United Nations plan for local ceasefires in Syria is deadlocked

February 5, 2015 6:10 pm
A plan for local ceasefires in is deadlocked,
with Damascus feeling it does not need to make concessions to disparate
armed groups, Western diplomats familiar with the talks said.

Since October, U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura has been working
on a plan to broker “local freezes”, starting in the northern city of
Aleppo, to alleviate fighting that has killed more than 200,000 people
in four years; 2,700 of them in January alone, according to a monitoring
group.

Since October, U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura has been working
on a plan to broker “local freezes.” (File photo: Reuters)  

Both the United Nations and the government say talks
continue but diplomats say there is no progress. “The freeze is frozen.
It is just going from bad to worse,” one said.

Reuters could
not reach Syrian government officials to comment on the ceasefire talks.
A Lebanese analyst familiar with the Syrian government’s thinking said
Damascus felt the U.N. team had not paid enough attention to the threat
of jihadists crossing into Syria.

De Mistura’s difficult start
illustrates how hard it is to advance any kind of diplomatic initiative
in Syria. The government sees no immediate need to make a deal on the
ground while the other side is not one but many factions.

Aleppo, Syria’s second city, is at the heart of clashes between
government forces and allied militia and a range of insurgents which
include al Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front, Islamist brigades, foreign
fighters in other groups and Western-backed rebels.

A second
diplomat said talks between the U.N. team and the government had reached
a stalemate because Damascus wanted to model the plan on previous
truces that effectively forced rebels to surrender and the United
Nations wants to avoid this.

“There is no reason for the regime
to enter into the freeze, they believe they are militarily doing quite
well, that they could potentially close the corridor to Aleppo and put
it under siege,” the diplomat said.

What the government wants
would resemble one of the “enforced truces that the regime forces
through sieges” in neighbourhoods in Damascus and Homs, the diplomat
added.

A visit planned by de Mistura to Damascus was postponed last month. He had met with President Bashar al-Assad in November.

A senior U.S. military defence official said earlier this week that the
military was likely to try to encircle Aleppo this year, cut rebel
supply lines, and besiege the fighters.

“We assess the conflict
is trending in the Assad regime’s favour,” Lt. Gen. Vince Stewart, head
of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a panel in the House of
Representatives.

Elsewhere in the country the Syrian army
mainly holds land in the south and west, including most of its urban
centres. The hardline Islamic State holds large tracts of land to the
east and north and is being targeted by U.S.-led air strikes.
Turkish border
The
Lebanese analyst, Nasser Qandil, said one of the main problems with the
freeze talks was that the United Nations did not seem willing to fully
address other issues, such as how to deal with the Turkish border, where
Damascus says jihadists are crossing into Syria.

Turkey has denied supporting hardliners but backs mainstream insurgent groups and hosts the political opposition.

Qandil said the U.N. envoy had agreed with Assad that securing the
Turkish border, which lies north of Aleppo, should come under any
ceasefire plan but appeared to backtrack when he visited the
Turkey-based opposition.

Asked to respond to his comments, a
spokeswoman for de Mistura said consultations were continuing and the
U.N. was talking to a wide range of combatants. “For us in the U.N.,
it’s very clear who is a terrorist and who is not a terrorist,” she
said, referring to Security Council resolutions.
De Mistura, who
took the position after two earlier envoys quit in frustration, is
seeking to prevent a repeat of a truce in the Western city of Homs in
May, where more than 1,000 insurgents withdrew and the government took
over most parts.

The government had allowed hundreds of civilians to leave the city in February after lengthy U.N. mediation.

The U.N. also wants to avoid relocation of Syrian troops from Aleppo to
other parts of Syria if a deal is reached, diplomats said.

Addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in
Brussels late on Monday, de Mistura said the negotiations were
continuing but were not easy.

“We all knew that having a freeze
and not a classical old fashioned ceasefire is going to be a
complicated one but we are pushing and will never give up,” he said.
Rebel groups in the north also expressed early misgivings about the plan, fearing it would benefit the army.
In an interview last month, Assad suggested the plan should resemble previous truces.

“We implemented it in another city called Homs, another big city. We
implemented it on smaller scales in different, let’s say, suburbs,
villages, and so on, and it succeeded,” he told Foreign Affairs
magazine. “So the idea is very good.”

He said he would be willing to “deal directly” with rebels for a settlement in Syria but said most fighters were jihadists.

There was also concern among Western officials about how to get Nusra
Front on board for an Aleppo truce, diplomats said. One said de
Mistura’s team had been told by rebel fighters they could rally the
group if needed.

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