BEIRUT: Residents of a blockaded rebel-held town near Damascus raised the flag used by the government of President Bashar Assad in a deal that sees them accept symbolic humiliation in exchange for food, activists said Thursday.
The deal accepted by the town of Moadamieh is one of a number of short-lived, local truces reached between opposition-held towns and government forces in recent months, although the terms – which also included the rebels handing over heavy weapons and expelling outsiders – are unusual.
Residents described it as a bitter pill to swallow. For nearly a year, the sprawling community west of Damascus was shelled and starved, surrounded by government checkpoints that refused to allow through food, clean water and fuel, pressuring residents to expel anti-Assad rebels among them. At least two women and four children died of hunger-related illnesses by September, activists said.
The agreement also demanded rebels hand over their heavy weapons and that only registered Moadamieh residents may remain in the town, in a condition likely to thin rebel ranks.
“There’s sadness inside us, but we raised the flag because nobody helped us, nobody extended their hands to us,” said a Moadamieh resident who identified only as Ahmad, fearing retribution from Syrian security forces.
“We are ready to save the lives of [hungry] children. There’s no bread in Moadamieh. For three months, there’s been not even a grain of rice,” he said.
The national flag of red, black and white stripes with two green stars could be seen from a distance flying over a water tanker, according to footage broadcast on a Lebanon-based news channel.
Syrian legislator George Nakhleh said that after the rebels hand over their heavy weapons, residents would establish local armed groups to protect the town. He said the army would not enter the area but would guard it from outside.
“The army will protect Moadamieh but inside the town the residents will protect it. They will carry weapons and set up checkpoints to prevent the entrance of strangers who came from around the world to destroy our country,” Nakhleh told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV.
The rebels have seized a ring of neighborhoods around the capital, a major front in the nearly three-year-old war.
Activists in Moadamieh had warned for months that malnutrition was rife among its estimated 8,000 civilians. They said children and the elderly have been badly affected and often fall sick with illnesses exacerbated by hunger.
The council spokesman, an opposition activist who goes by the nickname Qusai Zakarya, said the deal allowed for the daily, limited entry of food, ensuring that residents could be quickly blockaded again. But Zakarya and activist Ahmad said no food had yet entered the town.
Zakarya said it was likely because government officials wanted a military committee to sweep through Moadamieh to seize any heavy weapons. In the fall, a similar series of truces allowed some 5,000 residents of Moadamieh to flee the town.
The Western-backed exiled opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, said the deal demonstrated how Assad’s government used “food as a tool of war.”
Fierce fighting was reported on several different fronts around the country and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces dropped a “barrel bomb” on the town of Khan al-Shih, outside Damascus, wounding an undetermined number of people.
The use of the crude devices, which are dropped from helicopters, has enraged the coalition, which threatened to boycott next month’s Geneva II peace talks if the regime doesn’t halt its use of barrel bombs.
The Observatory said Wednesday that more than 400 people had been killed by a government bombing campaign in the Aleppo region over a 10-day period this month, with many of the casualties the result of barrel bombs.
The developments came as the head of Russia’s national security council cast doubt on the scheduled date for the start of Geneva II because of slow progress in the run-up to the parley.
“We will not be able to hold the conference within the initially given time frame,” Nikolai Patrushev said.
“Progress is slow,” he added. “A lot depends on the will and ability of the United States and a series of other countries to consolidate the [Syrian] opposition and to convince them to take part in this international forum.”
Russia wants all actors in the war to join the talks, set to begin on Jan. 22.
In Damascus, state-run news agency SANA reported that Sheikh Firas Kreizan, was shot dead outside a mosque in the town of Jeiroud in rural Damascus province. SANA said Kreizan was killed after leading the Wednesday night prayers at the Imam Bishr Mosque adding that his brother, Abdullah, was also wounded in the shooting.
The Observatory said a total of 140 people were killed around the country Wednesday, and that 94 of them were fighters on both sides of the conflict.