BEIRUT: Qusai Zakarya (a nom de guerre) is an opposition media activist and local council member in besieged Moadamieh, a rebel-held area in southwest Damascus.
The town has been under an intense government siege for close to a year. As well as coming under heavy government shelling and “barrel bomb” attacks, passage of food into the neighborhood has been tightly restricted in what opposition activists describe as a “starvation campaign” to break the will of the rebels. About a dozen deaths from malnutrition have been reported.
In October, the Syrian government announced a cease-fire agreement had been reached and reported that some 1,800 civilians had been evacuated to safety in exchange for the handover of heavy weapons. Opposition activists accuse the government of arresting and killing the evacuees after announcing the cease-fire.
Speaking via Skype from Moadamieh, Zakarya, who has been involved in negotiations with the regime for the truce, describes how the government is using locally brokered cease-fires in besieged neighborhoods to win back territory in the lead-up to international peace talks – and why the rebels have submitted.
“If you want to train a dog to be loyal, you starve it, then give it a little bit of food, and it is grateful for the little it received. The regime has trained the people to be loyal dogs.
“One of the first conditions of the regime for the truce was to raise their flag on the highest point of the city, which is the water tower in the center of town. We did it. Now the demands are increasing.
“This week there were new demands to hand over our light weapons as well as provide them with security profiles for the FSA fighters and some individuals in the town.
“They are also asking for a ‘communications officer’ from the regime to enter the town and administer it – like a kind of town mayor.
“There is no more painful way to die than starvation. It eats at your body and your soul. It’s totally undignified,” Zakarya said.
“There are 1.5 million people suffering from starvation across Syria. We have lost about 12 people here to starvation as well as others who could easily have been saved if they had access to medical care.
“As much as I hate to say it, Bashar Assad’s policy of starvation has finally paid off. It worked. They have managed, by starving them, to change people’s minds – turning them against the revolution and in favor of the regime. Their message is: We can feed you, or kill you. The opposition can only starve you.
“The regime is offering more and more truces now to other places that they were not able to invade or hold. They are offering truces to places they forgot about for months. Wherever they agree, they have started to give them small pieces of food. It’s about a bag of sugar and flour and a piece of bread. It’s enough for one meal per person per day.
“The regime is working very hard to secure the capital ahead of the Geneva talks. They want to kill us, rape us and starve us, and then take credit in front of the international community for the truces they enforced,” Zakarya said.
“ Geneva will be successful if they agree on three points:Assad and his regime with blood on their hands can have no role in future Syria; break the siege and allow the passage of humanitarian aid; release of all political prisoners; and most importantly, a cease-fire. Stop the use of heavy weapons against civilians.
“In essence, what is happening in Moadamieh is a mini example of Geneva. We are getting aid, we are getting the cease-fire. We are also getting a mixed local government and accepting regime figures – for a time.
“If the regime stops at the point of assigning their officer to administer the town without killing people, we will accept it and we will live with him for a while. During that time we can start to rebuild our town, our institutions, our society.
“We want some authority here. We want rules. We don’t want this chaos, this playground for all the actors in the world to come play out their agendas.
“Something good has come out of being gassed and starved and bombed. It has shown the mettle of the people, but it has also revealed people’s real agendas. This war created a lot of hypocrites, but it also created a lot of heroes.
“There really are only a few good men remaining in all rebel-held Syria. Those remaining who are still working for the revolution and have not been corrupted are very few. Those that do remain are in a lot of danger.
“Right now people are not even thinking straight from hunger. But I believe they will come back to their senses. If they get stronger, they will return to their original demands for freedom and dignity and they will remember that the regime did this to them,” Zakarya said.
“We can do this over again. But we have to wait.
“We are just finishing the first three years of our revolution. It takes more than three years to overcome 40 years of dictatorship under this regime that laid on our chests.
“Yes, we have agreed to hand over armored vehicles and weapons that we won in battle. We have raised the regime flag – all in exchange for food.
“But we are not defeated and the revolution has not been erased. The regime has not won and they know that too. They never managed to invade or even hold many areas.
“Some officers in the 4th Brigade at the checkpoints have even told us: We were not able to win and neither were you. We have to settle things now,” Zakarya said.