of negotiating local cease-fires and setting up “de-escalation zones” in Syria, Russia’s foreign minister said Monday, as Jordan also expressed support for a safe zone in southern Syria.

Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional foe, back Syria’s government, while Saudi Arabia supports Syrian rebels. Russia, Iran and Turkey, another rebel backer, have been sponsoring talks, known for their venue, the Kazakh capital of Astana, on local cease-fires and de-escalation zones. A new round starts later this week.

Asked Monday whether Saudi leaders support the Astana process, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters: “Yes, I think Saudi Arabia is determined to solve the Syria crisis.”

He said that when the process began, Saudi leaders expressed support for it and said “they would cooperate in creating de-escalation zones and implementing other initiatives which are being developed in Astana.”

Lavrov spoke at a news conference after holding talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. Later Monday, Lavrov held talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Earlier this summer, Jordan was involved in three-way talks with Russia and the US on a cease-fire in southern Syria, an area that abuts the Western-backed kingdom.

Jordan has a vital interest in pacifying southern Syria. The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, triggered an exodus of refugees, including hundreds of thousands Syrians who found refuge in Jordan. Two years ago, the fighting forced the closure of Jordan’s last trade crossing with Syria.

Jerusalem has protested the cease-fire plan as not taking Israel’s considerations into account and allowing Iran and its proxies to gain a foothold in the area.

Safadi said Monday that Jordanian-Russian cooperation is important, especially in southern Syria, and that Jordan and Russia are working with the US to set up a safe zone there.

Jordan shares a border of more than 370 kilometers (230 miles) with Syria, where upwards of 330,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since its conflict broke out in 2011.

A ceasefire brokered by Jordan, Russia and the United States in the southern Syrian provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Suweida has largely held since it came into force on July 9.

Both Safadi and Lavrov told reporters the ceasefire had been “successful.”

“We discussed issues pertaining to setting up a de-escalation zone in southeastern Syria,” Lavrov said, according to an Arabic translation of remarks he made in Russian.

Safadi said Jordan, Russia and the United States were “determined to meet the objective” of setting up a safe zone in the area “as soon as possible.”

He said talks were under way between the three countries to establish the zone.

De-escalation in southern Syria is part of a broader Moscow-backed plan to create four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held parts of the country.

Russia and Iran, main allies of the Syrian government, and rebel-backer Turkey agreed in May to create the four zones in a deal aimed at bringing about a lasting truce.

Local cease-fires have proven to be the most successful approach to mitigating multi-sided fighting in Syria, which has killed some 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population since 2011, Lavrov said.

In a dig at the US, Lavrov defended his country’s military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying Russia, along with Iran and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are in Syria “based on a direct invitation from the legitimate Syrian authorities.”

He said that closer US-Russian cooperation in fighting extremists in Syria failed because of an alleged failure by Washington to separate the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly al-Nusra Front, “from other opposition forces the Americans cooperated with.”