The proposal for the deconfliction zones, being discussed back and forth between the US and Russia, represent a combination of realistic needs and unrealistic expectations, particularly on the part of the US and Turkey. The US and Turkey, each for their own separate and distinct reasons, have been trying to promote safe zones for the refugees, so they are not unleashed on Europe. The Pentagon is skeptical about any kind of safe zones, because of the question of how they are to be secured. Traditionally, the Pentagon would say that any safe zone requires a no fly zone. It may even be the case that a no fly agreement could be reached with Russia, Turkey, the US and others. Russia would have to assure that Syria abides by the deal. More to the point, however, there are 400 different militia groups, not counting ISIS and Nusra/Al Qaeda. How can the civilians in the safe zones be protected from ISIS or Nusra attacks or actions by some of the other jihadist militias?

Mattis wants a non-militarized safe zone, which would be enforced by the major outside powers. The US would pressure US-backed militias, the Turks would pressure the Turkish-backed militias, etc., etc. The outside powers would, in effect, be guarantors of the safety of the safe zones. This is not a perfect solution, but it is a 50 percent solution that could be built upon. This is all in the discussion phase right now.

To put such a plan into implementation is a three phase process:

  1. Making the declaration of specific areas designated as safe zones
  2. Establish the mechanics for the safe zones. What will be done to prevent jihadist attacks? Who will protect the civilians in those zones against potential attacks? How will they be kept off limits to the rebel fighters? This means setting up a police structure to secure the areas against all of the potential threats.
  3. Implementation of the plans so that people can feel safe enough to move into the safe zones. Once that has been established, then the corridors can be open to allow people in. That involves agencies like the Red Cross. Such safe zones could be potentially militarized, through outside forces providing further security, but that is also tricky. The Pentagon does not want to send more troops in, even for such a policing function. No one on the ground would trust the Turks to send in troops to secure the safe zones–they would be there to kill the Kurds.

In other words, there is positive talk, involving both the US and Russia, over how to do a ceasefire and take steps towards a political solution. But there is a long way to go before realization.