BEIRUT: A series of local truce deals in and around Damascus between the Syrian regime and rebel forces are being used for short-term political gain and are likely to be short-lived, opposition sources predict. The truces, struck in the key rebel-held areas of Yarmouk, Moadamieh and Barzeh, appear to be timed with peace talks between the regime, its opponents and their rival international sponsors in Geneva.
The first round of talks, which ended last week, failed to reach any agreement on what was pitched as a trial balloon in the form of “confidence-building” measures – the delivery of food and medical aid to government besieged, rebel-held quarters of Old Homs. The stalemate over the agreement appeared to break Thursday, four days ahead of the next round of talks in Geneva, with the Syrian Foreign Ministry announcing civilians would be evacuated and aid allowed in to the area.
But in Damascus, locally brokered cease-fires in the three strategic areas have already taken place, presenting previously unthinkable compromises on both sides.
The Syrian government has heralded the cease-fires on state media as the successful results of “national reconciliation efforts.”
But, while the circumstances of each of the deals differ markedly between the three neighborhoods, opposition elements in all three say the apparent compromises are deceptive, amounting to blackmail through starvation and threats of violence, and an attempt by the regime to shore up territory and score political points domestically and abroad during the Geneva negotiation process.
They point to conditions imposed by the government for the handover of rebel activists and fighters, the arrest and killing of civilians after guarantees were made for their safe evacuation, and fears of violent attack if conditions are rejected, as proof of a lack of goodwill on the part of the regime and no promise of lasting peace.
Both the government and the rebels accuse the other of using civilians in besieged neighborhoods as human shields. Both also present any deals reached as proof they are acting in the interests of trapped civilians.
State agency SANA published Wednesday pictures of what it said were hundreds of displaced families returning to Moadamieh, southwest of Damascus.
SANA blamed “terrorists” for the violence that displaced thousands of residents and said security had been established through the efforts of the national reconciliation commission.
According to opposition activists involved in negotiations in Moadamieh, the agreement was seen more as a temporary surrender to a brutal shelling campaign and “starvation siege” that saw the government restrict food and essential supplies for months and resulted in the deaths of about a dozen people.
Moadamieh residents were offered food and basics in return for the handing-over of arms, rebel fighters and media activists, as well as the installment of a regime-appointed governor, they said.
High-profile activist Qusai Zakarya told The Daily Star ahead of Geneva that “the regime is working very hard to secure the capital ahead of the Geneva talks. [They want to] take credit in front of the international community for the truces they enforced.”
Divisions have also emerged between residents inside the city over whether to accept the government conditions.
Last Thursday, Zakarya said his vocal opposition to the unfair conditions of the deal had made him a target of both the government and other residents who sought to secure food aid. The following day he agreed to the government condition that he leave, but said he feared for his life. In an earlier truce in October, dozens of people were arrested after the government agreed to evacuate civilians from the city.
Opposition activists with the “Solidarity with Qusai Zakarya Hunger Strike Under Siege in Moadamiya, Syria” Facebook page told The Daily Star late Thursday while a meeting between Zakarya and government officials in Damascus appeared to have gone “well,” he was yet to be released.
Earlier this month, following months of failed negotiations, food aid finally arrived in trickles to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus. A crippling yearlong siege has generated desperate humanitarian conditions and drove out more than 85 percent of the original 160,000 population. The U.N. has documented the deaths of dozens of people from malnutrition, while residents have reported eating herbs mixed in water and animal feed to survive.
The U.N. Palestinian Refugee Agency UNRWA says it has now distributed some 3,000 food parcels to Yarmouk. A limited number of very ill residents were also evacuated from the neighborhood Saturday. But while securing limited relief, the deal is a long way from a permanent cessation of hostilities.
The government and pro-government factions had accused armed opposition and their rival Palestinian militants of holding the camp hostage and not honoring a previous deal to disarm. Opposition groups say the government has starved the camp as a form of collective punishment to force surrender. Humanitarian workers and the government traded blame for attacks on aid convoys attempting to enter the camp, while Damascus complained food parcels may be directed to rebels. Some reports suggested evacuees had been arrested after leaving the camp.
As in Moadamieh, residents reported increased factional tensions between those who support the truce and those who oppose it.
In Barzeh, lying adjacent to Damascus to the north, a truce reached appeared more favorable to the rebels.
Barzeh was one of the first parts of the capital to see protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and while fierce clashes between Free Syrian Army rebels and government forces wrought large-scale destruction and forced thousands to flee, Barzeh has maintained a significant pro-Assad population.
Over a year of fighting, the government has failed to enter the area and the rebels control two main roads leading in and out of Barzeh, possibly giving them greater leverage in negotiations.
The truce involved a far greater degree of coordination with rebel forces, who have maintained an active presence inside the neighborhood alongside regular army and loyalist militia forces.
Sari, a university student who returned with thousands of other displaced people to inspect the rubble – all that was left of his home – after last week’s cease-fire, said he saw government and rebel forces manning checkpoints alongside each other.
“It’s crazy. Like saying: We fought and destroyed all the neighborhood, but now, since no one can win this, let’s be friends again,” he said, adding his house had been ransacked and looted.
“It makes me feel angry, at least let one side win; the place is destroyed and after all that they play football together now!”
Sari said his family would now seek government compensation for the damage to his home and resettle abroad. “Both sides say it is finished, but as long there are weapons in the hands of nonstate groups, there is no guarantee that the truce will hold.”
Zeyad Al-Shami, an opposition activist with the Barzeh Media Center, said conditions in the neighborhood meant the government was more willing to make concessions, but denied the rebels had joined forces with the regime there.
Shami said the negotiations began in response to pressure from the thousands of destitute and displaced residents, asking to return to their homes.
“Then Geneva comes along and delegates from the government begin to make statements, calling for channels of communication with people and militants inside the neighborhood.”
He said using the rebels’ strategic advantage, an agreement was struck under which the regime forces would withdraw, release detainees and restore basic services.
While the regime accepted, he said there was little faith the government would not attack after the Geneva talks concluded, adding that so far only 17 of over 360 detainees from the area had been released.
“We saw what they did in other places in Syria, like south of Damascus. They attack these places after the cease-fire.”
On the shared checkpoints, he said the rebels have “fought for a year to save the people from any harm by Assad’s army and his security forces. But there is no normalization between our FSA and Assad’s soldiers.”
If the regime fails to release those arrested and withdraw completely, he warned the cease-fire would collapse. “An [FSA commander] told me so this week we are going to cut off the main roads if they don’t start the release and withdrawal soon,” he said.
For residents like Sari, whoever deserves the credit for even a temporary cessation of hostilities is largely irrelevant.
“I am glad on a general level that the fighting is stopped, but for me, I got nothing from this truce.”