White House, Pentagon weighing Syrian safe zones

Although some recent local surrenders meant the number of people who were hard to reach with aid had fallen by 10 percent to 4.5 million, a further 625,000 were besieged - 80 percent of them by forces loyal to Assad, he said.

"I don't exclude the possibility of violating the memorandum of the de-escalation areas by Turkey which is one of the guarantor states who signed the memorandum", said Moallem, who is also Foreign and Expatriates Minister.

"What they say is that we now sit down and agree, they will agree with our input on whom should be controlling security (and) the monitoring", he said. "We can not accept it to act as a guarantor", said Osama Abu Zeid, the leading opposition representative.

However, the deal has offered little detail on the specifics of the enforcement and in an effort to provide assurances, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will meet the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, on Wednesday in Washington amid western diplomatic concerns about how the ceasefire will be enforced and monitored.

"Iran's activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran's unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians", spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement responding to the Astana announcement.

The three-country deal on de-escalation zones was signed last week in the Kazakh capital Astana, with a goal of resolving operational issues, such as how to police the zones, within two weeks and of mapping them out by June 4.

Later Monday, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said he is convening a new round of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition on May 16. The agreement envisions safe areas in northwestern, northern, central and southern Syria as a temporary measure that could be in place for six months.

That leaves the US and its allies free to continue the campaign to retake Islamic State-held territory. It doesn't, however, prevent frictions between Turkish troops and their Syrian allies from clashing or going after the USA -backed Syrian Kurds. US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis expressed some doubts already, saying that while there is a general support for the idea, in principle, the "devil is in the details".

Relations between Washington and Ankara, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally, in the ongoing fight against ISIS in Syria are at a historical low point due to USA support for Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. "I think the worldwide community is united in the sense of wanting to see ISIS put on its back foot", he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Mattis was circumspect when asked if the plan had any hope of ending the brutal civil war that has killed some 400,000 people and displaced almost half of the country's population since 2011.

"We will see the extent of commitment to this agreement" by rebel groups, Moallem said.

"All wars eventually come to an end and we've been looking for a long time how to bring this one to an end", he told reporters. The plan also calls for a halt to flights over the "de-escalation zones" and humanitarian access.

Speaking about the military situation inside Syria, Muallem said regaining Deir Az Zor, a city and province occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in the east, was the "fundamental objective" of government forces - and more important for the average Syrian - than Idlib.

  • Leroy Wright