Traction is growing for one of the few ideas left for peace in Syria’s civil war: Work out a series of local cease-fires to try to quiet the bloodiest fronts around the country, without tackling the core issues of the conflict between President Bashar Assad’s government and the rebels.
The U.N. envoy to Syria called Tuesday for such an incremental truce in the northern city of Aleppo as a building block for more — an idea that Assad has said is “worth studying.”
The Islamic State group’s onslaught has given greater urgency to finding some sort of solution for the nearly-four-year-old conflict. But reaching even small-scale truces in the fragmented country of multiple, divided fighting forces could be a near impossible task.
Staffan de Mistura is the third U.N. envoy to try to mediate a solution to the Syrian war. Previous peace initiatives and cease-fire attempts brokered by veteran U.N. diplomats Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi all ended in failure, including the brief deployment of a U.N. monitoring mission and two rounds of peace talks in Geneva earlier this year meant to discuss a political transition.
Since then, the situation has become infinitely more complicated with the growing influence of extremist groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and U.S. airstrikes targeting terrorists in the country.
On Tuesday, de Mistura suggested “freezing” the conflict, starting with Aleppo, the last major metropolis where mainstream rebels fighting to topple Assad hold large areas.
“That means stop fighting, stop fighting. No one moves from where they are,” the U.N. envoy told a news conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus. This would not be a substitute for a political solution but could become a “building block” for an eventual political process, de Mistura said.
He did not elaborate on how the freeze could come about. Much of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once-vibrant commercial center, is in ruins. Rebel-held areas in the eastern part of the city are pulverized and abandoned after thousands were killed in government bombings. Rebels there are under attack from advancing government forces and increasingly feel squeezed by approaching Islamic State trying to take nearby communities. Residents in the government-held west live in fear of shelling and explosions even as they try to go about their daily business.
Opposition activists said local truces would only help Assad unless they were part of a comprehensive political solution to a war that has killed some 200,000 people and displaced millions of people since March 2011.
Al-Shafi, the Aleppo-based activist, said he thought a truce was now irrelevant after the destruction wrought on Aleppo.
“After all those barrel [bombs] and 40,000 people dead, it’s not just too late. Aleppo’s finished,” he said.