To achieve peace in Syria, better start in Aleppo not Geneva

Peacemakers should focus on confidence building measures inside Syria.

Winter is catastrophic for Syrians [AFP]

“What can we do? Obama is addicted to Geneva!”, one DC insider said. He seemed truly exhausted by the presidential elusiveness on Syria. During my recent trip to Washington, he was not even the most dispirited person I met. Everybody, with a vague understanding of Middle Eastern affairs, looked appalled by the way this US administration was getting itself trapped in the Geneva vicious circle. And dragging the Syrian opposition mercilessly into this quagmire.

Seen from the White House, Geneva has become an end in itself, and such an obsession could turn in a recipe for disaster by any diplomatic standards: since the US wanted so badly Geneva to “work”, they are ready to accept any concession that will nurture the illusion of a momentum. But American officials already caution that Geneva II will only be the first step of a long road to implement what was agreed upon at Geneva I, in June 2012; the establishment of a “transitional governing authority” (TGA in the diplomatic lingo).

While TGA was initially the means to achieve peace through political transition, declaring it as the goal to be reached, is a major victory for Bashar al-Assad. But the Syrian dictator could never have scored such a gain without completing the disconnection between the real situation inside Syria and the international debate about Syria.

The late Michel Seurat (1947-1986), in his visionary interpretation of the Assad regime, had already stated, thirty years ago, this simple rule: the more the world gets agitated about Syria, with Assad as its central player, the less the Syrian people have a chance to make their voice heard, without even mentioning the possibility of fulfilling their rights. This sinister analysis has never been as cruel as right now.

Let us face recent facts.To keep the celebrated “road to Geneva” open, US and Russia agreed – at the UN- to postpone any discussion about the humanitarian aid to Syria. While the winter is catastrophic for the civilian population, Washington and Moscow preferred to bet on a “breakthrough” on the banks of the Leman Lake. Syrians are requested to die silently in the meantime, for the sake of such a perverted vision of “diplomacy”.

No recent conflict has seen the UN barred so persistently from access to the deprived populations. The Syrian air force and artillery have repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, while the Assad regime remained the sole recipient of the international generosity inside Syria. Whole neighbourhoods are literally being starved by a military siege, but not a word of denunciation is uttered at the UN against the responsible of those war crimes, even when one of such a besieged locality is the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, south of Damascus.

Let us not disturb the self-proclaimed peacemakers who are so dedicated to make Geneva “work”. They already spent sleepless nights in “behind the scenes” diplomacy, in order to achieve a “breakthrough”.  So do not spoil their joy by reminding them that the fate of the Syrian women and men should be the focus of their activity, in a country where close to 1% of the population has already been killed, and where one Syrian out of three is a displaced person or a refugee.

No, those arguments are not sufficient to circumvent the Obama-led “addiction” to Geneva. So let us try another way: why not take Bashar and his Russian patrons at face value? They say Geneva should not be about “political transition”, but about “fighting terrorism”. Great, so the bogeyman is, once again, Al-Qaeda, embodied by the infamous Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  

Now, let us turn to Aleppo, a two-million soul city, divided since the summer of 2012 between one half gained by the revolution and another one remaining under the regime’s control. The frontlines are intricate and artificial, they have moved very little in the past year, despite the atrocity of daily violence.

I spent part of last summer in the part of Aleppo under rebel groups control, embedded with the civilian population, not depending on the dubious “protection” of any armed group. I could see how families are torn apart, with Skype as the main venue for keeping contact between the two halves of Aleppo. Patriots on each side, despaired to see their city destroyed, are discreetly cooperating to maintain basic services to the population.

Since the beginning of this year, the fighting groups in Aleppo have launched what they called their “second revolution”, now against Al-Qaeda. After days of intense battles and hundreds of casualties, they have successfully driven ISIS out of the city. They had no time to celebrate this victory, since the regime started- at once- a major offensive against them.

So the Syrian revolutionary forces, not the regime, are fighting Al-Qaeda, while the same forces are fighting the regime on a second front. A ceasefire in Aleppo would, therefore, not only be a blessing for the battered population, but it would also open at last the possibility for consolidating a zone liberated from Al-Qaeda.

If this ceasefire holds, with the international monitoring that this requires, a local version of the TGA could even be established to run the city. Aleppo would then become a laboratory for a bolder and wider political transition in post-conflict Syria.

If you think this is a pipedream, try and evaluate the marginal possibility of reaching such a dramatic “breakthrough” in Switzerland. It is in Syria, and only in Syria, that peace can be envisioned, shaped and achieved. And even with only (the fight against) Al-Qaeda in mind, Aleppo could prove a much more rational bet than Geneva.

Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He has held visiting professorships at Columbia and Georgetown Universities.