Quite how or why it happened — and whether the calm that has descended will last — are matters of debate. Some here credit the fight put up by the rebels, while others say that an Arab League mission to monitor the violence appears to have pressured a previously unrelenting government into backing down.
Zabadani is by no means the first town in Syria where protesters and residents have effectively seized control. But it is perhaps the only one where the government has been obliged to observe a cease-fire, giving the residents respite from what they said were daily shooting and artillery attacks, and raids in which activists were detained.
During a visit Saturday by some of the Arab League monitors, residents could not hide their joy that Zabadani has, at least for now, become what they are hailing as a “liberated city,” the first since the armed rebel force began taking shape in the fall.
“It’s similar to Benghazi,” said Suleiman Tinawi, a sergeant who defected from the army and joined the rebels eight months ago, reflecting a widely held hope that Zabadani will serve a role similar to that of the eastern Libyan city from which rebels launched the war that toppled Moammar Gaddafi, with the help of NATO air support.
“But it’s not the same,” he said. “We can’t get weapons, and we don’t have help. We need a no-fly zone.”
The monitors’ visit offered a rare glimpse into the increasingly turbulent Syrian uprising, which is already evolving into an armed insurgency that many fear could spin out of control and become a full-blown civil war. On Saturday, there were reports of fierce clashes between rebel soldiers and army loyalists in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which hugs the edge of the capital. The official Syrian news agency SANA reported that 14 people had been killed when explosions struck a convoy carrying prisoners in the restive northwestern province of Idlib.
Activist groups said that about 60 bodies bearing marks of torture had been discovered in a hospital mortuary in Idlib, which borders Turkey and has emerged as a rebel stronghold. Videos posted on YouTube showed rows of disfigured, bloodied corpses, but who they were and how they died was unclear. Another 20 people were killed in protests and clashes around the country, activists said.
Zabadani is just 20 miles outside Damascus, which has so far remained mostly untouched by the protests roiling the country elsewhere, making its fall into rebel hands all the more striking. In calmer days, it was a popular summer destination for tourists from the Persian Gulf, who came to enjoy its cool climate and striking scenery.