De Mistura: Aleppo freeze could be applied elsewhere

In an interview with Al-Hayat, UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks about his efforts to reach a "freeze" agreement in Aleppo, and says that such a plan would not be a precursor for a division of the country.

al-monitor UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura addresses his first news conference at the UN European headquarters in Geneva, Oct. 10, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

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syria, staffan de mistura, russia, geneva, diplomacy, cease-fire, aleppo

Dec 17, 2014

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura continues his campaign with officials and experts in capitals that are active regarding the Syrian issue. The diplomat is pushing for the implementation of his plan to "freeze" fighting and military operations beginning with Aleppo in the north, as well as to facilitate the entry of aid and inject urgent investments to change the lives of the people. He hopes that a "political space" will be created from the local to the national level, reaching a political process "on the basis of the Geneva Statement" issued in mid-2012. However, de Mistura said that interpreting the statement and forming a "transitional ruling body" depends on the results of the dialogue among Syrians during the political process. He said that the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) must be taken into account when implementing the Geneva Statement.

Speaking to Al-Hayat in London yesterday [Dec. 11], de Mistura emphasized that the freeze plan means "a cessation of military operations, not a means of redeploying them." He warned that if the regime used the freeze to escalate military operations, this would be met with punitive measures that would be an essential part of the freeze agreement. He said that the resolution the Security Council will issue to ratify this plan "will be useful in this context."

De Mistura was careful to stress that the freeze of fighting in Aleppo was "in no way part of a plan to divide Syria."

Here is the text of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  After holding meetings with most of the effective players in the crisis — locally, regionally and internationally — do you think that a freeze of the fighting in Aleppo is possible?

De Mistura:  Through my meetings with all parties, I discovered that everyone feels the Syrian conflict will lead to nothing but more suffering for the Syrian people, and there must be a formula to show that there is no military solution — rather, the solution is political. In this context, I think that each party I spoke with understands that the freeze is a demand of the Syrian people. What the latter wants from the parties — as well as from me and the UN — is an easing of the suffering. So I think that all parties support a freeze [of fighting] in Aleppo, to meet the urgent needs of the city and avoid a major humanitarian disaster.

Al-Hayat:  You identified a framework for a freeze agreement before you presented it to the two sides in Syria. What is this framework?

De Mistura:  I'm not in a position to identify it now. The parties that have a right to this information are the two Syrian sides in Damascus and Aleppo. However, what I can say is that the plan references a "freeze" and not a traditional cease-fire as happened in Homs and other parts [of Syria]. A freeze is something different, a different concept. It is a proposal by the UN to freeze the military activities of the two sides at the same time, without any contempt, defeat or victory. Simply put, it is a cessation of hostile activities. In this sense, the freeze and details of the plan have a nature that differs from what we've seen in the past with cease-fires.

Al-Hayat:  Does the freeze include the redeployment of military force and mechanisms to monitor this, as well as the entry of humanitarian aid to Aleppo?

De Mistura:  The concept of a freeze includes a cessation of military activities, not a redeployment. It is simply a halt to military activities. In doing so, there will be immediate facilitation of humanitarian aid to the parties on both sides of Aleppo. Moreover, there are hopes that this will provide sufficient space for the reconstruction of the city and economic aid.

Al-Hayat:  The Syrian opposition has requested guarantees — perhaps written ones — to implement the agreement. Is this possible? Will you go the Security Council at some stage to ratify your plan via an international resolution?

De Mistura:  When a proposal is presented during an ugly conflict such as this, which has been ongoing for three and a half years, no one offers guarantees aside from God. And I believe in God. But what can be offered are sufficient assurances, commitments, incentives and dissuasive measures, to ensure the best chance of [the parties'] commitment.

Al-Hayat:  What about issuing the plan via an international resolution?

De Mistura:  Would the issuance of a resolution from the Security Council be useful? If the resolution was simple without accompanying conditions — i.e., a resolution that merely supported the freeze alone — then a resolution from the council would be beneficial for the freeze in Aleppo.

