Last week, Syrian opposition and regime leaders negotiated the continuation of a tentative cease-fire in Astana, Kazakhstan, with pledged support from Russia, Iran and Turkey. The latest in a string of many such agreements, analysts and citizens alike are cautious about its success. A new survey reveals why Syrians believe past local truces failed and also offers lessons for how the new nationwide agreement can avoid a similar fate.
The Day After, a Syrian nongovernmental organization based in Istanbul, interviewed 1,260 Syrian civilians, fighters and their families, to measure their views on the creation of local agreements, levels of satisfaction and consequences on their everyday lives. Conducted March 1 to April 19, 2016, the survey results debunk key misperceptions about these agreements, with implications for the Astana agreement.
The first truce, or “reconciliation agreement” as the regime called it, was brokered in the Barza neighborhood of Damascus in February 2014. Later that year, similar deals were reached for the rebel-held Damascus neighborhoods of al-Qadam, al-Asali and al-Qabun. The first agreements included neighborhoods of Damascus and the adjacent governorate of Rif Damascus. Then, parallel deals came into effect in the towns of Beit Sahem, Yalda and Babbila, six kilometers to the south. North of the capital, a truce was agreed in the city of al-Tal.
But how “local” were these agreements, and were they really more like terms of surrender?
Some researchers present the agreements as a bottom-up approach to peace that should be scaled up and replicated across Syria. Our findings, however, reveal that Syrians think many of these agreements were imposed on them from above. Most survey respondents indicated the agreement in Muadamiyat al-Sham — the city that witnessed the infamous August 2013 chemical attack — was dictated solely by Russian and Iranian officers after years of regime encirclement that left the city with barely any food supplies.
Responses reveal that nearly 80 percent of those in the city of al-Tal had no prior knowledge of the terms of the agreement that led to the forced displacement of hundreds of residents to Idlib. Al-Zabadani, a city in southwestern Syria, witnessed a truce only after Iranian fighters reached an agreement with the Ahrar al-Sham movement, mediated by Turkey. In Homs, 59 percent of the respondents said they know nothing about the agreements and terms of the truce.
Another common misperception is that local cease-fires are part of a regime plan to secure Damascus while appeasing international interest in a de-escalation of violence. This isn’t what those surveyed think. An overwhelming majority of respondents view these agreements as a tool of Iranian-aligned actors and believe that militias are trying to gain control of major cities, linking Syria’s coastal region with Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. When agreements relocate opposition fighters to rural areas easily targeted by airstrikes or Islamic State incursion, those surveyed see further proof of Iran’s plan to create a Sunni-free Syria. Following a two-year siege in Homs, a local truce transferred opposition fighters from the rebel-held neighborhoods of Khalidiya, Sebaa, Bab Hood, Jouret Shiah and al-Qusur to the northern countryside, which remains under siege.
Russian and Syrian state media portray these agreements as a “victory over terrorists.” However, to date, none of the negotiated agreements have included areas where extremist groups operate. Truce attempts failed in the neighborhoods of Tadamon and al-Hajr al-Aswad, which have been under Islamic State control since the end of 2014. Agreements also failed in the Yarmouk refugee camp, where fighters from the al-Nusra Front and Palestinian factions are present.
When asked about their satisfaction with local truces, 60 percent of those displaced to the northern countryside of Homs said they are either not satisfied or not satisfied at all with the truce in their areas. Less than a quarter of respondents said that they are satisfied or very satisfied.
The primary factor determining whether or not respondents supported the truces was the extent to which they believed the agreements would help end the conflict. Only 3 percent of respondents in the heavily besieged al-Waer neighborhood of Homs said that the truces would help end the conflict. Other factors that influenced responses included respondents’ social and economic status and how people thought the truces would affect their individual livelihoods.
Generally, the survey revealed that Syrians think these truces have been imposed by the regime in the wake of full-scale military offensives that included the use of siege tactics, starving civilians and shelling homes, medical centers, and public institutions such as commercial bakeries and schools. Once each targeted community had been sufficiently demoralized, Syrians who were surveyed said the regime then imposed truces that demanded the displacement of residents or fighters to northern Syria, specifically Idlib and Aleppo, and the confiscation of their property to prevent families of fighters from returning to their homes.
After formal political-negotiation attempts failed to yield substantial results, local solutions may seem an attractive alternate model. However, this survey reveals the major flaws of many of these local truces. Simply scaling these agreements up to a national level would likely cause the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, produce more conflict and entrench societal divides. Considering the perspective of those Syrians most affected by these truces may help future negotiators build on the local agreements’ positive aspects and avoid their mistakes.
Dareen Khalifa is the deputy director of The Day After.