A Lose-Lose in Aleppo

The U.N.’s plan to “freeze” the conflict in Syria is a gift to Bashar al-Assad. No wonder the rebels aren’t buying it.

Syrian fighters from a group calling themselves "The right bombs squad", many of who left their studies and jobs to join rebels, hold their weapons at a checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Epin, in the north-western province of Idlib, on April 15, 2012. Syrian opposition activists organised protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime on April 20, 2012, in a new test of its readiness to honour a peace plan UN chief Ban Ki-moon said it has so far failed to heed. AFP PHOTO/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Military and diplomatic efforts in Syria are converging in Aleppo, once the country’s largest city and commercial center. Last week, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura reported to the Security Council that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to suspend for six weeks all aerial and artillery bombardment of the besieged city, which is divided between the regime and rebel groups.

The supposed agreement, however, does not represent much of a breakthrough, especially when compared with the diplomat’s initial ambitions of a broad “freeze” over the whole province of Aleppo, which would then be replicated in other regions later. Behind closed doors and in front of the media afterward, de Mistura sought to lower expectations, saying he had “no illusions” about the difficult task ahead. He also did not explain how a limited freeze in Aleppo could change the calculations of the various local and regional players or create new incentives for a political negotiation among the warring sides.

De Mistura’s New York briefing coincided with a large-scale regime offensive to fully encircle Aleppo from the north. Regular military units, the paramilitary auxiliaries of the National Defense Force, and Hezbollah fighters sought to press their advantage in the areas of Handarat and Malaah, north of the city, with the intention of seizing three important villages and breaking rebel groups’ siege of the Shiite towns of Zahra and Nubl. Controlling these villages and connecting roads would sever the links between the Aleppo countryside and the vitally important border with Turkey.

But the initially rapid advance of the pro-regime forces was stopped and rolled back in several areas. Bad weather grounded Assad’s helicopters and aircraft during much of the battle — overcast weather, a rebel commander quipped to me, imposed the no-fly zone that the Americans had denied the rebellion since 2011. After capturing important territory in surprise attacks over two days, Assad’s forces were surrounded by Syrian rebels who killed well over 100 soldiers and captured dozens more, making this time among the costliest days for the regime since the beginning of the armed uprising.

The focus on Aleppo — by both military men and diplomats alike — has served to place de Mistura’s strategy in Syria under a microscope. When he took on this merciless job in the summer of 2014, de Mistura embraced the well-intentioned if hyped and problematic notion that a solution to Syria’s crisis could be found in a bottom-up process that built on local cease-fires across the country. Freezes in fighting, the reasoning went, would alleviate human suffering and allow regime and rebel forces to direct their firepower against the Islamic State, which he identified as the main threat.

In fact, the local cease-fires that had been reached previously — most notably in Homs and in the suburbs of Damascus — were profoundly flawed. They were the product of horrific sieges and starvation that could not, and should not, be replicated elsewhere. While they reduced fighting-related loss of life, they have not significantly reduced human misery or led to a change in the regime’s behavior. A vindictive Assad, it turns out, will not and cannot spend political capital or precious resources as part of a “hearts and minds” strategy.

In the business of conflict management, however, a bad idea is still better than no idea. At a time of international lassitude and frustration with the seemingly unsolvable Syrian crisis, de Mistura’s efforts offered a welcome veneer of diplomatic activity. Several key countries were willing to let him try: For U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, for which the campaign against the Islamic State was the priority, the U.N. initiative served to reframe the conflict and quietly shift the narrative away from its original demand for Assad’s departure. For the Syrian regime’s supporters in Tehran and Moscow, it offered the prospect of bringing Assad back into a negotiating process that could co-opt some opposition groups, further fragment the rebellion, and relieve pressure on some front lines. Meanwhile, the rebellion’s main supporters, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, reckoning with the costs of their disruptive Syria policies and adjusting to the rise of the Islamic State, were bereft of alternatives.

De Mistura saw an opening in these dynamics, but he started on a wrong note. As the Islamic State was closing in on the northern city of Kobani last October, he made a plea for international help to the town’s Kurdish defenders and warned of a repetition of the massacres of Srebrenica and Rwanda. To many dumbfounded Syrians, this painfully illustrated the international community’s double standards: From Yazidis to Kurds, minorities threatened by Sunni jihadis received attention and assistance, they argued, while Sunni communities decimated by the supposedly secular Assad on a greater scale were ignored. This understandably if unfairly fueled suspicions that the U.N. mediator was facilitating a shift in international attention away from Assad and toward the Islamic State.

Aleppo’s strategic importance, the intensity of the fighting, and the magnitude of human misery there made the city an understandable choice for de Mistura to test his freeze idea. The Swedish-Italian diplomat pleaded for patience and consulted experts, civil society activists, and Aleppo residents. It became clear that if a freeze were to have any effect, it would need to cover the city as well as its countryside, extend to all kinds of military operations, and ground military assets in their places in order to prevent the regime and rebels from deploying them on other fronts. Importantly, local governance would also have to remain in the hands of the various factions in their respective areas. Then, the freeze would have to be followed quickly by serious diplomatic political steps, lest the focus on Aleppo suck up all the energy and become an end in itself.

