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Middle East News
EU Ministers Back Syrian Military 'Freeze'
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 15 Dec 2014 10:57:24 EST
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare a locally-made weapon launcher during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the Amerya front in Aleppo in November this year.
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare a locally-made weapon launcher during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the Amerya front in Aleppo in November this year. Reuters

BRUSSELS—European foreign ministers threw their support on Monday behind efforts to negotiate a military “freeze” in Syria, but privately fissures emerged over fears that the United Nations initiative could play into the hands of the Syrian regime.

Critics say that a freeze, which would focus on the embattled city of Aleppo, could allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to regain control of the city and detain opponents, and they fear that the talks will allow Mr. Assad to regain legitimacy.

The U.K. and France are among European Union members voicing concern about the mission led by U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura, a diplomat said. The plan has not been endorsed by the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.

Staffan de Mistura in Damascus earlier this year. He said that the Aleppo plan would not follow the Homs blueprint, when the Assad regime occupied the city following a U.N.-brokered cease fire.
Staffan de Mistura in Damascus earlier this year. He said that the Aleppo plan would not follow the Homs blueprint, when the Assad regime occupied the city following a U.N.-brokered cease fire. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The group has cited a May cease fire in the city of Homs, when the Assad regime occupied the city following a U.N.-brokered cease fire and dozens of people were captured by government authorities. Mr. de Mistura has said that the Aleppo plan would not follow the Homs blueprint.

Opposition leaders also worry that as the West focuses on fighting the extremist group Islamic State, it will become more open to working with Mr. Assad. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius voiced that concern at Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers, one diplomat said, telling colleagues he’d heard “a little melody” from some parts of the bloc arguing that co-operation with the Assad regime was the lesser of two evils.

In their official statement after the meeting, the foreign ministers said that the EU backed Mr. de Mistura’s “efforts to achieve a strategic de-escalation of violence” and would provide concrete help.

In an apparent attempt to appease the opposition, the ministers also said that the coalition is a “vital element” of any solution in Syria and pledged to enhance support to the group, including in Aleppo. The EU also promised to continue pressuring the Assad regime and its supporters through sanctions.

European countries have been groping with increasing urgency for ways to slow the Syrian war, which has killed about 200,000 people in a region the EU considers its “southern neighborhood.”

The crisis in Aleppo has sharply intensified that frustration. “[After] three and a half years, I would say it’s time for us to manage to contribute positively to a solution there,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said before entering the meeting.

Still, asked Monday what the EU can do, Lithuanian Foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said, “Not much. Frankly, everything is focused around the United Nations. That’s good, and we have to support it, to find a niche where we can intervene.”

EU members have generally seized on the push by Mr. de Mistura for a halt to fighting around Aleppo and possibly other hotspots. But some ministers suggested that they were embracing it less because of its promise than because there were few other options.

Mr. de Mistura said that his use of the term “freeze” rather than cease fire is partly an attempt to distinguish between the proposed halt in violence in Aleppo, with both sides staying put, and the situation in Homs, where the Assad regime was able to make advances.

I would say it’s time for us to manage to contribute positively to a solution there

—EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini.

The foreign ministers met with Mr. de Mistura on Sunday. But it appears the bloc’s major role in his plan, beyond lending diplomatic support, would be to provide food, medicine and other humanitarian items to Aleppo if a deal is reached.

European leaders, like their American counterparts, are finding their efforts in Syria increasingly complicated by the rise of Islamic State and other extremist groups who have joined the fight against Mr. Assad.

That has muddied the line between constructive and destructive forces in Syria and made it harder for the West to provide significant aid to the rebels, given fears that the weapons and other items could fall into extremists’ hands.

Western leaders have also faced a persistent challenge in helping ordinary Syrians without legitimizing the Assad government. The international community recently succeeded in removing most of all of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons, for example, but only by working closely with the regime—to the anger of many opposition leaders.

Despite the pitfalls, many European ministers concluded that Mr. de Mistura’s initiative was the only avenue for saving lives in Aleppo, and could even provide an opening for a broader progress in Syria.

“It’s too early to assess whether such attempts will be successful,” said German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “But given the lack of other proposals and the fact that we won’t reach a solution through air and military strikes, this proposal by Staffan de Mistura deserves support.”

Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, said the Aleppo plan allows countries like Russia and Iran to play a more constructive role.

“That would be perhaps the beginning of a more positive evolution,” Mr. Asselborn said. “In any case, we don’t have a lot of options.”

—Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this article.

Write to Naftali Bendavid at naftali.bendavid@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com



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