Briefing: Syria’s "freeze zones" and prospects for peace

After two of his predecessors quit in frustration, the UN’s third envoy to Syria has been working for several months on a new approach to ending a war that is about to enter its fifth year. This complex and fluid conflict has cost more than 200,000 lives and forced  more than 10 million people to flee their homes.

Amid fears that Staffan de Mistura’s initiative is running aground, IRIN sets out the details of his approach and examines its potential for success.

What is the plan?

It hinges on “incremental freeze zones”, in the jargon used by de Mistura and his team. In plain English, this means small ceasefires in parts of the country.

Outlining his proposals in November, de Mistura said these freezes would allow humanitarian access to desperate civilians and ‘de-escalate’ the conflict. Gradually, local truces would “spread like inkblots” across the country, he added. The first target for a freeze is the largest city Aleppo.

Unlike his predecessors, Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, de Mistura has not pushed for a comprehensive peace deal to take hold across the country.

Aron Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis blog from the Carnegie Endowment think tank, said such a strategy was “smart” as it “recognizes the reality of Syria being a war you can’t solve with a single agreement any more.”

In a bid to convince all sides to agree to the plan, de Mistura has spent recent months shuttling between Damascus and Turkey – where some of the Syrian opposition leadership is based.

What progress is being made?

Little. Initially there was room for optimism - the office of President Bashar al-Assad said the plan was worth studying, while the mainstream opposition gave it a slightly more cautious welcome.

Yet in recent weeks the positive mutterings have been replaced by talk of stagnation. Last week Reuters reported the peace drive was effectively dead in the water as talks had stalled.

Speaking to IRIN from the road to Damascus, de Mistura’s spokeswoman Juliette Touma described the claims as “inaccurate.” “[Reuters] said that the [plan] was frozen, it is not frozen…The consultations continue with all parties to the conflict – that explains why we are heading to Damascus now,” she said.

Yet Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said negotiations do indeed appear to have stagnated.

“Talks continue but it is difficult. The regime isn’t interested in a deal that preserves the opposition’s fighting capacity. The opposition are not going to accept a deal that gives the regime the upper hand,” he told IRIN

In particular the scope of the freeze has been a matter of dispute, with the Syrian government allegedly in favour of a more limited truce in Aleppo city while the rebels have pushed for it to include parts of northern Syria – including a key border crossing with Turkey.

Are there previous examples of successful ceasefires?

Not really. Other attempts at ceasefires have been tried since 2011, though few have had any meaningful long-term impact. In fact the experience in the central city of Homs, where a government siege ended early last year, is making mediation more difficult.

Bonsey said that the regime was hoping for a deal similar to the one agreed in old Homs – where the ceasefire led to Syrian government forces retaking control of the area. For the opposition, the deal was seen as a major defeat as their fighters withdrew. Since then, old Homs has remained in the hands of government forces.

“In Homs, the ceasefire came as the result of a siege, and basically completed the regime's military victory in the city,” Bonsey said.

“The regime was interested in that kind of deal – one that would effectively cement its upper hand. Once it saw this was not the kind of deal de Mistura had in mind, it voiced objection,” he added. “The regime does not appear at all interested in a more equitable freeze.”

Likewise the opposition has been scared of a deal that would leave it crippled, especially if it allowed the government to portray its campaign as a success. “The Assad regime talked about how this would be a repeat of Homs, perhaps partly to provoke the rebels into saying the wrong things,” Lund said.

Is De Mistura talking to all the right people?

Possibly not – it is unclear if the internationally-recognised opposition has the ability to impose its will on the ground inside Syria even if a deal were agreed.

The umbrella group the Revolutionary Command Council, which has been in negotiations with de Mistura, is not the only rebel body operating in Aleppo. Jubhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, is not involved in the talks, and neither is the so-called Islamic State (IS).

In a bid to encourage a breakthrough, de Mistura has sought to amplify the threat of IS, which has threatened both the government and the ‘moderate’ opposition.

Are the talks likely to make much headway?

In the short term, probably no. While the gaps between the government and the opposition may be shrinking slightly they are still too large to bridge immediately. Indeed the UN envoy has repeatedly talked of the daunting scale of the challenge, suggesting that he is well aware he is battling against the odds.

Bonsey said that there was only so much that the UN envoy could be expected to achieve. “The bottom line is that there is not currently sufficient common ground between the parties for productive negotiations – whether on an Aleppo freeze, or the broader terms of a political resolution.”

Yet while de Mistura’s plan appears unlikely to lead to a major breakthrough, there are some positives. Analysts have long accepted a negotiated settlement is the only way to end the bloodshed, and there appear to be more people on both sides coming to that conclusion.

A year ago the second round of peace talks in Geneva failed spectacularly, with both sides walking away after just 30 minutes of face-to-face talks.

“All the rebel groups said whoever goes to Geneva is a traitor,” Lund said.

He added that now opposition figures and the government had held three rounds of talks aimed at a comprehensive deal – two in Geneva and a recent one in Russia –without success. As such a push for local deals was a fresh approach.

“They could call Geneva 3, 4 or 5 and it still wouldn’t work. So they will have to try something else – and de Mistura’s plan is something else.”

jd/am