18 Feb 2015

Ceasefire in Aleppo: best option for civilians but proof of rebel despair?

The UN Mediator, Staffan de Mistura, says that President Bashar al-Assad is willing to stop bombing rebel held parts of Aleppo for six weeks to allow for a ‘local ceasefire’.


When I visited Aleppo last November, I could hear the thud of bombs and sporadic automatic weapons fire as the Syrian government battled rebels, who were squeezed by Islamic State militants on the other side.

The ruined centre of Aleppo, once a historic bazaar area dominated by the thirteenth century citadel, was a no-man’s land, a buffer zone between the two sides. (See video below)

Since then government forces, backed by Hezbollah from Lebanon, have made gains. Reports this week suggest that they’re on the point of cutting off the rebels’ supply line from Turkey.

The government knows it’s in a strong position. If the rebels don’t agree the ceasefire, they may be crushed.  Previous ‘local ceasefires’ have been a euphemism for surrender. In several Damascus suburbs and in Homs, after long negotiation, food was allowed in and fighters were allowed out of rebel held areas. Those areas, besieged and bombed for so long, then fell under government control.

Read more: Syria: still dreaming of the future after war

President Assad’s forces may have another motivation. They’re fighting in southern Syria, in the Damascus suburb of Douma and around Idlib. Maybe a ceasefire in Aleppo would enable them to move more military assets to one of those areas.

The UN favours local ceasefires because they save civilian lives, and because chances of a wider peace deal are so remote.

In his new book on Islamic State militants and the war in Syria, the journalist Patrick Cockburn compares the conflict in Syria to the Thirty Years War in Germany in the seventeenth century.


“Too many players are fighting each other for different reasons for all of them to be satisfied by peace terms and to be willing to lay down their arms at the same time,” he writes.

In the short term a local ceasefire in Aleppo would help aid agencies get food and medicine to civilians besieged in rebel held areas. It would save lives. But the impact would be political as well as humanitarian.

Earlier in the week the UN mediator angered rebels by saying that President Assad is “part of the solution for the reduction of violence”.

Read more: Syria’s victims of the mathematics of global aid

You might think that’s self-evident – you make peace, or at least agree a ceasefire, with your enemy not your friend.

But the long-held western position that “Assad must go” means that what the US and Britain call “moderate” rebels cling to the idea that they don’t have to deal with the man they hold responsible for the carnage in Syria. Western nations have failed to follow up with serious military aid, so the rebels are left with a rhetorical position and no ability to make it work.

A local ceasefire in Aleppo would be a manifestation of despair, evidence that the rebels have lost hope of defeating Assad in Syria’s second city.

And for civilians, many of whom loathe and fear Assad, it might nonetheless be the best option.

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