U.N. leaders thought the rise of the Islamic State could push Assad and the country's moderate rebels closer to a deal. They were wrong.
For U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura, the path to a Syrian peace deal ran straight through the Islamic State, or Daesh, the Islamist extremist group seeking to form a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Speaking in a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting last October, the Swedish-Italian diplomat said the rise of the extremist movement — known for sexually enslaving women and beheading Western journalists and aid workers — supplied just the shock needed to focus the attention of the United States and other key powers on Syria. He said it would also threaten the interests of the warring parties inside Syria enough to scare them into possibly embracing peace.
“It took abhorrent acts and images of terror to return the limelight on Syria,” de Mistura told the council, according to a confidential copy of his statement, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “We need to take advantage of this.”
But three and a half months after de Mistura first unveiled his peace initiative — a plan calling for the establishment of local “fighting freezes” through Syria that would allow for the evacuation of civilians and the import of needed supplies — U.N. peace efforts have hit a brick wall. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rebuffed several provisions of de Mistura’s plan, fearing they would hogtie his fighters during a critical phase of the country’s four-year-long civil war, according to U.N.-based diplomats. The opposition, which has seen previous cease-fire agreements serve as cover for surrender to Assad’s forces, has shown little enthusiasm for them. In the end, the Syrian government and the opposition are more committed to fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State.
“I don’t want to say it’s dead,” one U.N. Security Council diplomat said of de Mistura’s initiative. “But, so far you can judge the results by themselves: They are not so fruitful.”
De Mistura inherited the top Syria job in July from two of the world’s best-known diplomats, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, a seasoned U.N. mediator who led international negotiations from Afghanistan to Iraq, and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Brahimi and Annan sought, and ultimately failed, to forge a transitional government that would include elements of the government and the opposition, but would ultimately lead to Assad’s departure from power.
De Mistura has sought to strike an agreement on a far less ambitious plan, one that calls for the establishment of a string of U.N.-brokered cease-fires, called “fighting freezes,” beginning in Aleppo, a strategically vital city that has been split between government and rebel forces since mid-2012. In recent months, the Syrian government has been trying to encircle the rebels, and cut off their supplies. In December alone, at least 107 civilians, 27 of them children, were reportedly killed by aerial bombardment and shelling in Aleppo, according to the United Nations. The world body studiously avoided assigning blame, but only the government has the capacity to use air power in and around the city.
The U.N. diplomat traveled to Damascus this week in an effort to rekindle the Syrian government’s interest in the proposal. Following a lengthy meeting with Assad, de Mistura said Wednesday that he had discussed his proposal for a “freeze” in Aleppo, but that he would not divulge the contents of their talks before briefing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council in New York next week.
“But of course the heart of my mission is to try and facilitate any political process that can lead to a political solution to a conflict that has lasted too long and which has no military solution,” he said at a press conference in Damascus.
But observers and U.N.-based diplomats say the prospects for a diplomatic solution will remain out of reach as long as the warring parties and their military and political backers continue to press for a military victory.
“I think that there is no diplomatic silver bullet in this conflict,” said Noah Bonsey, the Beirut-based representative of the International Crisis Group. “So long as the conflict’s protagonists and their backers remain in their current positions, it is hard to imagine any diplomatic initiative generating meaningful results.”
The rise of the Islamic State has done little to undermine Assad’s growing sense of self-confidence. The strongman believes himself to be winning militarily and therefore has little incentive to agree to any freeze in fighting, Bonsey said in a telephone interview from Beirut.
Assad, he added, faces little pressure from his most powerful patrons, Russia and Iran, to make concessions beyond keeping channels open with de Mistura. And the regime no longer faces much of a prospect of a military strike by the United States, which had threatened to hit Assad after the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013. In fact, the United States air campaign against the Islamic State, or Daesh, has allowed Assad to direct more of his military fire on Western- and Arab-backed rebels. In a recent interview with the BBC, Assad said his government was communicating indirectly with the United States over its military activities in Syria.
“Not only is the United States not going to escalate a military campaign against the regime,” Bonsey said, but Assad remains “hopeful, probably unreasonably hopeful, that the United States will come along and accept its continued rule and begin to work with it.”
In an interview last month with Foreign Affairs, Assad said that Syria would be willing to agree to de Mistura’s cease-fire plan. “The idea is very good, but it depends on the details.”
But Assad has differed sharply with de Mistura on the details. He cited the example of Homs, where a May 2014 cease-fire served essentially as a vehicle for the rebels’ surrender, paving the way for Syrian authorities to seize control of the city and redeploy their fighting forces to another battlefront. The Syrian rebels see cease-fires as a central plank of Assad’s military strategy.
De Mistura recently traveled to the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Gaziantep to assure representatives of the Syrian opposition groups that this cease-fire plan would be different. For instance, it would not require opposition fighters to initially put down their arms, and it would bar government and opposition fighters from simply redeploying their fighting forces to another theater of battle.
“The freeze is defined as a strategic deescalation of violence, local in nature but with a national impact,” de Mistura wrote in a confidential paper shared with European governments. “It forms a key building block towards an overarching political horizon by: saving lives, preventing the destruction of Aleppo; safeguarding the relevance of the moderate opposition” and building confidence between the warring parties. If the cease-fire succeeded, he added, it could serve as a model that could be replicated in other towns and cities around the country.
“Only if we can showcase to the people, to ourselves, concrete examples of ‘areas of reduced violence’ where the calm is holding can we then reinject a much needed sense of hope,” he said. “Only then can we counter the ISIS/Daesh-narrative and begin to reverse the deepening sense of concern and worry.”
Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that early hopes that the rise of the Islamic State could bring the moderate opposition together with regime elements have largely been dashed. That hope, he said, was “founded on the misconception built into all our peace-making efforts: That we can get an interim regime that is based on a political solution. It’s not going to happen. Assad has made it very clear he is perfectly happy to rule over a smaller part of Syria than to make any compromises. He has a system in place that works for him.”
Landis said that while it appears deeply unlikely that de Mistura’s cease-fire initiative is “going to work out for him, that doesn’t mean anyone with a better plan would have had any more luck. If you had bigger ambitions you would have failed.”
AFP/Getty Images/ Pablo Tosco