UN pushes for targeted Syrian cease-fires in hopes of delivering aid

The UN is suggesting Aleppo as a starting point to provide much-needed relief to areas hardest hit by the Syrian civil war. But it's a hard sell with warring parties.

Rebel fighters prepare a locally made weapon before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Aleppo International Airport earlier this week.

The United Nations envoy to Syria is pushing a plan to freeze fighting in selected areas of the war-torn country to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The Syrian government says Staffan de Mistura’s initiative is “worth studying," but the Syrian opposition has reacted with skepticism. It appears the UN envoy faces an uphill struggle if Mr. de Mistura hopes to succeed where his two predecessors failed.

“The UN cease-fire plan suggests that the international community is reconciling itself to the possibility that Assad is staying and may win back parts of Syria, in particular Aleppo,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, referring to Syria’f second city. “This plan could help civilians and activists escape starvation if they are surrounded and cut off. It is the least the UN can do in a situation where it is helpless to change the balance of power on the ground.”

The proposal is still in its early stages. On a visit to Syria two weeks ago, Mr. de Mistura, a veteran Swedish-Italian diplomat who has served in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the past decade, traveled to Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and met with top regime officials in Damascus.

“Saying having a peace plan would be ambitious and delusionary,” Mr. de Mistura told the BBC. “But I do have an action plan, and the action plan starts from the ground – stop the fighting, reduce the violence.”

The first mooted target for the plan is the city of Aleppo, where forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been gaining ground in recent weeks.

Although the rebels hold the city center, their supply line to territory under their control north of Aleppo is narrowing and increasingly at risk of being cut. The secular-leaning rebels in Aleppo have been weakened by the burden of fighting a two front war – one against the Syrian Army and another against the self-styled Islamic State, which is advancing toward the city from the east.

Rather than stop fighting, Mr. Assad's forces appear to be mustering along with members of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah for a potential final strike against the rebels in Aleppo, according to diplomats in Beirut that asked not to be named.

“Frankly, I do not believe the freeze [in Aleppo] has a chance in hell at this point in time,” says a European diplomat in Beirut. “The regime has invested far too much in the Aleppo push to abandon it when it is looking [like it's] working and – in their view – could re-secure Aleppo for them. The regime will speak the speak, but in so many other cases of sweet-talking, nothing will come of it.”

Going for the win

Despite a weariness on both sides of a war that has killed almost 200,000 people since 2011, there is little sign that the Assad regime and the armed opposition are willing to give up the fight.

Since early 2013, the Syrian military has abandoned armored assaults on rebel-held areas which caused an unsustainable rate of casualties among troops. Instead, the Syrian army has adopted “surrender or starve” tactics, besieging and bombing rebel areas into submission. A recruitment drive is underway to replenish the ranks of the exhausted and depleted Syrian Army, including rebuilding the elite Fourth Armored Division, which after more than 18 months of continual fighting was no longer combat capable.

The regime today relies heavily on auxiliary forces such as Hezbollah and the loyalist National Defense Force militia. It has to think hard on where to deploy its overstretched resources. While the regime has gained ground in Aleppo, it has suffered a series of setbacks in the southern portion of the country. Since August, an array of rebel forces, including the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, and the US-backed Syria Revolutionaries Front, have seized ground in Deraa and Quneitra provinces, placing them close to the western and southern approaches to Damascus.

“The regime has more limited capabilities than I think many people understand,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute. “If you look at what’s happening in the south, it’s quite a different question to what’s happening in the north.”

Given the lack of manpower available to the Assad regime, members of the Syrian opposition fear that agreeing to the UN’s plan to freeze fighting in Aleppo will free up Syrian troops to deploy to more pressing battlefronts such as in the south. The Syrian Coalition, the main political opposition body, declared on Tuesday that the UN plan should “guarantee the right of the Syrian people to self-determination to choose their political system, to preserve the unity of Syria and to reject any foreign intervention, especially Iran’s military and political intervention”.

The Syrian Coalition added that the freeze plan should also include the release of detainees by the Assad regime, the establishment of protected safe havens for the civilian population, and the creation of no-fly zones covering the northern and southern parts of the country.

Given the mutual distrust between the Assad regime and its rebel enemies, persuading both sides to halt fighting will take every ounce of de Mistura’s diplomatic skill.

“It’s a question of cui bono, who benefits from this,” says Mr. Tabler of the Washington Institute. “Do the moderates benefit from this, the jihadists? Does the regime benefit? Do they [the Syrian authorities] turn their troops around and send them to Deraa and try and crush that? That would probably be a nonstarter.”

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