A top Russian general said the six-year civil war in Syria has been "practically stopped," in part thanks to the establishment of four safe zones there under an initiative aimed at shoring up a cease-fire. But President Vladimir Putin said a lasting resolution remains distant.
Lt. General Sergei Rudskoi said that Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power are no longer attacking opposition forces but focusing on the Islamic State, the former al-Qaida wing in Syria and affiliated terrorist groups, according to an emailed statement on Friday. Civilians are making their way back to liberated territory, where the authorities are restoring residential buildings and infrastructure and schools, Rudskoi said.
While Syrian President Bashar Assad managed to turn the tide of war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies including Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand in the way of a political settlement. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.
Putin said on Friday that there are "positive developments" with the halt to fighting and establishment of the de-escalation zones, which represented a significant change to the situation in the war-torn state.
"But there is a long, very long time to go before a final solution to the crisis," he said at a regional security summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The zones cover areas inhabited by about 2.7 million people. They're in northern Syria in territory covering parts of the provinces of Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama, as well as the north of Homs province, the east Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and in southern Syria on the border with Jordan.
Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on the creation of the safe zones last month after talks in Kazakhstan that also included representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups. Opposition representatives distanced themselves from the plan, saying they couldn't accept Iran as a guarantor of the truce and that they wanted "clear and tangible" guarantees the deal would be enforced.
The U.S. has so far resisted participating in the safe zones, suggesting that Iran's role raises concerns. U.S. forces this week shot down a pro-Syrian-government drone they said threatened coalition troops. Russia Friday called on the U.S. to stop targeting Syrian government forces.