Cease-fires bring patchy peace to Damascus neighborhoods

Syrian opposition sources says rebels are only agreeing to regime-led local cease-fires because the alternative is starvation.

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    A general view shows damaged buildings along a deserted street in the Mleha suburb of Damascus April 16, 2014.
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Abu Fahed’s home is rubble and one of his sons languishes in jail, but the fighting that tore his Damascus neighborhood apart has stopped. A shaky local truce between the Syrian government and rebels is on.

“We hope that it will get better, that people from both sides can live together again,” he says.

It’s a hope, but a faint one. Many of the truces established in flashpoint areas around Damascus in the last few months have broken down, and even those that have lasted have been weakened by violations and discontent.

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Behind Syria's patchwork of fragile local truces is weariness with a conflict, now in its fourth year. Government sieges and shelling have starved rebel-held areas of food and other critical supplies, a chokehold that is eased if rebels agree to a truce. The message: Surrender and we’ll give you food. Stay put and you’ll suffer.

The government portrays the effort as a step toward national reconciliation, ending conflict one neighborhood at a time, but opposition sources say agreeing to such truces merely signals rebels' desperation to end the starvation – a survival tactic, not a step toward lasting peace.

“Most places where the regime says it has been successful with cease-fires, like Babila and Barzeh, it’s actually the Army surrounding the place and refusing food and medicine to civilians,” says Louay Hussein, president and founder of Building the Syrian State, a largely tolerated opposition movement in Damascus. “The first point in the cease-fire agreement is to bring food to people stuck inside. So this is really not a cease-fire agreement at all.”

A few months into the truce in Barzeh, a pro-opposition neighborhood on the slopes of Mount Qassioun in Damascus, Abu Fahed speaks of simmering discontent among residents.

Rebels were promised that prisoners would be freed, but only a few on their list have been released since the truce began on Jan. 5, he says. A few trucks with much-needed flour and vegetables cleared Army checkpoints after a period of siege, but the promised food aid has been limited and sporadic. Male residents complain that they are still harassed by security forces. 

“Promises are repeatedly broken,” Abu Fahed says. 

Who wins?

In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk outside Damascus, under siege since July 2013, nearly 200 civilians have died, mostly as a result of food and medicine shortages, according to Amnesty International. The group recently accused the regime of using hunger as a weapon of war throughout Syria. A series of truces allowed some aid in, but not enough for the 20,000 civilians trapped inside, and fighting resumed almost immediately.

Once a deal was struck in Barzeh, electricity, water and phone networks – long gone from the area – were switched back on. Two trucks of food aid were quickly allowed through previously impassable checkpoints. The government started to clear the streets of rubble.

Many who fled have returned, but found their homes damaged or destroyed. Shelled-out buildings are visible from the road from Mount Qassioun.

“People can come back now,” says Umm Fadi, a resident who recently returned. “But their houses are destroyed. What is there really to come back to?” 

Fighting hasn’t entirely ceased either. Last week three mortar rockets were fired into Barzeh from Mount Qassioun, Umm Fadi says. Government forces posted there still regularly fire at rebel-held suburbs.

Khairy Samman, director of the office of the minister of reconciliation, insists local truces are not forced surrenders. “We don’t want the rebels to feel that we are winning by this. Everyone is winning, because people aren’t being killed,” he says, noting that rebels often have only basic preconditions for an agreement.

“You would think their demands would be really complex and political. But that’s not the case. Usually they just want the return of their loved ones and a way back to normal life," Mr. Samman says.

He shows a document from the national security office which lists the names of 150 fighters who recently surrendered as part of a truce in Homs. They have now been removed from the government’s wanted list.

Many armed groups who would like to give up, says Ali Haidar, minister of reconciliation. “They believe there is no future for them, and we work on that. We succeed in most cases, but sometimes it fails when they have foreign leaders.”

Spoilers

Researchers from the London School of Economics and Madani, a Britain-based NGO which promotes Syrian civil society, studied 35 local cease-fires in Syria to identify which factors make or break them. [and found that] The biggest spoiler – apart from the lack of political will of the government – was regional and international interference.

In the central city of Homs, negotiations between regime and opposition groups supported by rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia foiled a truce attempt. Talks in Yarmouk were complicated by the conflict between rival Palestinian groups. Peace talks were most successful, researchers concluded, in areas where regional interference was at its lowest – such as in Barzeh. There, Abu Fahed says, opposition groups were reluctant to give foreigners a say.

There are also factors unique to each area. Barzeh residents had a long-standing conflict with the people of nearby Ish al-Warwar, a mainly Alawite working-class neighborhood loyal to the regime. After nearly three years of clashes, tit-for-tat kidnappings, and assassinations, both sides were tired. 

“Our problem was not with the regime, our problem was with the people of Ish al-Warwar,” says a member of Barzeh’s “reconciliation committee,” which was initiated by the regime to communicate locals’ demands for the agreement.

“Then people in Barzeh understood they couldn’t take down the regime, and people in Ish al-Warwar understood they couldn’t fix the regime. So we sat down together.”

Under the terms of the truce, rebel fighters were allowed to keep their weapons and their control of Barzeh in return for the government raising its flag over the neighborhood. Rebels and regime soldiers now man checkpoints together.

Reunions

Near the now-quiet front line, residents in the government-held blocs of Barzeh say they are relieved.

“From the moment the cease-fire was signed, we’ve been afraid that it would break down. But it has lasted,” says Moaaz Zarzour, a barber who supports the government.

For him, the truce brought not only peace of mind, but also a happy reunion with family members on the other side of the front line. Two days after the deal was signed, Mr. Zarzour visited relatives living just a few hundred meters from his house for the first time in nearly a year. 

In the rebel-held areas, residents say they get some much-needed relief from shelling and fighting. But Abu Fahed fears there might come a time when a broken promise is one too many, and fighting will start again

“We are tired of the fighting,” he says. “We hope the truce will hold, not just here, but that it will spread to all of Syria.” For that, he is willing to accept many broken promises.

“What do I want?” he asks and sighs. “I want life. I want my children to live.”

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