BEIRUT (AP) — Traction is growing for one of the few ideas left for peace in Syria's civil war: Work out a series of local cease-fires to try to quiet the bloodiest fronts around the country, without tackling the core issues of the conflict between President Bashar Assad's government and the rebels.
The U.N. envoy to Syria called Tuesday for such an incremental truce in the northern city of Aleppo as a building block for more — an idea that Assad has said is "worth studying."
The Islamic State group's onslaught has given greater urgency to finding some sort of solution for the nearly 4-year-old conflict. But reaching even small-scale truces in the fragmented country of multiple, divided fighting forces could be a near impossible task.
Staffan de Mistura is the third U.N. envoy to try to mediate a solution to the Syrian war. Previous peace initiatives and cease-fire attempts brokered by veteran U.N. diplomats Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi all ended in failure, including the brief deployment of a U.N. monitoring mission and two rounds of peace talks in Geneva earlier this year meant to discuss a political transition.
Since then, the situation has become infinitely more complicated with the growing influence of extremist groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and U.S. airstrikes targeting militants in the country.
On Tuesday, de Mistura suggested "freezing" the conflict, starting with Aleppo, the last major metropolis where mainstream rebels fighting to topple Assad hold large areas.
"That means stop fighting, stop fighting. No one moves from where they are," the U.N. envoy told a news conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus. This would not be a substitute for a political solution but could become a "building block" for an eventual political process, de Mistura said.
He did not elaborate on how the freeze could come about. Much of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once-vibrant commercial center, is in ruins. Rebel-held areas in the eastern part of the city are pulverized and abandoned after thousands were killed in government bombings. Rebels there are under attack from advancing government forces and increasingly feel squeezed by approaching Islamic State militants trying to take nearby communities. Residents in the government-held west live in fear of shelling and explosions even as they try to go about their daily business.
Opposition activists said local truces would only help Assad unless they were part of a comprehensive political solution to a war that has killed some 200,000 people and displaced millions of people since March 2011.
"Cease-fires without a clear vision for a full and comprehensive political solution will give the regime time to regroup and reorganize itself to continue its crimes against the Syrian people at a later stage," said Hadi Bahra, head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition.
Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Assad's stated willingness to study the local cease-fire idea is nothing new. The Syrian government has accepted almost every peace initiative offered in the course of the war, only to disentangle from them later on.
"Unless the regime fears consequences for continuing with the status quo, it's hard to see why it would agree to a deal in Aleppo that preserves the mainstream armed opposition, which remains its first priority" to defeat, Bonsey said.
Many Aleppo-based opposition activists said they believed residents would welcome a truce, badly needed after three years of relentless shelling, bombing and displacement.
But they expressed fears the government would merely exploit a truce in Aleppo to gather its forces to fight elsewhere, and questioned how a cease-fire could work when Islamic State fighters are trying to sweep through the area.
Mohammed al-Shafi, a 25-year-old Aleppo activist, said it would be a challenge to get Syrian rebels to agree to a truce.
"Each commander has his own men, his own faction, with his own support. Each one has his own agenda," he said in an interview via Skype. But, he added, residents are tired and would pressure rebels to agree to a truce if Syrian government forces did.
"Those who live outside Aleppo cannot imagine our lives. Nobody has lived like this."
Illustrating the pitfalls ahead, Zaher al-Saket, the Aleppo commander for the Free Syrian Army, a loose umbrella group for Western-backed rebels, placed four near-impossible preconditions for accepting a truce. These included a halt to government airstrikes, turning in those responsible for chemical weapons attacks, the release of prisoners from detention centers and the withdrawal of Hezbollah troops from Syria.
In pressing for a truce in Aleppo, de Mistura seemed to be building on other local cease-fires reached in Syria this year.
Assad has turned to local truces to pacify flashpoint areas around the capital where neither side has been able to clinch a victory. They have largely succeeded in several areas near Damascus and the central city of Homs, but the deals were seen as heavily lopsided in favor of the government.
The U.S. cast doubt on Assad's willingness to implement an equitable cease-fire.
"Unfortunately, many local truces achieved thus far have more closely resembled surrender arrangements as opposed to genuine, sustainable cease-fire arrangements," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
Still, the momentum is growing to save the embattled city of Aleppo.
"Abandoning Aleppo would mean condemning 300,000 men, women and children to a terrible fate," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius wrote in a column published last week in international newspapers.
Fabius urged the international coalition fighting the Islamic State in the embattled Syrian town of Kobani to also help the moderate rebels in Aleppo.
A report released Tuesday that examined 35 negotiations for local cease-fires in Syria over the past three years concluded that local peace deals could be "the best hope" for alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and provide a basis for a larger resolution to the country's conflict.
The report, presented in Beirut by Carnegie Middle East Center in partnership with Oxfam, said local agreements have delivered tangible improvements on the ground that top-level talks failed to do.
"Peace in Syria should be brokered piece by piece, on the ground, but within the context of a national plan," said Rim Turkmani, principal author of the report, "Hungry For Peace: Positives and Drawbacks of Local Truces and Cease-fires in Syria."
Bonsey said one of the reasons that previous cease-fires have failed is that the regime has agreed to them only in order to advance its military strategy.
"So long as the regime, and Iran in particular and to a lesser extent Russia, view the status quo in this conflict as working in their favor, I don't see why they're going to suddenly without precedence really agree to equitable cease-fires," he said.
Al-Shafi, the Aleppo-based activist, said he thought a truce was now irrelevant after the destruction wrought on Aleppo.
"After all those barrel (bombs) and 40,000 people dead, it's not just too late. Aleppo's finished," he said.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.