The United States is closely monitoring an agreement struck Monday between Russia and Turkey to establish a de-militarized zone in Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, according to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Speaking at a national security event hosted Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley called the pact "encouraging" amid warnings that an all-out offensive on Syria's final rebel stronghold would prompt a humanitarian catastrophe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi to announce the nine to 12-mile buffer zone, which he said would be in place by October 15. The two leaders said "all radical fighters," including al Qaeda-linked militants, must pull out of the zone, while opposition groups must withdraw all heavy weapons ahead of the mid-October deadline.
"I think that the discussions that they're having lead us down a path of the potential that we're going to get something less kinetic," Ashley said. "We want to see the dialogue, we want to see the factions of the different parties come together to be able to look at a way we can start settling the peace."
The agreement is meant to stave off a large-scale assault planned by Russian and Syrian forces on the Idlib region, which borders Turkey and is home to roughly 3 million civilians. The United Nations cautioned that a full-fledged military offensive on Idlib could create "the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century."
Under the pact, Turkish and Russian forces will patrol the de-militarized zone, but neither Putin nor Erdogan spelled out how they would convince rebel fighters to retreat from the area and surrender their heavy weaponry.
Ashley welcomed the agreement, but also warned of political motivations. He said countries such as Russia and Iran "are looking to posture themselves … to leverage what a follow-on regime will be."
"For everybody that's involved it's really about, ‘What's the landscape going to look like after hostilities?'"