Special UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is on a mission to mobilize international and regional support for his proposal to “freeze” conflict in various regions of Syria, starting with Aleppo. De Mistura hopes to secure a series of truces and temporary reconciliation pacts that could enable the exercise of autonomous administration in these areas. These will be validated through the formation of local councils, whether elected or appointed through consensual agreement, thus enabling the representation of Syria’s armed opposition factions, according to their respective size and effectiveness. De Mistura, however, is likely to face serious obstacles in carrying out his plans.
A Plan to Break the Deadlock
De Mistura was appointed as Special UN Envoy to Syria at the start of July 2014, when hopes for a political solution to the Syrian crisis had run aground with the failure of the Geneva 2 conference, and the subsequent impasse in launching a new round of negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition. The regime’s insistence on holding presidential elections in Syria on June 3 had dashed any lingering hopes Lakhdar Brahimi might have had in seeing the Geneva 1 outcome – which stipulated the establishment of a fully-fledged transitional governing authority paving the way for a comprehensive solution to the crisis – come to fruition. De Mistura’s appointment coincided with the rise of ISIL and its expansion across Syria and Iraq, following the fall of Mosul on June 10, and the subsequent declaration of the Islamic Caliphate on June 29. Developments on the ISIL front led to a decline in international interest in finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, in addition to the high-priority focus, by the US in particular, on negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and containment of ISIL.
De Mistura’s reading of the web shifting international and regional interests in Syria has come from ample experience as former UN Envoy to Afghanistan, and as an international mediator in conflict-ridden countries such as Kosovo, Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan among others. De Mistura thus started from the notion that the complexity of the Syrian crisis, with its intricate civil conflict and even more complex international dimensions, makes a solution intractable in the short or medium term. His approach thus differs from that of his predecessors Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, placing a premium upon partial solutions and modest objectives centered on reducing the level of violence and improving the delivery of humanitarian assistance – or in his words “sowing the seeds of a comprehensive political process”– rather than the continued expectation of an emerging international and regional consensus that would lead to the “Geneva 1” agreement being implemented. In other words, rather than coming up with a comprehensive vision to solve the Syrian crisis, de Mistura is moving the wheels forward towards creating the impression that his plan is feasible and that it has a good chance of success.
De Mistura’s Wager
To carry out his plan, de Mistura has counted on the Syrian regime and Iran to approve his proposals, which in many ways can be said to correspond to their own. Temporary truces and reconciliation agreements in vital besieged areas of Syria have been well underway since the start of the year. Breakthroughs have been seen in a number of important military fronts: al-Mu’adamieh, Babila, the southern districts of Damascus, al-Wa’ir district of Homs, and, notably, the agreement for the evacuation of fighters from the old city of Homs. There are some critical differences, however, between the regime’s idea of truces, and those of de Mistura’s. While the regime made any distribution of humanitarian aid and treatment of its detainees contingent on an area’s decommissioning of its heavy weaponry, enabling it to later storm the area (as happened in the old city of Homs and as is currently taking place in the al-Wi’ir district), de Mistura’s proposed freeze allows each side to retain its military capability.
As a result, despite the note of welcome expressed by the Syrian regime’s president to the UN Secretary-General’s envoy’s statements, following their meeting in Damascus on September 12, Assad avoided taking a clear stand on the proposed initiative, saying simply that it was “worthy of study”. For his part, de Mistura in his statements chose to ignore the political solution that had been accepted by the opposition in “Geneva 2”. Syria’s opposition is itself split on de Mistura’s proposals, between complete rejection (on the part of some members of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the interim government and factions of the armed opposition) and conditional acceptance, as expressed by the head of the Aleppo Military Council Brigadier Zuhair al-Saket.
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This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version which appeared online on November 26, 2014, please click here.
 The conditions include: the handing over of war criminals who have used chemical weapons against the civilian population, the expulsion of sectarian militias from Syria, a stop to air strikes and the use of barrel bombs, and the release of detainees.