UN Local Ceasefires Plan Faces Deadlock as Damascus Bomb Kills 5

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A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on February 5, 2015 shows smoke billowing after several mortars hit the central Baramke area in the capital Damascus, killing three people, according to SANA. AFP/HO/SANA

Published Thursday, February 5, 2015

Updated at 6:20 pm (GMT+2): A United Nations plan for local ceasefires in Syria is deadlocked, with Damascus feeling it does not need to make concessions to disparate armed groups, Western diplomats familiar with the talks said.

Meanwhile, rocket attacks on residential areas in Syria’s capital, Damascus, left five civilians dead and more than 30 injured.

Since October, UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura has been working on a plan to broker "local freezes," starting in the northern city of Aleppo, to alleviate fighting that has killed more than 200,000 people in four years; 2,700 of them in January alone, according to a monitoring group.

Both the United Nations and the government say talks continue but diplomats say there is no progress. "The freeze is frozen. It is just going from bad to worse," one said.

Reuters could not reach Syrian government officials to comment on the ceasefire talks.

De Mistura's difficult start illustrates how hard it is to advance any kind of diplomatic initiative in Syria. The government sees no immediate need to make a deal on the ground while the other side is not one but many factions.

Aleppo, Syria's second city, is at the heart of clashes between government forces and allied fighters and a range of insurgents which include al-Qaeda's Syria wing al-Nusra Front, Islamist brigades, foreign fighters in other groups and Western-backed rebels.

A second diplomat said talks between the UN team and the government had reached a stalemate because Damascus wanted to model the plan on previous successful local truces that effectively forced rebels to surrender and the United Nations wants to avoid this.

"There is no reason for the regime to enter into the freeze, they believe they are militarily doing quite well, that they could potentially close the corridor to Aleppo and put it under siege," the diplomat said.

What the government wants would resemble one of the "enforced truces that the regime forces through sieges" in neighborhoods in Damascus and Homs, the diplomat added.

A visit planned by de Mistura to Damascus was postponed last month. He had met with President Bashar al-Assad in November.

A senior US military defense official said earlier this week that the military was likely to try to encircle Aleppo this year, cut rebel supply lines, and besiege the fighters.

"We assess the conflict is trending in the Assad regime's favor," Lieutenant General Vince Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a panel in the House of Representatives.

Elsewhere in the country the Syrian army mainly holds land in the south and west, including most of its urban centers. The hardline Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which spearheaded an offensive last June seizing territories in Iraq and Syria, holds large tracts of land to the east and north.

Lebanese analyst Nasser Qandil told Reuters that Assad perceived one of the main problems with the freeze talks to be that the United Nations did not seem willing to fully address other issues, such as how to deal with the Turkish border, where Damascus claims jihadists are crossing into Syria.

“De Mistura came to Syria with headlines. We agreed upon certain headlines, and now we are waiting for him to bring a detailed plan or schedule — A-to-Z plan, let’s say. We are discussing this with his deputy,” Assad said during an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine in January, in which he repeated on several instances the need to cut off the sources of funding and aid to jihadist groups, primarily through Turkey.

According to Damascus, Turkey, a NATO member and Washington's key ally in the region, has been playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

The Syrian government has repeatedly accused Turkey of harboring, financing, training, and arming militants since violence erupted in March 2011.

Turkey has denied supporting hardliners but backs mainstream insurgent groups and hosts the political opposition.

Qandil said the UN envoy had agreed with Assad that securing the Turkish border, which lies north of Aleppo, should come under any ceasefire plan but appeared to backtrack when he visited the Turkey-based opposition.

Asked to respond to his comments, a spokeswoman for de Mistura said consultations were continuing and the UN was talking to a wide range of combatants. "For us in the UN, it's very clear who is a terrorist and who is not a terrorist," she said, referring to Security Council resolutions.

De Mistura, who took the position after two earlier envoys quit in frustration, is seeking to prevent a repeat of a truce in the Western city of Homs in May, where more than 1,000 insurgents withdrew and the government took over most parts.

The government had allowed hundreds of civilians to leave the city in February after lengthy UN mediation.

The UN also wants to avoid relocation of Syrian troops from Aleppo to other parts of Syria if a deal is reached, diplomats said.

Addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels late on Monday, de Mistura said the negotiations were continuing but were not easy.

"We all knew that having a freeze and not a classical old fashioned ceasefire is going to be a complicated one but we are pushing and will never give up," he said.

Rebel groups in the north also expressed early misgivings about the plan, fearing it would benefit the army.

Assad had suggested the plan should resemble previous truces.

"We implemented it in another city called Homs, another big city. We implemented it on smaller scales in different, let's say, suburbs, villages, and so on, and it succeeded," he told Foreign Affairs magazine, adding "So the idea is very good."

There was also concern among Western officials about how to get the Nusra Front, which the UN Security Council has labeled a terrorist organization, on board for an Aleppo truce, diplomats said. One said de Mistura's team had been told by rebel fighters they could rally the group if needed.

Syria's conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

More than 200,000 people have been reportedly killed since March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

The UN’s special envoy for Syria has said then that forty years may be needed to restore conflict-hit Syria unless a political solution is reached urgently.

Rocket Attack on Damascus Kills 5

Meanwhile, at least five civilians were killed in a rocket attack on residential areas of Damascus on Thursday, state news agency SANA said, in what appeared to be the second heavy bombardment by insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) in less than two weeks.

Shells thought to be fired from the east of the capital could be heard exploding in the city, a witness said, and local media reported that Army of Islam, a Saudi-backed group based in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the city, was behind the attack.

Ghouta is a key rebel bastion. The army has sought to capture rebel rear bases around the capital, which is frequently the target of rebel rockets fired from the city's outskirts.

SANA said Thursday’s attack was "terrorist," without giving further details. The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition fighters in Syria as “terrorists.”

Five civilians were killed and 30 others were injured according to the agency.

Army of Islam's leader said on Tuesday that his group would target the Syrian capital.

The same group struck the capital with at least 38 rockets on January 25, killing nine civilians in one of the heaviest attacks on Damascus in over a year.

Damascus has been relatively calm, shielded from the war since the Syrian army and pro-regime fighters pushed the rebels back in 2013.

On Sunday, a bomb claimed by Nusra tore apart a bus carrying Lebanese pilgrims in Damascus.

A witness in Damascus on Thursday heard more than 30 bombardments in quick succession.
Local radio Sham FM said the projectiles had hit at least five areas of the capital, including the historic Old City. People posted images on social media said to show plumes of smoke rising above the city.

A message on a Twitter account thought to belong to Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush said the attack was a "taste" of what the Syrian military had done to Ghouta. He described Damascus as a "military zone" in a statement earlier this week and said his group would respond to Syrian air force strikes on Ghouta.

On January 18, Syrian forces evacuated more than 2,100 people from Eastern Ghouta. The area had suffered food and medical shortages due to the conflict.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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