Geopolitical pundits were caught by surprise last Thursday when Donald Trump told ABC he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people", a statement that was has been viewed as a precursor to further escalation of US intervention in the region. They were just as surprised overnight when instead of challening Trump's decision to potentially send more troops into Syria, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow may support the US initiative to establish so-called ‘safe zones’ for refugees in Syria, but added that the plan would require close cooperation with the UN and approval from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
“If this is about the people who were forced to leave their homes by the conflict, […] getting their basic needs covered, […] then I think that the idea to create areas within Syria for those internally displaced could be discussed with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations,” Lavrov said cited by RT.
Lavrov said the American proposal to create secure areas for refugees within Syria was put forward in the context of migrant flows to the neighboring countries, the Middle East, as well as Europe, and “at the end of the day, the US."
He noted that the US initiative is completely different from what Western countries proposed at various stages of the Syrian war. "There have been ideas of creating some areas where an alternative Syrian government could sit, and use those areas for regime change." Such a scheme was seen in Libya, where the establishment of an alternative government in Benghazi was used as a pretext for the Western-led invasion to topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Lavrov explained, adding that the Libyan intervention went ahead despite no green light from the UN Security Council.
While promising, the proposal would require negotiations with Damascus to agree on the principles of creating such safe zones on Syrian territory, Lavrov added.
However, just hours after his interview, the narrative regained some sense of normalcy after the state-run Sana news agency published a statement from the government pouring cold water all over the proposed plan, and saying that any attempt to install safe zones without its consent would constitute an "unsafe action" that is a "violation of Syria's sovereignity." Syria's foreign ministry and the United Nations refugee agency had agreed on the issue during a meeting in Damascus, SANA said.
According to a document seen by Reuters, Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and State Department to craft a plan for setting up the safe zones, a move that could risk escalation of U.S. military involvement in Syria's conflict. Rebel backers including Qatar have welcomed Trump's support for safe zones, and Turkey says it is waiting to see the outcome of the U.S. president's pledge. As noted previosly, cCreation of safe zones could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria, including increased U.S. air power to enforce "no fly" restrictions and ground forces to protect civilians in those areas.
But where things again take a twist for the bizarre, is a report over the weekend from Al Arabiya according to which news has been circulating on the internet since Friday stating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is experiencing serious health problems. The website reports that according to some media outlets said that Assad had suffered a stroke; while others said that he was shot and has been taken to Damascus Hospital for treatment. Some details:
France’s Le Point, speculated that Assad might have been assassinated by his personal Iranian Bodyguard Mehdi al-Yaacoubi, going so far as to say that he shot him in the head.
Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, quoted “reliable sources” as saying that Assad suffered from a cerebral infraction and was transferred to Damascus Hospital where he is being treated under high security.
As for the Saudi newspaper Okaz, Assad is suffering from a “brain tumor.” He tried to cover up his illness through short and frequent appearances. According to its sources, Assad is being treated by a Russian-Syrian medical team on a weekly basis, adding that he has undergone medical tests when he was in Moscow in October.
Furthermore, pro-Syrian regime Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar reported on Friday that Assad suffered from a stroke, but later denied the news. There were also rumors that Assad is at the American University Hospital (AUH) in Beirut. However, Al Arabiya contacted the hospital and no information on the issue was given. Al Arabiya has also tried to contact Damascus Hospital, but there has been no response.
On the other hand, in a statement carried by the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic page on Facebook, Syrian authorities said that such rumors were incorrect.
While the rumor remains unsubstantiated, the death of Assad is sure to complicate any political resolution in Syria, as it would immediate promp both sides in the proxy war to present their handpicked candidates ahead of an election for the country's next president as suddenly the political - and not military - process will become the pathway to decide who has veto rights over any potential Qatar nat gas pipeline crossing the nation and entering Europe. If so, expect Rex Tillerson to be very busy over the coming months as Syria once again becomes a primary object of US diplomacy in the middle east.