De Mistura and his team spent many months convincing the various sides of the merits of his approach, flying to Damascus and Gaziantep, Turkey, for that purpose. Most rebel groups proved predictably skeptical, but exhaustion and suffering among civilians and pressure from the main opposition groups persuaded them not to openly oppose the plan.

Assad, meanwhile, publicly agreed to examine the terms of the freeze plan, while allowing his ministers and his media to criticize it and condition its acceptance upon an ever-greater number of amendments. After the regime flatly rejected a freeze over both Aleppo city and its countryside late last year, de Mistura toned down his proposal and flew to Damascus to win Assad’s endorsement for it. While there, he paid an ill-timed visit to the Iranian Embassy on Feb. 10 for a celebration of the Islamic Revolution — just as only a few miles away the Syrian regime intensified its vicious assault on the city of Douma with barrel bombs. This faux pas provoked outrage among opposition sympathizers and concerns from Western diplomats about his lack of sensitivity.

Unsurprisingly, what Assad ultimately “conceded” was considerably less than what de Mistura had hoped. His proposition is to suspend only aerial and artillery bombing for six weeks, and only in Aleppo; this will be accompanied by a test cease-fire in only the Aleppo district of Salaheddine. This should not be seen as a serious concession by the regime: Fighting inside the city itself has subsided considerably in recent months, and the front lines there are largely static. The real battles are occurring further to the north, which is why Assad has not extended his suspension to these areas, now the main target of his infamous barrel bombs. Finally, while Assad was ostensibly welcoming de Mistura’s efforts, his ministers and advisors insisted that Aleppo be brought entirely under “state sovereignty” once the freeze takes place, which the opposition considers a code word for surrender that recalls the ill-fated cease-fire in Homs last year.

In fact, the Syrian dictator may well consider that he already got all he wanted from de Mistura. The U.N. diplomat recently called Assad “part of the solution” in Syria during a news conference in Vienna, earning the opposition’s ire. While he quickly termed it a misunderstanding, the statement legitimized Assad as a negotiating partner and served as evidence to his supporters that the regime’s stubbornness was paying off.

Pro-regime media celebrated de Mistura’s unfortunate slip of the tongue as an admission of Assad’s triumph that could have only happened with U.S. blessing. One can hardly dismiss such perceptions. The failure of the anti-Assad coalition to increase its support for the opposition after the collapse of the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva last year, the continued unwillingness to punish Assad’s flouting of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2139 on barrel bombs, and the lack of response to the regime’s continuous obstruction of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas have comforted Damascus and its supporters that there will be no price to hindering international efforts.

This is why it is difficult to escape the conclusion that a textbook Assad strategy tricked de Mistura. The shifting tenor of the Western discussion over Syria — with mandarins and pundits recommending working with the warlord of Damascus against the Islamic State — has convinced Assad that he can present himself as the lesser evil to the United States and Europe, persuading them to accommodate him. In the short term, this means that he can afford to give as little as possible to de Mistura, including withdrawing or further amending his meager proposition.

The rebels are less likely to accept de Mistura’s proposition. Their reluctant support for a freeze has shrunk further with their relative success against the Assad offensive last week. Since the threatened encirclement of Aleppo may not happen after all, they have less reason to make concessions in pursuit of a freeze. This is compounded by the problematic gratitude they owe to al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which helped them beat back the regime offensive and opposes de Mistura’s plan. While the struggling Syrian Opposition Coalition can ill-afford to stall an initiative with U.N. imprimatur, its authority over armed groups is currently negligible.

Even if de Mistura were to pull off a freeze in Aleppo in the coming weeks, it seems highly unlikely that it could be replicated elsewhere or change the political climate in Syria. De Mistura’s standing has been diminished, while rebels believe that their distrust of Assad has been validated by his opportunistic offensive. If an agreement does go into effect, the humanitarian benefits for the city still would be minimal: Delivery of humanitarian assistance would not significantly increase as roads into the city remain dangerous, while a lull in the small rebel-held part of the neighborhood of Salaheddine — if it is accompanied by an escalation of fighting elsewhere — would be unconvincing.

In reality, U.N. mediation efforts in Syria are doomed under current circumstances. Lacking enforcement mechanisms, they perversely play into Assad’s hands while not delivering the hoped-for humanitarian returns. Only when they are accompanied by a resolute effort to put Assad’s continued rule on the line will they hold a chance of success. It may well be time to reconsider the much-debated, if long-eschewed, Turkish proposal for an air exclusion zone and safe zones in northern Syria.

Photo credit: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Emile Hokayem is senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.