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Syria warns of setting up safe zones for civilians as unsafe



Associated Press
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Syria warned Monday of safe zones for civilians that President Donald Trump has expressed interest in creating, saying it would have to come in coordination with the Syrian government, otherwise it would be unsafe and violate the Arab nation’s sovereignty.

The announcement was made in Damascus by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a meeting with the head of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, who began an official visit to Syria on Monday.

The idea of safe zones, proposed by both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton during the U.S. presidential election campaign, was ruled out by the Obama administration for fear it would put U.S. aircraft in harm’s way with Russia waging an air campaign to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since September 2015.

The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, a key backer of Syrian rebels which now has thousands of troops in northern Syria, in theory makes the creation of safe zones more achievable. So does Trump’s pledge to mend ties with Moscow.

However, Syrian state news agency SANA said the foreign ministry and UNHCR officials agreed that any attempt to impose safe zones without coordination with the Syrian government will be an “unsafe act and will pose a violation of the Syrian sovereignty.”

Meanwhile, al-Moallem called on all Syrian refugees who fled the war in their homeland to return home, pledging that the government will meet all their needs. It was not clear if the call was related to Trump’s signing of executive orders placing a 90-day ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen, and a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program. Syrians are indefinitely blocked from entry.

Earlier on Monday, the Syrian military said the evacuation of rebels and their families from the Barada Valley as part of an agreement to surrender the capital region’s primary water source has been completed.

The military said via the Telegram messaging system that 1,142 fighters and 760 members of their families have been evacuated from the region northwest of the capital Damascus. They were taken in buses to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

The evacuation marks the end of a nearly six-week-long standoff between rebels and pro-government forces that led to severe water cuts to some 5 million people around Damascus.