Syrian talks with rebels stumble on 'sectarian cleansing' allegations

Syria and its ally Iran are negotiating with rebels over a population swap: Sunnis would leave a town sought for an evolving Assad regime enclave in return for the transfer of besieged Shiite communities.

Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters/File
A general view of the damage at Zabadani in 2012. Zabadani is the last significant rebel-held area along the Lebanese border.

More than four years into Syria’s civil war, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his ally Iran are exploring negotiations with rebel groups that could lead to the transfer of several besieged Sunni and Shiite communities to safer areas.

While the negotiations could provide some welcome relief from the violence that has claimed more than 250,000 lives, the population transfers would harden the gradual partition of the country along sectarian lines between the Assad regime, the backbone of which is drawn from the Alawite sect, and the mainly Sunni armed opposition.

For now, the talks appear to have been suspended after a leading rebel group said it opposed what was tantamount to “sectarian cleansing” of the mainly Sunni town of Zabadani in western Syria, which is under siege by the Syrian Army and fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah organization.

If the negotiations fail to resume, the surviving inhabitants of Zabadani – civilians and rebels alike – as well as the residents of besieged Shiite villages in northern Syria’s Idlib and Aleppo provinces face a bleak future.

“The Iranians think it is too difficult to protect these Shiite villages. They want to transfer the populations to safe areas,” says Fabrice Balanche, director of studies and research on the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the Maison de l’Orient et de la Mediterranée in France. “In Homs, last year, there was a deal between the Iranians and the rebels. They [the Iranians] are trying to do the same deal at the level of several enclaves in Syria with the rebels.”

Hezbollah and the Syrian Army launched an offensive against Zabadani five weeks ago, cutting off avenues of retreat and bombarding the town with barrel bombs, artillery, and airstrikes. Zabadani, once a summer resort town with a pre-war population of about 26,000, lies in a valley surrounded by mountains 18 miles northwest of Damascus and five miles from the border with Lebanon. Several rebel factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Ahrar ash-Sham, another hard-line Islamist group, and the Free Syrian Army have held the town for the past three years, allowing plenty of time to construct a robust defensive network against an eventual regime offensive.

Withdrawal to regime enclave

Zabadani is the last significant rebel-held area along the Lebanese border and its seizure by the Syrian Army is necessary to secure the regime’s much-anticipated withdrawal to an enclave stretching from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.

On Wednesday, the pro-opposition Syria Media Office said Zabadani had been struck by 1,100 barrel bombs and 600 rockets as well as thousands of artillery rounds in the course of the regime offensive. It also alleged that napalm-filled rockets had been used against the rebels in Zabadani. The sound of exploding barrel bombs and rocket strikes has reverberated across Lebanon’s adjacent Bekaa Valley.

But the rebels are putting up a stiff resistance, using tunnels and bunkers to evade bombardments and snipers, according to rebel sources and diplomats in Beirut.

“They withdraw from an area, Hezbollah moves in, then they use attack tunnels to come out behind Hezbollah’s lines and attack them in the rear,” says a European diplomat in Beirut with good access to Syrian rebel factions.

Shiite villages under siege

In retaliation for the offensive on Zabadani, the Jaysh al-Fatah rebel coalition, which includes Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, launched a campaign against Fouaa and Kefraya, two besieged Shiite villages in Idlib that continue to hold out after almost all the rest of the province fell into rebel hands.

Two other Shiite villages – Nubol and Zahara in Aleppo Province – are similarly surrounded and under siege. The fate of the Shiite towns and the need to remove rebels and their mainly Sunni supporters from core regime areas appear to have spurred Iran into launching negotiations with the opposition.

A Western diplomat working on the Syria conflict confirmed that negotiations had been held in which the Sunni populations of Zabadani and Waer, the last rebel-held district of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, would be permitted to leave for rebel-held territory in exchange for the transfer of the Shiite populations of Fouaa and Kefraya and possibly Nubol and Zahara to regime-controlled areas.

“The architecture of this negotiation – the swap and the guarantees [of safety] – is not clear yet. But there are definitely discussions and negotiations for Waer and Zabadani,” the diplomat says.

In 2014, the Assad regime struck an Iran-brokered deal with besieged rebels in Homs in which the latter were permitted to leave the city in exchange for the return of state control. There have been dozens of smaller local arrangements between Syrian troops and rebels, often agreements to leave each other alone. If an agreement is eventually reached over Zabadani and the Shiite villages, it would be the largest of its kind since the conflict in Syria began.

The sectarian divide

However, on Wednesday, Ahrar ash-Sham  said it was pulling out of the talks with an Iranian delegation because of the demand that Zabadani be emptied of its Sunni residents.

“The plan for sect-based displacement – emptying Damascus, its surroundings, and all the areas along the border with Lebanon of Sunni presence – is now in its final stages,” Ahrar ash-Sham warned.

The statement intersects with recent unconfirmed reports of Shiites, many of them foreign nationals, settling into areas of Damascus and Homs in an attempt to alter the demographic balance in what is mooted to be a future regime-controlled enclave in western Syria.

Ahrar ash-Sham additionally called on rebel groups to “ignite all the fronts” to place greater pressure on Iran and the Assad regime. It remains to be seen whether the group will return to negotiations with the Iranians and the Assad regime. It did say that it would continue discussions with the fighters and civilians in Zabadani to reach a “consensus solution.” But if one is not found, the fate of Zabadani, Fouaa, and Kefraya could be bloody.

“Ahrar ash-Sham is opposed to Sunni ethnic cleansing, but not Shiite and Christian ethnic cleansing,” says Mr. Balanche. “It is attacking Fouaa and Kefraya because of Zabadani officially, but it is only a pretext. They hate the Shiites and they want to clean the area from them.”

Whatever the result of the regime-rebel talks, the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict is firmly entrenched. On Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleged that Islamic State militants had kidnapped or detained at least 230 people, including dozens of Christian families, after capturing a town in the central Syrian province of Homs, Reuters reported. Some of the Christians were taken from a church in the town of Qaryatain – near a road linking an IS stronghold to the Lebanon border area – which the militants captured after heavy fighting with the Syrian Army, the rights group said.

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