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A Good ‘Freeze’ in Aleppo Is Not Enough

The United Nations' special envoy to Syria has good intentions, but another cease-fire isn't going to get the Assad regime and moderate rebels to team up against the Islamic State.

AleppoCROP

As the Obama administration searches for a Syria policy, some officials have become intrigued by an old idea that the United Nations now hopes could help tens of thousands of civilians and perhaps even break Syria’s political logjam.

In June, one of the world’s most capable diplomats, Staffan de Mistura, bravely accepted the difficult job of U.N. special envoy for Syria. Recently, he has been proposing to the warring sides in the civil war a “freeze” of hostilities in Aleppo. What used to be Syria’s commercial hub is now divided between regime and opposition control and more resembles Stalingrad in 1942 than the bustling economic powerhouse with an internationally renowned medieval city that it used to be. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime are battling for control of the city, while 25 miles to the east hover Islamic State forces, so far held back only by desperate FSA fighters. De Mistura now awaits final answers to his freeze proposal from the regime and the rebels. He hopes the looming threat of the Islamic State will convince the moderate opposition and the regime to set aside their conflict. Moreover, a freeze would achieve the entirely laudable goal of facilitating much-needed humanitarian assistance into the shattered city.

The Assad regime that rejected national political negotiations at Geneva in January and February has been selling the idea of local cease-fires throughout the past year. The government has already concluded cease-fires in three dozen districts and towns, though they have produced few results in terms of aid deliveries or lasting peace. These “cease-fires” have several common characteristics: They all followed lengthy sieges where manpower-short regime forces, unable to take the districts in full-scale assaults, besieged them instead and compelled the defenders to accept cease-fires in return for food. And in nearly all the instances, the regime subsequently blocked food supplies again, trying to extract more concessions from the opposition. Sporadic fighting has broken out again in most of them.

As the Obama administration searches for a Syria policy, some officials have become intrigued by an old idea that the United Nations now hopes could help tens of thousands of civilians and perhaps even break Syria’s political logjam.

In June, one of the world’s most capable diplomats, Staffan de Mistura, bravely accepted the difficult job of U.N. special envoy for Syria. Recently, he has been proposing to the warring sides in the civil war a “freeze” of hostilities in Aleppo. What used to be Syria’s commercial hub is now divided between regime and opposition control and more resembles Stalingrad in 1942 than the bustling economic powerhouse with an internationally renowned medieval city that it used to be. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime are battling for control of the city, while 25 miles to the east hover Islamic State forces, so far held back only by desperate FSA fighters. De Mistura now awaits final answers to his freeze proposal from the regime and the rebels. He hopes the looming threat of the Islamic State will convince the moderate opposition and the regime to set aside their conflict. Moreover, a freeze would achieve the entirely laudable goal of facilitating much-needed humanitarian assistance into the shattered city.

The Assad regime that rejected national political negotiations at Geneva in January and February has been selling the idea of local cease-fires throughout the past year. The government has already concluded cease-fires in three dozen districts and towns, though they have produced few results in terms of aid deliveries or lasting peace. These “cease-fires” have several common characteristics: They all followed lengthy sieges where manpower-short regime forces, unable to take the districts in full-scale assaults, besieged them instead and compelled the defenders to accept cease-fires in return for food. And in nearly all the instances, the regime subsequently blocked food supplies again, trying to extract more concessions from the opposition. Sporadic fighting has broken out again in most of them.

Only in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh has the cease-fire endured for almost a year. That’s because local opposition fighters control a road the regime needs to access a major military hospital. The opposition fighters there have had adequate strength first to repel repeated regime attacks and finally to compel the regime to heed a negotiated cease-fire deal or lose access to the hospital. And as the war continues, the regime badly needs the hospital.

