On October 30, the United Nations peace envoy Staffan de Mistura presented an “action plan” for Syria, which included a plan for a “freeze zone” in Aleppo to give “an opportunity for some type of humanitarian improvement”. De Mistura wanted this to re-focus efforts of fighting units on all sides against the Salafi-jihadists of the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda). Small wonder then that Assad’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Jafaari, said the regime was giving the proposal “due consideration”.
This freeze idea had emerged just after the Obama administration had, through surrogates, said it was sympathetic to the idea of trying to use local “ceasefires” to produce a country-wide cessation of violence. De Mistura was more careful about using the word “ceasefire” because everybody in Syria knows what that means. As so unhawkish a figure as De Mistura’s predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi, a servant of a regime in Algeria that resembles in many ways Assad’s and is part of the same family, explained: these ceasefires are “part of Assad’s war plan“.
From late 2013 until the present, the Assad regime has concluded more than thirty-five “ceasefires,” and the pattern is unambiguous. The regime besieges and bombards these districts, cuts off electricity and supplies, and starves the population into submission. Even where ceasefires have been reached and the rebel surrender is more ambiguous, over time the regime whittles down the armed contingent—demanding weapons to be handed over on pain of cutting off the food again, for example—and retakes total control.
This was some of the dividends of Iran’s rescue effort for the Assad dictatorship in the late summer of 2012. By the fall of 2013, the increase in the number of fighters—the foreign Shi’a jihadists, led by the Hizballah—and the logistics and intelligence improvements as Iran’s military-intelligence apparatus seized control of the Syrian State, consolidating a sectarian militia to replace the national army, gave the regime the “ability to fight on multiple fronts nearly simultaneously or in quick succession.” The regime’s reconquest of Qalamoun, completed at Yabrud in March 2014, and the fall of Homs City, the “capital of the revolution,” in May 2014 testify to this additional capacity. The regime then turned to Aleppo City, the last major urban centre of the rebellion. Since July, the rebellion has been trapped in east Aleppo City, encircled from the south and west by the regime. At the same time, the Islamic State was bouncing back from the rebels’ anti-ISIS revolt, which erupted on January 3, and the I.S. began closing in on Aleppo from the east.
Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who has been an acid critic of Obama’s Syria policy since leaving the administration, wrote that a “freeze” without an enforcement mechanism is a bad idea since it will not stop Assad or the I.S. but might hinder our allies. I.S. respects no law and it is a certainty that the regime will violate any such agreement to test the resolve of an Obama administration that has openly rebuffed the entreaties of allies to set up a no-fly zone to save the rebels in Aleppo, saying that such a thing would “constitute an act of war against the Assad regime” and—the declaration of regime-change notwithstanding—this is not something Obama is prepared to do.
But even if a “freeze” could be enforced, “if the regime merely shifts forces and launches new counter-offensives on other fronts, the Aleppo freeze could accelerate the fighting elsewhere in Syria,” Ford notes. In short, while the plan to halt the fighting and allow some humanitarian relief to Aleppo, especially as we head into the bitter winter months, is indeed a noble one, it cannot work, and if it gives the regime cover to enact the final destruction of the rebellion then the humanitarian outcome will be even worse.
Beyond humanitarianism, as Ford notes, a “freeze” “won’t help Washington achieve its goals in Syria for counterterrorism or regional stability.” Both of those priorities—regional order and counter-terrorism—have been very gravely set at risk by the Obama administration’s eschewing allies and trying to “use the ISIS crisis to create a sustainable regional accord” i.e. partnering with Iran to counter the Islamic State in the hope that Iran will thereby buy-into a regional concert of powers system that allows the United States to cease to be the hegemon in the Middle East. This has meant giving Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence. A concert of powers system actually cannot work: America’s allies like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do not have the capacity to balance Iran—there are no Quds Forces in Cairo, Ankara, or Riyadh—so it would make Iran the dominant power in the region, with its sea lanes and energy resources. But it also misses Iran’s strategic imperatives, which are not at all in order or defeating the Sunni jihadists. In the chaos, and with the menace of the Sunni holy warriors, Iran exerts even greater control over its client governments in Syria and Iraq, and it is for this reason that Iran has supported Sunni jihadists when it has deemed it convenient.
The start of any solution in Syria is the removal of the Assad regime and the Iranian apparatus that props it up, and this should begin by repelling with force the regime’s attempt to retake Aleppo City. The de facto security guarantee the Obama administration has extended Assad should be revoked, as should the Iraq-first focus of the Obama administration’s counter-I.S. strategy. This war has erased the frontier between Syria and Iraq; they have to be tackled simultaneously. Defeating the Salafi-jihadists is important, but they are less threatening than the Iranian theocracy, which has to be defeated first. Moreover, defeating the Salafi-jihadists relies on finding moderate Sunnis—and that is impossible if the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq are faced with the choice of the Islamic State or the Islamic Republic, since they will side with the former. Put simply, the more Iranian domination in Syria and Iraq—and the more American acquiescence in same—the more Sunni jihadists will be produced.
Instead of giving Syrians a third option, however, the U.S. has made itself the effective air force of the Assad regime and all-but cut off support for the nationalist rebels who could be that alternative, accepting Assad, Iran’s, and Russia’s narrative—which they have done all they can to make true—that there is only Assad or I.S. in Syria. As Max Boot noted this is “a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get—and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it.” The cynicism of this strategy of letting the moderates in Syria wither is matched only by its naiveté in believing that once these turbulent moderates are out of the way Iran will—or can—help tamp down terrorism and disorder.