UN envoy proposes zones to 'freeze' Syria fighting

Carole Landry
1 / 3

United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during a press conference in Geneva on October 10, 2014

United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during a press conference in Geneva on October 10, 2014 (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura presented an "action plan" for Syria on Thursday, proposing to "freeze" fighting in local areas to allow for aid deliveries and to lay the groundwork for talks.

De Mistura told reporters after meeting with the UN Security Council that he did not have a peace plan but rather "an action plan" to ease suffering from the more than three-year war in Syria.

The envoy said the divided city of Aleppo would be a "good candidate" to become a "freeze zone", which he did not describe in detail but would entail agreement on a local level to suspend fighting.

"It should be something that freezes the conflict in that area and gives an opportunity for some type of humanitarian improvement and for the people to feel that, at least there, there will not be this type of conflict," he said.

Aleppo has been divided since a rebel offensive in summer 2012 between government-controlled sectors on its west side and rebel territory on the east.

The envoy said the "horrific trigger" of the Islamist offensive should provide an opportunity to "move forward" and seek ways to end the war that has killed more than 180,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

De Mistura was reporting to the 15-member council after making key visits to Russia and Iran, two countries that have influence with President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and to Damascus last month.

Appointed in July, the Italian-Swedish diplomat is the third envoy tasked by the United Nations with brokering a peace deal for Syria where fighting has intensified after Islamist rebels entered the fray this summer.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jafaari said his government was ready to give the envoy's proposals "due consideration" and that he would hear more about the plan during a meeting on Friday.

Council members were cautiously open to the idea which could be the first steps toward a national dialogue, but requested more details, according to diplomats.

Concerns were raised over whether the Assad regime would use the pause in ground fighting to launch more bombing against civilians and gain the upper hand over opposition forces.

"We have to start somewhere," said De Mistura who acknowledged that while this may be only "a drop" in the peace process, "many drops can produce a lake and a lake can produce a sea."

- Assad's future -

With the Islamist offensive in Syria fueling violence, the Assad regime has maintained it should play a role in the international campaign to defeat the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged Thursday that US-led air strikes against IS could help Assad but he noted that Washington still opposed any role for the leader in Syria's future.

Asked if the United States still wanted Assad to step down, Hagel said: "That's the policy of this administration."

The peace envoy told the council that the 2012 road map allowing for a political transition in Syria, known as the Geneva communique, remained valid.

During his talks with Assad in Damascus, De Mistura said he told him to back a political process as the best way to show he was serious about "fighting terrorism."

"There's no way that just hitting militarily Daesh will produce what we hope - a return to normality," De Mistura said, using the Arabic name for the Islamists.

But if "everybody is engaged, no exclusion, then I think we will be taking way the ground, the water, where they are finding a fertile ground," he said.

The Council heard from senior UN aid official Kyung-wha Kang that the humanitarian crisis was worsening, with "millions of Syrians forced to live in appalling conditions where there is no safe refuge."

"Tens of thousands of Syrians were forced to flee their homes again this month, many of them for the second or third time."

Despite a UN resolution authorizing cross-border aid deliveries without Syria's consent, Kang acknowledged that UN agencies were "still unable to deliver sufficient quantities of aid to people in the hardest to reach areas."