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UN Mediator Says Shared Threat Of IS Could Promote Syria Truce


Rebel fighters help a wounded man following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 6.

Rebel fighters help a wounded man following a reported barrel bomb attack by government forces in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 6.

The UN Special Envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said the shared threat of Islamic State could promote truce measures between the Syrian government and rebels in parts of Syria.

Speaking during a visit to the Syrian city of Homs on November 10, de Mistura told the BBC that the rise of Islamic State was a "new factor which can turn into the possibility of looking at this conflict in a different way."

The UN has called for "freeze zones" in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, where various rebel groups are battling Syrian government forces.

On October 31, de Mistura talked about an action plan for Aleppo, according to which fighting in the city would cease so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to civilians, and in order for a local political process to begin.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura

The UN Secretary-General's office mentioned this proposal again on November 10, following de Mistura's visit to Syria. It noted in a statement that the Syrian authorities had "expressed intent" to "work with the United Nations to identify common ground for implementing his proposal on incremental freezes, starting with the city of Aleppo."

Syrian state media reported a measured but positive reaction to the proposal from President Bashar al-Assad, who said that the Aleppo "freeze zone" initiative "merits consideration."

Assad also took the opportunity to "[underline] the importance of Aleppo city" and "[assert] the government's commitment to the safety of civilians across the country."

However, rebel and opposition political leaders were quick to speak out against the UN proposal for an Aleppo "freeze zone," saying that such a move would only be to the benefit of the Assad government.

The Islamic Front, which the United States has shunned because it incorporates a number of hard-line Islamist groups, criticized the UN proposal in statements on November 10.

Abu Firas al-Halabi, a spokesman for the Islamic Front, claimed that the Assad government is working to promote the idea of a "freeze zone" in Aleppo because loyalist forces have experienced "big losses" on several fronts in the city.

Al-Halabi said that pro-government forces had taken losses in Handarat and Saifat in northern Aleppo, where Assad's forces have been battling a number of rebel factions since early October.

No Clear Victory In Sight

Fighting Assad in and around Handarat is a wide variety of rebel groups: the Islamic Front, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the Chechen-led faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army group Harakat Hazm. The reason for such heavy rebel focus on Handarat is that, if Assad is able to take control of the area, his forces will control a highly important rebel supply route into Aleppo, making it easier for them to cut off rebel lines and besiege them inside the city over the winter.

However, despite the Islamic Front's claims that Assad has taken heavy losses in Handarat, the current situation in the area is not clear. Several recent reports suggest that the rebels are not moving toward any clear victory in the area and that rebel supply routes into Aleppo remain at risk: a recent report by the pro-opposition Al-Aan outlet, for example, reported that the Handarat road remains closed. Government forces (backed by foreign militias, according to reports by rebel factions) appear to have directed significant resources to taking the area, and rebel forces have been stretched thin by concurrent battles with Islamic State militants in northern Aleppo.

A freeze in the area would block rebels from attempting to push Assad's forces back from their positions there and possibly mean they would have to cede control of some areas. (It is also difficult to see how any of the rebel factions in Aleppo would accept a local political solution that involved the Assad government.)

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Congress (SNC) also warmed that an Aleppo "freeze zone" would only benefit the Assad government, not the opposition, unless such a move was part of a negotiated political solution to the crisis.

The SNC, whose position is that Assad should step down, likely fears that a "freeze zone" would grant the Assad government a legitimate part in any local political negotiations.

These fears were hinted at in further comments by SNC president Hadi al-Bahra who criticized the U.S.-led coalition air strikes against IS militants in Syria, saying that it had damaged the anti-Assad cause, in part because it had sidelined the moderate, Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which Bahra said could fight IS on the ground. As Al-Monitor pointed out recently, some US-backed Syrian rebels have made it clear that fighting IS is not their only priority.

Assad's Strongest Ally

While Syrian rebel factions and political opposition expressed strong criticism of the UN proposal for an Aleppo "freeze zone," Assad's strongest ally -- Russia -- used de Mistura's plan as an opportunity to reiterate its own proposals for a negotiated, political solution (one in which, of course, Assad would play a role).

The Russian position on Islamic State has been that the group is, like all the armed opposition, an illegal terror group: Moscow has repeatedly called for Syrians to unite against such terror through "inter-Syrian dialog."

Russia's Foreign Ministry was quick to refer to the UN proposal, noting comments by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov following a November 10 meeting with Syria's envoy to Russia, Riad Haddad.

"The discussions considered topical issues of a political settlement in Syria, with an emphasis on the need to continue the Geneva process and inter-Syrian dialogue," the Ministry said, adding that the Syrian president was discussing "the creation of local truce zones in Aleppo for the delivery of humanitarian aid."

Damascus and Moscow put forward a proposal for a cease-fire plan in Aleppo in January, ahead of the Geneva II peace talks, when Syria asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to "make necessary arrangements to guarantee its implementation and specify the zero hour for military operations to cease." Damascus claimed that the proposal, which was never implemented, was a direct response to a suggestion by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a localized cease-fire in Aleppo.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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