THE BLOG
11/24/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

The U.N is Walking Into a Trap in Syria -- Here's How to Avoid it

Last week, new U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura visited Syria for the first time and presented his diplomatic "action plan" to the warring parties. The plan, which U.S. officials heard last week, centers on a local ceasefire around the rebel stronghold of Aleppo City. De Mistura hopes that such a ceasefire would serve as a "concrete example" and a model for other frontline areas in the country. But de Mistura is likely walking into a trap.

First, let's examine how we got here. De Mistura is only proposing a localized "action plan" because all previous attempts at a Syria-wide peace have been torpedoed by the regime. The Arab League ceasefire plan of late 2011 ended when the League suspended Syria's membership due to Assad violations. The U.N's "Geneva I" plan of March 2012 failed because, according to a U.N. report, the regime "engaged in a major coordinated effort to reclaim urban centres." This January's "Geneva II" talks failed because, in their convener's words, the Assad regime delegation was not "even listening to the other side."

One would think that Assad's repeated intransigence would cause the U.N. to take a tougher line against the regime. Instead, de Mistura is doing the precise opposite by making local ceasefires the focal point of his diplomatic initiative. Numerous ceasefires have already taken place across Syria. In most cases, they followed crushing regime sieges on opposition civilians that gave the regime a strategic advantage. A recent report by Integrity Research even surmises that Assad's ceasefires are designed to "force opposition surrender through the exploitation of dire humanitarian needs."

Last week, de Mistura claimed that successful local ceasefires would allow Syrians to "build first some political process at a local level and then eventually at the national level." A rash of recent policy papers and analyses have made a similar claim: that if the regime and rebels only stopped fighting, "grassroots actors" or "ordinary people and communities" or the "rebuilding of civil society" would allow the reemergence of a political process. This claim ignores the past fifty years of Syrian history.

The Assad regime and grassroots civil society simply do not mix. Since the regime seized control in 1963, Syria has been under emergency rule that squelched free speech and civil society. Even today, within Assad's own Alawite sect, signs of dissent are met only with arrests and intimidation. By contrast, in 2013, residents of rebel-held Aleppo elected the first democratic provincial council anywhere in Syria since 1963. A ceasefire in Aleppo, which will only increase regime control, is therefore unlikely to serve as a boon for local civil society.

But won't a ceasefire at the very least "give some hope to the local population," as de Mistura phrased it last week? A recent poll of residents of ceasefire areas by Omran suggests not. The poll found that only 8% of residents believe new aid deliveries since the ceasefire have met area needs. Meanwhile, 60% of residents believe their area was pressured into a ceasefire and expect that the regime will violate it. A full 70% of residents believe regime treatment of civilians has not improved and continue to support the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.

Some analysts consider the ceasefire in Damascus' Barzeh neighborhood to be especially successful because it was "closer to a win-win situation." Last week, a spokesman from the Barzeh Local Council denounced the regime for violating ceasefire terms. According to the spokesman, the regime has not withdrawn troops from the area and conducts regular arrest raids against civilians. Fuel supplies are running out, U.N. aid is being redirected, and the regime troop presence is actually increasing. Such a scenario is quite far from a win-win situation.

An additional problem with ceasefires is that they impose greater risks on the rebels than on Assad. The Assad regime is perpetually short on manpower--a natural consequence of using unspeakable violence to crush a popular uprising. Ceasefires relieve this manpower shortage by reducing the number of battles the regime must fight simultaneously. Therefore, a ceasefire in Aleppo now could help Assad by allowing regime redeployments to southern Syria, where rebels are making rapid gains. Then, if southern Syria is subdued, Assad could renege on his agreement and resume attacks in Aleppo.

No one will be saved if Assad is able to exploit ceasefires in this way. Civilians will simply be pushed from rebel areas into ceasefire areas, then killed or expelled more rapidly when Assad reneges on his agreements. Some 150,000 civilians from former rebel areas of Homs are crammed into the Waer neighborhood including some who fled after a local ceasefire in the Homs Old City. Though the area has seen limited violence, the Assad regime is now escalating its attacks. If a massacre occurs in Waer, civilians who were supposedly protected by an earlier ceasefire will be among the victims. That is why, when de Mistura presented his plan in Waer on Tuesday, residents asked for guarantees of their safety.

De Mistura is walking into a trap if he believes that local ceasefires will create a positive "concrete example" that promotes political dialogue. Local ceasefires have only been applied to rebel areas, at the regime's demand, following unbearable regime blockades against civilians. They are interactions between civilians who are being starved in their hometowns, and the military strongmen who are starving them. Interactions like these rarely promote political dialogue. By calling for local ceasefires, de Mistura is in effect seconding the demands of military strongmen against local civilians.

Despite these difficulties, De Mistura's idea for local initiatives is not without merit and could indeed yield important diplomatic breakthroughs. But first, de Mistura must spring the trap that Assad has set for him. Rather than forging a new ceasefire with incredibly high stakes in the main rebel stronghold, de Mistura should work on fixing previous ceasefires--the existing "concrete examples"-- that have gone so horribly wrong.

This means pressuring the Assad regime to allow full humanitarian access in suburbs of the capital Damascus that have already signed ceasefires, such as Moadamiya. It means establishing some semblance of political dialogue in Homs, and pushing for conditions that will allow residents of former opposition areas in Homs to safely return. It means that Assad should free prisoners from areas that have signed ceasefires, as a sign that he is truly ready for peace. Finally, it should entail penalties for the regime in the event that the regime reneges and resumes attacks on civilians.

Assad will probably resist these demands strenuously, claiming that they undermine his ability to defend minorities against terrorism. If he does, de Mistura should publicly request that Assad take an additional step to defend minorities: cease crackdowns on the Alawi population immediately. Most rebel areas have already developed civil society institutions of some sort. It is high time for such institutions to develop in Alawi areas, so we can hear what Alawis really think instead of the regime's propaganda about what they think.

By taking these steps, de Mistura can more directly promote political dialogue by empowering civilian communities on both sides of the divide. He will create political momentum by producing positive local models and eliminating negative models. Finally, he will encourage peace by pressuring the regime's military apparatus, which has stymied each and every diplomatic initiative to date. These steps will not be easy. No options will be at this stage. However, more so than local ceasefires, these measures can give the Syrian people a chance against the generals who have been suppressing them.

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Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington, a board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. @MhdAGhanem