UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura’s bid to establish a “freeze zone” in the embattled northern Syria city of Aleppo came face to face this week with one of its main obstacles: fractured and pressured rebel leaders who fear that a cease-fire under current conditions would constitute surrender.
Mr. de Mistura was in the southern Turkish city of Gazientep on Monday and Tuesday to persuade the rebel leaders to consider the freeze, which he hopes will alleviate Syria’s humanitarian crisis and lay the groundwork for a political process.
The military situation in Aleppo is increasingly precarious for rebels who are under pressure from the regime on one front and the Islamic Sate group on the other. While a “freeze" could offer a reprieve as winter sets in, many opposition commanders and activists view the initiative with skepticism.
“There were a lot of differences in opinion, so we will need further discussions and a concrete action plan that we can study with all the factions in order for us to present our suggestions,” says Qais al-Sheikh, president of the Revolutionary Command Council, a new coalition grouping Islamist and moderate groups.
Many worry that a limited cease-fire in Aleppo would amount to little more than surrender – the final nail in the coffin of a popular uprising that started nearly four years ago and degenerated into a civil war fanned by regional powers and rendered intractable by the influx of foreign fighters.
If Aleppo falls, this would mark a strategic defeat not only for Syria’s fractious rebels but also for the US-led coalition, which needs allies on the ground to counter the influence of the so-called Islamic State, an extremist group that has seized large chunks of Syria and Iraq.
Envoy saw discussions as 'encouraging'
De Mistura’s spokeswoman, Juliette Touma, said Tuesday the envoy held “encouraging discussions” in Gaziantep with representatives of the different opposition military and political factions in Aleppo. A delegation led by de Mistura’s deputy will head to Damascus this week to provide further information to the Syrian government on how to make the “freeze” agreement operational in the country’s second city.
“Right now we are working on the details with the parties of the conflict and mediating an agreement,” says Ms.Touma.
The timing of the visit was not conducive toward building trust as it coincided with the regime’s launch of a new military operation – dubbed “Operation Rainbow” – to lock its siege on Aleppo.
“This goes to show there are no guarantees with de Mistura,” says a representative of the Nureddin Zinki battalion in Aleppo, a US-backed moderate group.
“This will divide the opposition, one part will agree to engage in talks, and the other will go toward extremism,” he adds. “How can there be an initiative when there is nothing on paper? Once there is a document in front of us we can discuss it.”
Rebel groups constantly splintering
A major obstacle in de Mistura’s path is rebel groups that are constantly splintering and cementing new alliances. “There is no one leader – nobody can make an agreement with de Mistura and apply it on the ground,” says Anas al-Haj of Aleppo’s Revolutionary Military Council.
A spokesman for the Islamic Front, a major fighting force in Aleppo, reports that members of his group met with de Mistura’s team before his visit but did not encounter the envoy this week due to a “misunderstanding” regarding timing and outstanding questions. The group would have liked the peace envoy to visit rebel-held areas.
“We don’t see the link between the Geneva talks and this initiative,” says Ahmed Amir Abu al-Hariss of the Islamic Front, referring to failed negotiations in Switzerland. “No one can deny that every six to 12 months we start from zero. Any comprehensive initiative on Syria must respect its territorial integrity, lead to the departure of the regime and alleviate the suffering of Syrians.”
Complicating matters is the presence of Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The group has long defended Aleppo against the regime and made major gains in adjacent Idlib Province at the expense of moderate rebels vetted and armed by the United States. It was hit in the first round of coalition air strikes that mostly targeted the Islamic State.
Mixed results for local cease-fires
Islamist and moderate rebel fighters interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor say they can fight a two-front war – one against extremists and the other against the regime – if provided with adequate training and backing. But failure to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists will only fuel further extremism, they warn.
Local truces and cease-fires in Syria have had mixed results. In some cases they have been the outcome of protracted sieges and starvation campaigns. In others they have reflected a tactical maneuver on the part of the regime to relieve pressure on one front and refocus on more strategic areas.
Those engaged in humanitarian work and back-room diplomacy, however, welcome any effort to deescalate the conflict, open a small space for dialogue, and reduce the humanitarian crisis. Some experts see local cease-fires as a stepping stone toward a more comprehensive agreement that puts an end to a conflict that has already claimed more than 200,000 lives.
“In the absence of any kind of national approach at the moment, in the absence of any real progress in the political front, the freezes could be very useful,” says Camilla Jelbart Mosse, Oxfam’s Beirut-based Syria campaign manager, stressing that such agreements need international monitors to succeed.