Swedish patience mixed with Italian grace and the nobility of a marquis, added to 40 years of diplomatic experience can probably explain the determination of UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to continue his mission impossible of preserving a cease-fire in Syria.
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Success is not exactly the description one could use for the impressive diplomatic efforts. The cease-fire agreement, signed at the end of February, remains as dry ink on paper. The deaths of dozens of rebel fighters and government forces, ongoing fierce battles around Aleppo, the bombing of the city’s Al-Quds Hospital, and the harsh siege that has turned the city into a ghost town, whose residents groan from hunger and the lack of medications, bear witness.
The United States did send another 150 fighters to Syria, and Turkey plans to establish “an ISIS-free zone” south of the town of Kilis, which has suffered bombings, yet these steps are not meant to solve the conflict between the Syrian government and the rebels, but rather to provide backing for the war against the Islamic State.
The key to the crisis in Syria has long been kept in the drawer of Vladimir Putin. Only he can pressure President Bashar al-Assad to stabilize the cease-fire. De Mistura has no soldiers and no diplomatic whip with which to force Assad or Putin to stop the fighting. The opposition is also not made up of a collection of angels. Its representatives froze their participation in the Geneva talks and are now talking about renewing them in mid-May. If in the first weeks of the cease-fire it seemed that at least on the rebel front there was readiness to advance the diplomatic process, the battles going on this week among the rebel organizations themselves in the vicinity of Damascus attest to the dissolution of ranks among the rebel groups.
The conflicts between those prepared to accept the continuation of Assad’s rule during a transition period and those demanding his removal before setting up a provisional government among opposition representatives at the Geneva talks are expanding. These disputes play into the hands of Russia and Iran to the point that it seems continued low-intensity fighting is the new goal. Rahim Safavi, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, stressed last week that the Iranian strategy is to continue supporting Assad and strengthening Hezbollah, so that it will become the dominant force in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, which boycotts Lebanon, is busy with its economic vision for 2030 and does not offer solutions. It thus falls in line with Washington, which continues to present an empty political sack that adheres to the demand that Assad vacate his seat, without detailing how it intends to implement this demand. The rebels also have no guarantee that Washington will stick to this position, being that its strategic goal is to fight ISIS, and the ones who have racked up achievements in this war are the government and the Kurds. Thus, opposition members fear that Assad will in the end turn into an ally of Washington, mainly based on the reports of the intention to open a broad military offensive in the cities of Raqaa and Deir ez-Zor, where ISIS is based.
'Normality' in Syria
The Syrian regime for its part behaves as if life goes on as normal. At the La Mira Hotel in Latakia, which the regime controls, preparations are being made for a fashion show over the coming months, in which 70 companies are slated to participate. The central bank has announced it will exchange worn banknotes, and students at a pharmacy school in Syria this week received their test grades. Where the graduates will be employed is another question. Life also seems okay to Lina Arabi, a “non-rebel” blogger as she calls herself, who has a popular Twitter account in Syria. She has published “exceptional” pictures of normal life, like picnics in parks, breathtaking sunsets and children at play.
Arabi is subjected to loads of criticism that she is serving Assad with her postings, but she does not get excited. One can see also in her Twitter account, alongside heartwarming pictures of Damascus, a film clip describing the activity of volunteers in Syria’s Civil Defense Units, also known as The White Helmets, who locate bodies and bring them for burial. This is also part of normal life. Raed Salah, head of The White Helmets, was supposed to receive a humanitarian award in the United States, but he was told after landing that his visa was invalid, and was forced to return to Turkey, where his flight originated. The fact that his organization received $23 million from USAID did not influence American immigration officials.
More than five years after the war broke out, the U.S. presidential elections do not bear any tidings for Syrian citizens. Not only have none of the candidates presented a serious plan to solve the civil war. The truth is that none of them dares touch the crisis in Syria with a 10-foot pole.