BEIRUT: Truce deals promoted by the government as “national reconciliation” – but condemned by the opposition as enforced surrender – are beginning to fray as a result of disagreements over the terms, and retribution by paramilitaries loyal to President Bashar Assad.
There are now over 70 local cease-fires being negotiated across Syria, a U.N. official told The Daily Star. The uptick in the number of local truces, especially around Damascus, coincided with the opening of peace talks in Geneva and a Security Council resolution to provide humanitarian aid that was unanimously agreed Saturday.
But besieged civilian and rebel forces are divided over the agreements, which opposition figures say represent a “surrender or starve campaign” by the regime, insincere attempts to show the international community that the regime is interested in cooperation, and an excuse to retake previously inaccessible rebel-held areas.
A highly publicized truce deal brokered in January in Moadamieh, southeast of Damascus, under a suffocating government siege for over 18 months until January, broke down Sunday.
Opposition activists say the single point of entry and exit from the town has been closed for four days, after aid was channeled from the town to neighboring Daraya, where rebel Free Syrian Army forces have until now resisted a cease-fire deal despite being under heavy government air and artillery bombardment.
Activists from both neighborhoods say rebels refused to hand over weapons in Moadamieh, citing unacceptable conditions and the threat of retribution from pro-Assad paramilitaries. When opposition activists directed food delivered to Moadamieh under the deal to the besieged suburb of Daraya, they say, the aid was stopped and the entrance to Moadamieh closed.
Army troops fired heavy weapons into the town Monday, said opposition activist Hussam Zyadah, with the Violations and Documentation Center in Daraya, but there have so far been no casualties.
Qusai Zakarya, an opposition activist who handed himself in to regime forces under the agreement in Moadamieh and was released last week, told The Daily Star the regime has closed off the city because the FSA refused to hand over weapons in return for aid.
“I don’t think the regime will try to go in or strike really hard because they tried so hard to make Moadamieh an example. They know all eyes are watching.”
He said the condition that the rebels hand over their weapons was “unacceptable,” because they do not trust loyalist militias to abide by the agreement.
“The condition that we hand over our weapons is a sign of the real intention of the regime.
“These weapons are our only guarantee of safety and the regime has a lot of firepower and a lot of help, so why should we hand over ours?”
“In Daraya there is heavy attack and so far there has been no acceptance of the truce by the FSA. The pact that the rebels made from Moadamieh was to smuggle food into Daraya from the aid that was sent to Moadamieh. It was not right for us not to feed the families in Daraya who are starving – we would be worse than the regime if we didn’t,” he said.
“At the end of the day they are asking us in Moadamieh to help them starve Daraya and make the siege there even worse. This shows there is no goodwill.”
Agreement on the truces varies according to the FSA’s strength and resources, as well as geography, activists say.
Yabroud, in central Syria, came under heavy attack in the last few weeks by government forces backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah when rebels, including jihadists from the Nusra Front, refused to surrender their arms.
“In areas where the FSA is not so highly coordinated and where starvation is being used as a weapon by the regime, there is a lot of pressure from the civilians to accept the terms, Zakarya said.
Another FSA source said truces were more likely to be resisted in areas where the FSA has greater firepower and resources.
“Western Ghouta is not as organized, while eastern Ghouta has greater firepower, meaning they can still resist. In the western Ghouta they will try to rest and reorganize in the hope that support in the form of military aid comes from the south,” the source said, referring to reports that the U.S. has approved arms delivery to the rebels in the south of the country through the Jordanian border.
“In Homs, too, they still have good men,” he said.
Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in the Old City of Homs last week against a recent U.N.-brokered truce to allow food in and civilians out, describing it as a conspiracy aimed at ending the revolution and a “humiliation.”
There, the deal to allow aid into the town almost broke down on the second day, after the U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy was fired upon. Red Crescent and U.N. officials blamed members of the pro-Assad National Defense Force, which opposed the deal because it helped the rebels, and attacked the aid delivery teams in retribution.
The role of paramilitaries in implementing or obstructing the deals is a challenge that opposition activists say is a test of the regime’s real intent to pursue a program of national reconciliation.
Over the course of the 3-year-old war, the Syrian regime has increasingly relied on paramilitary groups, often with a distinct sectarian identity, to man checkpoints and guard neighborhoods.
Coming from Iraq, Iran or Syria’s religious minorities, the groups are often ideologically motivated and don’t fall easily under the regular army’s chain of command.
“In many of the areas under siege there are paramilitary or militia forces that break the terms of the truce, for example shooting U.N. vehicles in Homs,” said Khaled Saleh, head of the media office for the opposition National Coalition.
“This points to either of two scenarios; either Assad has lost power to control his own forces which further indicates his lost legitimacy to rule the country; or, it indicates that he has secretly allowed these forces to violate truce terms because in fact he does not want peace and is simply putting up pretenses to appease international pressure to bring aid into besieged areas.”
Zakarya agreed: “The ugly and terrifying reality is that the regime can’t control its militias and that is why I am against the truces,” he said. “I am for them on one condition: that we are allowed to keep our weapons.
The scale of death and destruction has generated deep mistrust and the threat of retribution is high on both sides, Zakarya said.
“We will have to reconcile sooner or later. But revenge is something to think about from both sides. People who lost a lot of family in government shelling, chemical attacks, who are under siege, are in no way willing to negotiate with the regime. Not in a million years.”
“People look toward the truces as treason,” said Zyadah, adding that a lack of coordination between rebel forces in different areas had given the rebels decreased leverage in negotiating the terms of the truces.
“If there were coordination and communications between the cities from the beginning of the revolution, we would be victorious by now. This is a main reason for the bad conditions,” he said.
The experiences in Moadamieh and Babila, where hundreds of evacuees were reportedly arrested, are partly why the terms were being rejected in Daraya, he said.
Rebels in Barzeh, a neighborhood in northern Damascus, were able to gain greater leverage over the negotiations, given its strategic location, demanding the release of detainees and the retaining of their weapons.
FSA fighters now man checkpoints alongside the government forces, co-administering the area and thousands of families have returned home.
But even there, tensions are high.
Zeyad al-Shami, the spokesman for the FSA media center in Barzeh, predicted the truce will collapse if the regime failed to comply with agreed terms.
“The truce in Barzeh is not so bad; there have been no new detainees, nor the withdrawal of the army. But the regime is still playing with time, procrastinating and postponing. They promised us that some of prisoners should be out in two days, but this was two weeks ago.”
Moreover, the appearance of Hezbollah fighters at checkpoints has increased tensions.
“This was clear provocation and proof that they want the truce to fail,” Shami said.
“They will say that it was the FSA who broke it,” he said, adding that it was just a way to enter the previously-inaccessible area.
Bouts of violence and retribution were recorded in Babila, Qudsaya and other areas this week, in what may bode badly for any long-term reconciliation efforts.
For the coalition’s Saleh, the regime has faced mounting pressure to allow humanitarian assistance into besieged areas, after carrying out a “kneel or starve” policy for more than a year.
The truce option, he continued, is a “new, evil plot designed to demonstrate the regime’s willingness to negotiate an end to the siege, while finding new ways to continue to terrorize the people and maintain control.”
“The regime has ensured that the proposed truces provide very little relief or freedom to the people; rather, they just work to reinstate regime control over these liberated areas,” Saleh added.