Al-Hayat:  What is the relationship between the freeze and the political process? You said that the political process would be based on the Geneva Statement — what is your reading of the Geneva Statement?

De Mistura:  My role is not to interpret the statements, but rather to read them and use them as standards for anything else that happens. The Geneva Statement is perhaps the only document that received full consensus and was backed by all active players in Syria, therefore it is the basis of my work. However, this does not mean that the new developments — such as the emergence of the savage and brutal IS, as well as other developments — will not affect how the Geneva Statement is dealt with as a basis.

Al-Hayat:  The Geneva Statement clearly speaks about a "transitional government with full executive authority, which is accepted by both the government and the opposition in Syria." Is this part of the political goals you want to achieve within your plan?

De Mistura:  You asked if the freeze in Aleppo will lead to a political process. There are moments in history where the climate, the atmosphere, the chemistry and the sense of hope or despair have led to a big change that generates dynamism. My hope, which is also the hope of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is that if we achieve a positive movement in regard to a freeze in Aleppo, this could help in finally jump-starting what has been talked about terms of a comprehensive and effective political process, under political leadership and with international support.

Al-Hayat:  To reach a "transitional government"?

De Mistura:  I'll leave this to the political process, which will determine the outcome. I won't say in advance what [the Syrians] will reach among themselves. Let them [the Syrian parties] engage in dialogue and carry out the process.

Al-Hayat:  The Geneva process is based on a "top to bottom" approach, yet your approach goes counter to this, i.e., it is "bottom up." Is this a coup against the Geneva formula?

De Mistura:  The Geneva process was not based on a "top to bottom" [approach]; rather this was the method employed by the highly qualified and professional former envoy [Lakhdar Brahimi]. He was trying to undertake such an approach, and perhaps this is what I would have continued with, i.e., starting with a large international conference that includes all parties at the table. Unfortunately this did not succeed. So we will employ a different approach — a "bottom up" one — by beginning with a highly symbolic city: Aleppo. We hope that an agreement on the freeze will change the thinking of the active players, who are exhausted from the conflict and have not seen any result. They are merely engaging in an automated role in the conflict, [and the hope is that this new approach] will make them think about a political method and a political process.

Al-Hayat:  There are those who fear that the freeze is part of a plan to divide Syria.

De Mistura:  Anything we do from now on, beginning with the freeze in Aleppo, will never lead to a division of Syria.

Al-Hayat:  Are you working to reach a joint administration including the government and the opposition in Aleppo? Is it true that the UN will provide $2 billion to support the economic process in the city?

De Mistura:  The idea behind the freeze, which I hope will occur soon in Aleppo, is that there will be humanitarian aid and a rebuilding of the city. Therefore the proposal to provide economic aid is effective and vital in this regard, to show to the Syrians and the world — but especially the Syrians — that a stop to the fighting will benefit all parties. This will encourage repeating [the freeze] in other places.

Al-Hayat:  What about the joint administration?

De Mistura:  I won't talk about any details regarding the future of the plan and the future formula for the political process based on the freeze. This will be a basis for our discussions with the concerned political parties, and we will discuss this with them in detail.

Al-Hayat:  Some opposition [parties] and Western states have informed you of their concern that the regime forces could intensify military operations in other areas in the event of a freeze of fighting in Aleppo.

De Mistura:  First, the freeze [agreement] will include some paragraphs and clauses related to these matters. Second, the resolution that will be issued by the Security Council will help in this regard. Third, perhaps for other reasons, it would not be wise or helpful to do this [escalate military operations elsewhere].

Al-Hayat:  Is your plan integrated with the Russians' activity, or does it compete with it?

De Mistura:   We are following the Russian initiative with interest and, according to my information, it is making progress. There is no competition [with my plan], rather the contrary is true. In the event that [the Russian] initiative is presented in an appropriate manner and garners the support of all parties, it will complete my efforts. We are in need of a new initiative for political dialogue.

Al-Hayat:  In its initiative, Russia refuses to discuss President Bashar al-Assad stepping down before the start of the process. It wants there to be no preconditions.

De Mistura:  I won't comment any further.

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