Warning that the Islamic State is just 20 miles from Aleppo, the United Nations special envoy for Syria urged the warring sides to freeze the use of heavy weapons in and around what was once Syria’s business capital as a first step toward reviving derailed peace efforts.
Staffan De Mistura told reporters here that he will launch an intensive round of shuttle diplomacy in an effort to persuade rebels and the Syrian government to, at a minimum, reduce the level of fighting so humanitarian aide can reach those who remain in the city.
Aleppo has been the scene of bitter battles since the summer of 2012.
De Mistura said that without some kind of agreement between the government and rebel forces, the city could fall to the Islamic State, a development that “would be a major catastrophe, a tragedy.”
De Mistura said he had met Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry, on Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, and recently with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“They all agree that we need to do something … that movement towards some type of political solution takes place this year,” De Mistura said.
He said he was redoubling his efforts in part because of last week’s terror attacks in Paris.
“The rest of the world is not immune,” De Mistura said. “In the recent, horrific, terrorist attack in Paris, I’m finding a connection with the origins and consequences of the Syrian conflict and elsewhere.”
He acknowledged that a solution to the Syrian conflict will not be simple because of the level of distrust among the participants.
“There is a lot of distrust,” he said. “And that is causing a lot of problems because no one wants to move first.”
He said the conflict has sent Syria “40 years backwards from where it was” and that he favored a third round of peace talks, even though the first two rounds held in Geneva had yielded no success.
“We have already gone through Geneva I, we went through Geneva II which was a major and unfortunate disappointment,” the U.N. special envoy said. “And therefore, in order to actually launch another Geneva III, we need to be very careful and make sure we don’t go through another disappointment.”
He described diplomatic efforts by Russia to host a meeting of Syrian government and opposition representatives in Moscow on Jan. 26, and by Egypt to host a meeting of Syrian opposition leaders in Cairo on Jan. 22 as potentially important developments.
“Any initiative that brings together Syrian people can facilitate a dialogue and if it is among Syrians, it can also be a starting for a political dialogue,” he said.
De Mistura said that in his meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad, “I could see how concerned he himself was about this new threat of terrorism, and ISIS/Daash in particular.”
Daash is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State and ISIS is another name for the group.
He said the expansion of the Islamic State and the American-led coalition to fight it had changed the situation in Syria since representatives of Assad and his opponents had met in Geneva a year ago.
“There are many new elements in the geography and in the politics which are certainly different from the time of Geneva II,” he said.
Zarocostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.