Monday,19 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Monday,19 February, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Tough diplomatic call on Aleppo

Make-or-break political talks between capitals are falling far short of alleviating the plight of Syrians, in Aleppo and elsewhere, Dina Ezzat reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Violence is continuing to hit an already devastated Aleppo. On Tuesday, the Syrian city that haunted the world on the weekend with pictures of dead bodies, maimed figures, blood and rubble saw another deadly exchange of shelling between the forces of Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition.

The Tuesday development increased the toll of casualties. It failed, however, to prompt any serious breakthrough in the rounds of international diplomatic consultations on the situation in Syria, a crisis that started in March 2011 with a call for democracy and evolved into an out of control proxy war between regional and international players.

The basic objective of international diplomatic consultations today is not exactly to end the war in Aleppo, or in Syria, but rather to introduce and hopefully enforce a ceasefire, according to one informed diplomat.

This is precisely what the largely hobbled UN special envoy on Syria was trying to do during his talks over the past few days, especially with the US secretary of state and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran.

On Tuesday, Staffan de Mistura was in Moscow for talks on Syria. On Monday, the frustrated UN envoy, who a few weeks ago signalled some optimism, met with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the “catastrophic” situation in Aleppo.

What de Mistura heard from Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir in Geneva on Monday is what he was expected to be essentially discussing with Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia: extend an already frail ceasefire between Al-Assad forces and anti-Assad militias and allow for safe corridors for civilians to exit the worsening war zone in Aleppo.

“It is a tough call — a very tough call,” said a Western diplomat. “The balance of power between Al-Assad and his enemies is not working in favour of the ceasefire, unfortunately. It is only making each side more determined to keep to the battle.”

Said an informed Arab diplomat, “Neither the international players, especially the US and Russia, nor the regional players, especially Iran and — ironically enough — Egypt on one side, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other, wish to see the gains made either by Al-Assad [supported by Iran] or his armed militia opposition [supported by Saudi and Turkey] lost to a ceasefire that will not last anyway.”

He added that this sentiment is expected to be apparent in a planned Wednesday meeting that was scheduled by the largely sidelined Arab League to discuss developments in Syria.

On Saturday, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi issued a statement condemning in “the strongest words the brutal shelling of Al-Quds Hospital in Aleppo”. A former International Court of Justice judge, Al-Arabi called in his statement for applying due legal measures against “those responsible” for the attack and to allow for humanitarian aid to be provided to civilians.

This language is likely to be somehow reflected in a statement to be issued at the end of the Wednesday Arab League meeting. The statement is also expected to state that “all efforts should be exerted to support a perpetuation of the ceasefire and the resumption of political talks”, according to a source at the Arab League.

However, according to informed Arab diplomats, there is no collective political will on Syria, either in the Arab or the wider regional sphere. They say that there are too many interests among too many parties. It is not just about who will win the war, but also about how long the war will continue, because its perpetuation is actually of interest to some regional players.

Western and Arab diplomats agree in unequivocal terms that there are two diplomatic tracks when it comes to Syria: the UN track, which is basically designed to manage the war pending a point where all parties involved find the political will to start ending hostilities; and international/regional diplomacy that is more focussed on deciding the outcome of the war.

Russia, Iran and Egypt want Bashar Al-Assad to remain, at least for a few more years, while the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey insist that he depart.

“We are trying in the next hours to see if it is possible to reach an agreement that can create a path forward for the cessation [of hostilities] to hold, so that there isn’t one day of silence, or two days of silence, but an ongoing process that relieves the people of Syria from this devastation — from this day-to-day killing machine that is being unleashed by the Al-Assad regime,” Kerry said Monday.

“In the last weeks, the cessation of hostilities has been put to the test, and it has frayed in certain areas, and it has fallen completely in a few areas,” he added.

The US secretary of state spoke in Geneva following his talks with Al-Jubeir and de Mistura.

“Just as the United States and its allies must keep our part of the bargain by ensuring the opposition’s compliance,” Kerry said, “it is incumbent on Russia and Iran ... to make sure that the regime is living up to its part of this agreement.”

A diplomatic source close to the de Mistura talks said that the UN envoy was arriving in Moscow on Tuesday expecting to find a serious will among all parties “now to restore the cessation of hostilities,” even though the Aleppo bloodbath was in the final analysis a military victory for the Russia-supported Al-Assad, as it essentially hit areas controlled by anti-Assad militias, “of course with zero respect to the life of innocent civilians,” said the source.

Ahead of his arrival to the Russian capital, de Mistura received reassurances from Moscow. On his arrival, he was welcomed by a statement from Lavrov underlining the need to work for a political solution as the “only way out for Syria”.

He added that beyond allowing a ceasefire to be restored, de Mistura would work on making sure that the truce holds. Then, he added, the UN envoy will have to find a way to allow for the resumption of the “Geneva process”, which he said remains the only game in town.

“There are no new initiatives on Syria, no — despite the very sad situation,” he said.

And, according to Arab and international diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, the longer it takes de Mistura to conclude and announce a resumption of the cessation of hostilities, the more difficult it would be to keep the already very weakened “Geneva process” alive.

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