What's In Blue

Posted Mon 16 Feb 2015

Syria Special Envoy to Brief on Discussions toward an Aleppo Freeze Zone

Tomorrow afternoon (17 February), Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will deliver his second briefing to Council members on efforts to facilitate a negotiated “freeze zone” between the government and opposition in Aleppo—Syria’s “second city” which has suffered serious fighting since the summer of 2012 including significant aerial bombardment by the government for more than a year.

De Mistura briefed Council members for the first time on 30 October 2014, presenting his initial plans for a UN-mediated “freeze zone” that could create an area of de-escalated violence in Aleppo, increase humanitarian access, build confidence toward a more wide-ranging stabilisation of the situation and deliver incentives for negotiating a broader peace in the future.

Tomorrow Council members will be interested to hear more from de Mistura about his discussions with key stakeholders in the region, in particular President Bashar al-Assad on 11 February. They will also want to know how the details of the freeze plan have taken shape over the course of the last several months as a result of those interactions and whether the plan has a reasonable chance of success.

Overall Council members see the value of de Mistura’s incremental approach given the inability of previous envoys to overcome the government’s intransigence to a negotiated political settlement. However, at the 30 October meeting, several Council members registered their wariness about endorsing a plan that might be little more than the opposition’s agreement to surrender as the result of the government’s siege and starvation tactics. While Russia is fully supportive of freeze zones, most other Council members will likely want more information from de Mistura tomorrow about how his plan addresses these concerns and reflects humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law referred to in Council resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191.

Council members understand that the current principles of the freeze plan have been developed to address concerns about the coercive nature of previously agreed local ceasefires between the opposition and the government and apprehension that a freeze in Aleppo would result in escalated violence elsewhere in the country. De Mistura has calibrated his freeze plan to distinguish it from other local ceasefire agreements in Syria. Opposition fighters do not have to disarm nor can either side redeploy their forces or military assets to other arenas—there is a particular focus on getting the government to stop using heavy weaponry and aerial bombardment. It also calls for UN involvement to monitor crossing points between rebel and government-held areas and provide a dispute resolution mechanism.

Many Council members are interested in how such monitoring would operate and whether a Council resolution mandating such a mechanism would be necessary. On the other hand, Council members who have been closely following de Mistura’s work are aware that over-emphasising the monitoring aspect of the freeze plan may be putting the “cart before the horse” as there have been no strong signals that the government is willing to agree to any of the fundamental requirements of the freeze plan.

Council members will also be interested to hear more from de Mistura about whether the idea of a freeze has gained traction among Aleppo’s main opposition groups. De Mistura is likely to convey that the government’s objections to the operational aspects of the freeze plan have raised the plan’s credibility among opposition groups as they see that the UN is not capitulating to government demands that undermine the purpose of the freeze zone. (In terms of sequencing, de Mistura wants to secure the government’s agreement before pressing opposition groups for formal agreement.)

Since September, the Special Envoy has met with key players from Amman, Ankara, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, Washington and with EU ministers in Brussels. In Turkey, he and his team have continually liaised with the Syrian National Coalition and key rebel groups from Aleppo. Council members will want detailed updates on several of the key issues that have emerged during these interactions, in particular the gap between how the Syrian government and opposition groups view implementation of the freeze zone. Syria wants to limit it to the city of Aleppo rather than also including the surrounding countryside. The government also argues that state-run services, such as the police, should return to rebel-held areas and a freeze should lead to the “cleaning of the area of armed groups”. Rebels, however, want the freeze to extend to the Turkish border and agree with the UN position that there should be self-rule in opposition areas. Opposition groups have also said that any freeze needs to be linked to a political process that is in line with the 30 June 2012 Geneva Communiqué—i.e. Assad’s departure from power. These groups have also expressed concern that the government would use a freeze to make military gains elsewhere.

Council members may also be interested to hear de Mistura’s assessment of how other initiatives outside the UN framework, such as a conference of opposition leaders in Cairo on 25 January and the late January Moscow talks, have impacted his own work towards negotiating a freeze zone.

Finally, given the trajectory of discouraging meetings with Damascus, Council members might be interested in whether there have been enough constructive signals from the government to continue trying to negotiate a freeze in Aleppo or whether de Mistura has any thoughts on other ways forward, such as implementing a freeze in a less contested and smaller town.

Tomorrow’s discussions are expected to be tightly focused on the issue of an Aleppo freeze. However, there will likely be two strong undercurrents in the consultations—the impact of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and the recent perceived shifts in the US and UN positions that seem to demonstrate a certain degree of tolerance of Assad’s role in any broad peace initiative. Both issues may be touched on during consultations, insofar as they affect de Mistura’s chances of successfully negotiating a freeze.

Council members issued a press statement in support of de Mistura’s efforts when he last briefed. Some Council members anticipate a similar show of general support may follow tomorrow’s consultations. However, most Council members believe any substantive Council response on the political track won’t come unless and until de Mistura is able to bring the government and opposition into agreement on a freeze plan.

Looking ahead, Council members will hold an Arria-formula format meeting with the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria this Friday (20 February). Next week, on 25 February, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will brief the Council on the humanitarian situation.

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