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From left, Russian chief negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talk. May 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to reduce bloodshed in a war now in its seventh year, but many questions remained about the plan.

From left, Russian chief negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talk. May 4, 2017. (Reuters)
From left, Russian chief negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talk. May 4, 2017. (Reuters)

From left, Russian chief negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talk. May 4, 2017. (Reuters)

Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to reduce bloodshed in a war now in its seventh year, but many questions remained about the plan.

Presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the memorandum was the most ambitious of recent proposals, but it was not signed by the Syrian rebels or government. Rebel representatives said it left too many loopholes for the Syrian military to continue what the rebels called indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

The memorandum calls for a pause in fighting, including government airstrikes, and for unhindered aid deliveries in and around the four main zones still held by rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State. It also calls for all parties to fight jihadists like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front.

The top United Nations envoy dealing with Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the memorandum an “important, promising, positive step in the right direction.”

But some rebels, in rejecting the deal, said they would not accept Iran as a guarantor and reiterated their demands for the ouster of Iran-backed militias like Hezbollah, an end to arbitrary detentions, and other concessions the government is unlikely to grant.

Government and opposition analysts displayed rare agreement, complaining that the deal could be a step toward dividing Syria into government and rebel zones.

The State Department, which was only tangentially involved in the Astana talks, said in a statement that it supported any effort “genuinely” aimed at creating “a credible, peaceful resolution,” but that it had concerns about Iran’s role. It said Iran’s activities and “unquestioning support” for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had only contributed to violence.

And rights groups warned that the agreement should not be construed as a reason for countries to force out Syrian refugees. “States hosting refugees have an obligation not to forcibly return Syrian refugees to Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at risk,” Amnesty International said.

The deal brought together three of the outside powers that have helped fuel the conflict from opposite sides. Russia and Iran are the main allies of Mr. Assad, and Turkey backs some of the armed insurgent groups that oppose him.

But a previous cease-fire that those parties reached in Astana, without full agreement from the Syrian parties, quickly fell apart.

The de-escalation zones, envisioned as places where displaced Syrian civilians could voluntarily return, include the northern province of Idlib, the central province of Homs, the East Ghouta region outside Damascus, and southern Syria along the Jordanian border.

The State Department called on Russia to ensure that the Syrian government “stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done.” And it called on members of the opposition to separate their forces from those of terrorist groups, a condition of the agreement.

It is unclear how the guarantors will monitor compliance. Aleksandr Lavrentyev, the Russian negotiator at the talks, told Russian news outlets that Russia could send observers and “work more closely” with countries that back the rebels, including the United States and Saudi Arabia. Monitors could also come from a range of countries friendly to Russia.

Mr. Lavrentyev told reporters in Astana that the agreement would go into effect on Saturday and that the Syrian Air Force was expected to avoid the protected zones — unless rebel groups carried out attacks. Islamic State and Qaeda militants are not covered by the agreement.

In the past, rebels said, those exceptions have meant in practice that the Russian-backed Syrian forces can strike anywhere and say they are hitting terrorists.

Asked if rebel groups would target the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, one rebel commander told reporters in Astana, “All those who killed the Syrians, whether they are Qaeda or those who killed them with chemicals or barrel bombs” — meaning the government — “they are terrorists, and we will fight them.”

Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that area-by-area cease-fires put Mr. Assad’s opponents at a disadvantage because they allow pro-government forces to “allocate military resources as needed, while the remnants of the rebellion cannot move troops across the country.”

Source: The New York Times - By ANNE BARNARD and RICK GLADSTONE

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