Syria brokering local cease-fires as U.S.-backed talks falter


A member of Syria's opposition, right, chats with a Syrian army officer in Babila in southeast Damascus on Feb. 17 after a local cease-fire agreement was reached. (Khaled Al-Hariri/Reuters)

As U.S.-backed peace talks crumble, the Syrian government has forged ahead with brokering small-scale cease-fires in the suburbs of the capital in an attempt to show that it is capable of reconciliation without outside interference.

In the latest instance, the government ferried reporters to the Damascus suburb of Babila this week to photograph rebels relaxing with government soldiers on the first day of a truce in the devastated neighborhood.

The local agreements are at the center of President Bashar al-Assad’s “national reconciliation” efforts and come as his government is accused of derailing talks between the two sides in the Swiss city of Geneva.

Although the fine print differs, for the most part the agreements allow the areas to stay in rebel hands and for desperately needed food supplies to enter, as long as heavy weaponry is given up and rebels agree to stop attacks. In some areas, foreign fighters have been asked to leave.

The war-weary suburbs that have agreed to the cease-fires have been subject to the Syrian army’s siege tactics for months, cut off by army checkpoints and pummeled with heavy artillery and airstrikes.

“This is about saying that we will reach reconciliation truces without foreign intervention, we don't have to go to Geneva for this,” Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said of the government effort.

First was Moadamiya, west of Damascus, a target of chemical strikes and starvation tactics, where rebels agreed to a truce late last year.

Since then, negotiations have gained pace, with cease-fires established in the suburbs of Barzeh, Yarmouk, Beit Sahm and Yalda. Discussions are underway in the opposition bastion of Darayya.

As with a similar U.N.-brokered deal in the city of Homs, residents have been offered a chance to leave the area.

Notably, in some areas the government has given assurances that it will not pursue opposition activists or those who sign declarations admitting wrongdoing and pledging allegiance to the state.

After spending 18 months under siege in Moadamiya, Qusai Zakarya, one of the most prominent activists in the suburb, decided to turn himself in this month. He had received threats from both sides. He said he was expecting to end up as one of Syria’s tens of thousands of political prisoners. However, he was held for 17 days by state security forces before being released, and arrived in neighboring Lebanon on Wednesday.

“I was shocked they let me go,” he said. “They are trying to send a message to the rest of the world that they can sort things out.”

The strategy potentially allows the regime to neutralize opposition areas and secure the restive suburbs of Damascus one by one, Carnegie's Sayigh said. "It's what they should have been doing all along," he added.

But a Western diplomat in Beirut, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive, said the cease-fires often look more like surrender.

“They starve the citizens more or less to death, then offer them terms for a cease-fire. So the main question is, is it a cease-fire? Or is it surrender?”

With no unified leadership, the crushed opposition has been unable to gain concessions such as the release of local political prisoners or any of its wider demands.

Those who are sticking to such demands are paying the cost, according to local officials. In Darayya, where rebels have rejected handing over heavy weaponry and want prisoners to be released, as many as four barrels packed with explosives fall on the neighborhood every day, said Munnahad Abu al-Zain, a spokesman for the local council.

“Now after the truces, the regime is not so busy and it can completely destroy the towns which rejected them,” he said. “We cannot blame any area that has reached such a point of hunger that it agrees to one, but of course it’s a stab in the back to the revolution.”

For the areas that do agree, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has ferried in supplies. Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations, said the organization has been able to deliver thousands of food packages to Barzeh, Babila and Beit Sahm over the past week.

“It looks like it’s working for the benefit of the people,” he said. However, he said, problems remain, and even when the government approves sending 1,000 food parcels into an area, soldiers at a checkpoint may stop them or allow in only half. “Sometimes I don’t know who is higher, the government or a checkpoint soldier,” he said.

How lasting such truces may be also remains a question. Rebels have been allowed to keep their light arms, and in some cases even heavy weaponry.

In Babila, after the government delegation left town on the first day of the truce, protesters took to the streets.

“Bashar is a dog! Bashar is a dog!” screamed one woman.

The opposition has been eager to stress that the cease-fire is temporary and does not mean reconciliation.

“What forces you to eat the bitter food is the food that’s more bitter,” said Bibars al-Abyad, an activist in Beit Sahm, describing why the agreement there was accepted. “But blood was not spilled for nothing.”

Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and Liz Sly in Gaziantep, Turkey, contributed to this report.

Loveday Morris is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.
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