Syria envoy plays the ISIS card, but will it work?

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, used a 15 January speech to again talk of his optimism that a breakthrough could be achieved in the coming weeks.

De Mistura’s plan is to get the Syrian government and the so-called ‘mainstream’ opposition to agree on a short-term cessation of violence in the largest city of Aleppo – partly to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid in. After this initial agreement temporary ceasefires could be achieved elsewhere.

To achieve his aims he needs to convince both sides that a deal is in the interests of all. His justification is twofold.

The first is that people of Syria have suffered enough and continuing is futile. “There has been a stalemate. And there is a feeling that no one can win this war. And I want to believe that [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad knows that quite well today,” he said. “The only ones who are losing this war totally at the moment are the Syrian people.”

This line, he knows, is only likely to get him so far. It has long been widely understood that a negotiated settlement is the only way out, but convincing those fighting on the ground to admit that has proved impossible.

So de Mistura appears to be taking a second tack as well. This involves trying to raise the specter of the militants of the so-called Islamic State (which he refers to as ISIS or Daesh) to push the mainstream opposition and the Syrian government to the negotiating table.

ISIS controls much of eastern Syria and has shown itself largely unwilling to negotiate with anyone – often massacring both rebel and government forces.

De Mistura said that in conversations with Assad “I could see how concerned [he] was about this new threat of terrorism, and ISIS/Daesh in particular.”

Taking Aleppo – where rebels and the government are involved in vicious street-by-street battles – as an example, he said continuing to fight would only help ISIS.

Pointing to a map of the city, he said that ISIS forces were now only 20 miles away from Aleppo. Front lines that have moved only a few hundred yards in a year have cost thousands of lives, while ISIS has been able to make huge gains in relatively unpopulated areas to the east and could eventually enter the fray.

“So while the two sides are actually fighting – the government and the opposition – [the ones] who could take advantage of this – and that would be a major catastrophe, a tragedy – could be Daesh (ISIS).”

The logic, therefore, is clear – in the face of an even more terrifying enemy, the two sides can be brought towards a negotiated settlement.


A tough sell

There are reasons to doubt de Mistura’s positive thinking.

The first is the practical element of the battle in Aleppo – where de Mistura is most desperately searching for a halt.

The past six months have seen government forces gradually make small gains. While things have been largely static in recent weeks, regime soldiers now partially control all but one major route from rebel territory into central Aleppo, with thousands of rebel fighters and civilians close to being cut off from other opposition areas. Many aid groups have already stopped using the final road in as it is too dangerous – the head of major charity recently described the route to me as a “suicide mission.”

As such, hardliners in Damascus are much more likely to encourage the ‘one last push’ logic than agreeing to a halt. Indeed, the signs are not encouraging – only last week the World Health Organization complained of being prevented from delivering aid from government to rebel-held areas.

More importantly, however, many critics allege that the Syrian government and ISIS have at least tacitly accepted the other’s existence in the short-term.

Research from the IHS think-tank found that the Syrian government – which has long portrayed the civil war as a battle against radical Islam - and the Islamic State have largely ignored each other on the battlefield. In total, their report found, just six percent of Syrian counterterrorism operations targeted the Islamic State and only 13 percent of 923 Islamic State attacks in Syria targeted Syrian security forces.

Their analysis concluded that the Syrian government and ISIS “have embraced the clever strategy of ignoring each other while focusing on attacking more moderate opposition groups.”

Indeed, the crushing of the more moderate opposition would leave the government as the only serious counterweight to ISIS - which would certainly benefit Assad.

For de Mistura, this presents a major problem. He must hope that Assad’s words of concern are not just mere bluster and that he is genuinely committed to tackling ISIS. Otherwise for those in Damascus, de Mistura’s ISIS warnings may not look so scary.

jd/am