In Aleppo, de Mistura’s plan won’t have the conditions that make the Barzeh cease-fire work. (De Mistura calls his proposal a “freeze,” rather than a cease-fire.) Ideally, he would have some kind of enforcement mechanism to use when one side violates freeze terms, and unfortunately violations are likely. Forces allied with the Assad regime, especially, have proven that they are prone to violating cease-fires, as a recent report by a neutral Syrian research group shows. A freeze enforcement mechanism could work only if there is agreement among the foreign states aiding the warring sides that there will be penalties on clients that violate the freeze terms. Four Russian vetoes defending Syria on the U.N. Security Council over the past three years show how hard that agreement will be.

The regime responded to de Mistura’s Aleppo freeze proposal saying that it was “worth studying.” That might sound cautious, but it’s not a flat rejection. The regime’s forces have slowly but steadily gained ground to encircle Aleppo for a prolonged siege. Accepting the proposal means it would have to forgo this military advantage that has been months in the making. The regime, however, has an incentive to accept the proposal. Its manpower shortage is becoming steadily more obvious, its support base is tiring of the endless fighting, and troops tied down at Aleppo can’t help blunt opposition advances closer to Damascus.

The opposition has a similarly vexed choice to make. Accepting the proposal would alleviate huge suffering for civilians under opposition control — especially important as the harsh winter begins — but it’s not without risks. Other rebel groups, especially those currently gaining momentum in fighting in the south, could label the Aleppo factions as traitors and agents of the regime if they agree to halt fighting. Not surprisingly, some opposition figures have said the freeze needs to apply to several battlefields, not just Aleppo.

Moreover, there are some elements in Syria that will clearly reject a freeze under any conditions — and stand to benefit from it. Thousands of fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State now loom on battlefields near Aleppo. De Mistura wants the Aleppo opposition fighters to focus on the jihadis. Unfortunately, the grim reality of northern Syria now is that given the choice between fighting the regime and fighting Nusra or the Islamic State, most of the remaining moderate armed opposition fighters would side with the jihadis. Two years of unrestrained regime barrel bombing, chemical weapons attacks, and other savagery, coupled with inadequate foreign assistance, have brought the Syrian opposition to this point. It will be exceptionally hard for even as skilled a diplomat as de Mistura to overcome that animosity against Assad, even for a temporary freeze much less a long-term settlement.

If he could achieve a miracle and get the opposition to accept a freeze and secure regime respect for its terms, de Mistura’s proposal still wouldn’t launch a process to solve the Syrian crisis. The freeze should allow Aleppo hospitals, schools, and bakeries to improve their operations again since regime airstrikes would cease and humanitarian assistance would be unimpeded.

That’s a good start but massive problems remain. It’s hard imagine a political deal to manage the city’s affairs, from restoring medical services to reopening schools. The regime — which is already quickly running out of cash — would have to start paying all the government salaries again, regardless of where an employee lives and works. What is left of government ministries in Damascus, accustomed to total control of budgets and decisions, would have to cede decisions and powers to local opposition authorities in Aleppo. It is hard to imagine the Syrian regime’s four secret intelligence services would be comfortable with this. Not surprisingly, no other cease-fire in Syria has gone any distance in establishing mechanisms to resolve local political disputes, and it is hard to see how an Aleppo freeze realistically could do more than ease humanitarian suffering, valuable though that might be.

Even if de Mistura secures an Aleppo freeze, it won’t help solve the terrorism problem in Syria (or the problems jihadis from Syria pose for Iraq). Nor will this local initiative resolve the broader Syrian crisis. Indeed, if the regime merely shifts forces and launches new counter-offensives on other fronts, the Aleppo freeze could accelerate the fighting elsewhere in Syria. As worthwhile as the humanitarian instincts behind the proposal are, it won’t help Washington achieve its goals in Syria for counterterrorism or regional stability. Instead, policymakers need to figure out how to put more pressure on the ground against the regime and the jihadis. And they must do so urgently.

BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images

Robert S. Ford is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria and was deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

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