UN’s new road map for peace in Syria faces same old pitfalls

Plan to freeze fighting in Aleppo, then elsewhere across the country, could devolve into usual cease-fire trap

The United Nations’ latest bid to stop the fighting in Syria is a modest proposal: Begin by persuading both rebels and regime soldiers in the devastated city of Aleppo to hold their fire and open humanitarian corridors, then gradually apply freezes elsewhere around the country. If things go according to plan, such incremental measures would ultimately form the bones of a long-term political resolution to Syria’s civil war.

Details of the plan are scant, and reaction to it has been lukewarm. After several failed attempts to broker nationwide peace through direct talks in Geneva, the U.N. proposal is a bottom-up approach meant to dodge the intractable, big-picture issues that have so far tripped up any progress toward a lasting truce. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose removal from power was the most contentious issue in the Geneva talks, gave the incremental freeze plan a boost Monday by telling reporters it was “worthy of study.”

But Syria's disjointed rebel factions and their foreign backers have already begun to express skepticism about the plan, fearing it will prove to be a rehashing of past failed cease-fire attempts — only using different terminology.

Noah Bonsey, Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beirut, said the word “freeze” is meant to be more palatable to the rebel side, which has accused the Assad regime of exploiting prior cease-fire agreements to redistribute military resources to other fronts. Despite assurances on Tuesday from Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy to Syria, that the Aleppo plan will be “different from previous cease-fires,” the regime’s history of abusing these agreements has instilled in the rebels a fundamental mistrust of the concept — under any name.

The U.N. plan is “a great waste of time,” said Ali al-Amin al-Suweid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition group. “Any truce is a chance for the regime to reorganize its troops to be able to attack the rebels."

Overcoming that legacy of mistrust is just one of the obstacles de Mistura faces. Ultimately, the viability of a localized cease-fire lies not in rhetoric but in the balance of power on the battleground. The U.N. plan would freeze the status quo in Aleppo — which favors the regime — and curb the losses of rebel factions, which have been largely on the defensive in the past two weeks. Bonsey posed the question on many skeptics’ minds, asking, “In the absence of any external military threat or any reason to fear the status quo, why would the regime ever agree to allow rebels to retain control of their territories? They’d be sparing the rebels defeat.”

For the same reasons, many question the workability of freezes in other cities. Bonsey noted that the few instances of successful cease-fires, such as in the Damascus suburb of Birzeh, have been brokered on a level playing field. “Those types of balances don’t exist on most Syrian fronts,” he said.

Nevertheless, de Mistura insists the timing is right for a breakthrough, in large part because the rebels and the regime need breathing room to address the rising mutual threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which now controls over one-third of Syria.

He hopes that focusing his efforts on the symbolic city of Aleppo, once the country’s economic capital, could pile pressure on both sides to at least feign interest in peace. Wherever they fall on the contentious questions of a lasting political solution, it is likely that most of Aleppo’s 2 million residents would welcome a pause in the violence that has leveled their city’s famed heritage sites and killed tens of thousands.

“The regime has its hard-liners who won’t want to slow down, but it, too, is hurting,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “There’s been a lot of dissent among Alawites, the country’s in a financial squeeze, winter is coming, and they’re short on electricity — not to mention ISIL attacks. Both sides have good reason to want breathing space.”

The rebels, meanwhile, would not help their already declining public image by appearing less receptive to a freeze than the regime. Whether or not Assad is genuinely considering a compromise in Aleppo, his stock could rise in the eyes of war-weary Syrians if he positions himself as the only party trying to end the fighting. “Rebels who dismiss this issue are making a fundamental error,” Sayigh added.

Behind the scenes, the U.N. will do its best to pressure the foreign backers of the regime (Russia and Iran) and the myriad rebel factions (the West, Arab powers and Turkey) to pull whatever strings are available to them. The U.N. has already sought to rally these nations behind their shared opposition to ISIL, which has mounted an unprecedented challenge to regional stability. But the U.N. will be hard pressed to convince either side to prioritize the fight against ISIL, the newcomer in a war that was always about toppling the Assad regime.

Hadi al-Bahra, president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, a political body in exile and the only rebel faction that agreed to take part in talks with the regime in the past, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that his group had not yet taken a stance on the U.N.’s latest road map to peace. "We need to look at details and make sure this is a step forward towards a comprehensive and complete political settlement," he said.

But even Bahra did not mince words when it came to the opposition's priorities: Assad is the cause of Syria’s extremist crisis, he said, and ISIL “is the symptom.”

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