Syria’s ‘reconciliation’ deals near collapse

Friday 31/07/2015
Street protest during ceasefire in towns of Babila and Beit Sahm, in south-east Damascus

DAMASCUS - Silencing the guns in war-ravaged Syria hasn’t been easy since anti-regime pro­tests turned into a bloody and destructive conflict more than four years ago. But local cease­fires — something that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad describes as “national reconciliation agree­ments” — have been concluded here and there, giving opposition fighters and army forces well-needed res­pites.
However, such deals, necessary to allow the delivery of badly needed humanitarian assistance, proved temporary. They started in Moad­amiya, a western suburb of Damascus, and followed in other towns and neighbourhoods in rural Damascus and Latakia.
Mohamad al-Jiroudi, an activist from the town of Jiroud, north-east of Damascus, said ceasefire arrange­ments were imposed by developments on the ground and a status quo in hotspots and on the frontlines. He said Jiroud has been experiencing relative calm since 2014 under a deal reached between prominent figures in the town and government forces.
“However, the purported recon­ciliation, bragged about in the official media, is not a real one but a tempo­rary truce that served the interests of the opposing sides. The government wanted to reduce the number of fronts in which it is engaged and the (pro-opposition) inhabitants of Jiroud sought to spare their town from the wrath of the army’s military opera­tions,” al-Jiroudi said. In brief, the activist argued: “The reconciliation is tantamount to a volatile ceasefire that could collapse any minute.”
Although the fine print differed, the agreements were mostly similar, allowing rebels to maintain control of the areas, and desperately needed food supplies to enter, in return for handing over heavy weaponry and halting attacks by the rebels.
The accords were concentrated on Damascus and its surroundings. They included the Damascus neighbour­hoods of Barza, al-Medan, al Qadam and Sidi Meqdad, in addition to the suburban towns of Moadamiya, Babila, Beit Sahm, Qudsiya and Wadi Barada. Two neighbourhoods in the coastal city of Latakia — Hay al-Ramel and Konaines — were covered by deals reached between December 2013 and August 2014.
Youssef al-Dimashqi, an activist from Wadi Barada, said the local accords, which are at the centre of the government’s “reconciliation efforts”, provided for hoisting the Syrian flag, allowing fighters to set­tle their legal status and the displaced to return, as well as restoring water, electricity and communication ser­vices and removing government checkpoints.
“The truces are also very similar in terms of their volatility and could be violated at anytime… They are reconciliation accords only in the form, not the substance,” Dimashqi said.
“In Wadi Barada, the truce stipu­lated that the government forces would not interfere in the town at all, in return for pumping drinking water from al-Fija spring. But the accord was recently breached by the army in an attack on the town’s out­skirts, to which the militants retali­ated by disrupting water supply to Damascus.”
Al-Fija spring, the main source of potable water reaching Damascus, has been controlled for more than three years by armed groups and used as a weapon in the war. “The rebels cut off water supply to Damascus more than once, blackmailing the government until the latter agreed to their demands, which were mostly about releasing prisoners from the regime’s jails,” Dimashqi said.
In a recent instance, gunmen closed the taps in retaliation for an offensive that government troops, backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Hezbol­lah, launched against rebels in Zabadani. “This (water) is regarded as a perfectly legitimate weapon to change dynam­ics and the balance of power on the battleground,” he added.
The local ceasefires were becom­ing alarmingly precarious in more than one spot where “reconciliation” accords have been sealed. “For instance, simultaneous mass demonstrations protesting the offensive in Zabadani took place in Moadamiya and Barza, to which the army responded with artillery fire and bombing, putting the truces on the threshold of total collapse,” Dimashqi said.
A possible breakdown of the truces would place Damascus under serious threat of an opposition offensive.
“The situation would then return to square one, which is not in the interest of the authorities in Damas­cus,” according to an opposition activist identified as Sleiman.
“The government will have to exer­cise self-restraint and deal with the matter carefully because they cannot afford to reignite those fronts, espe­cially that the army is overstretched in such hotspots as Idlib, Deraa and Aleppo.”
“The Syrian government has ini­tially accepted with much grudges the armed groups’ conditions under the deals, fearing a large-scale offen­sive on Damascus, at a time its forces were scattered on several fronts across the country,” Sleiman argued, adding that the government “will probably revisit the accords once it has secured the distant battle fronts”.
In addition to water, electricity and natural gas supplies are being used as weapons in the war, al-Jiroudi noted. He said rebel groups, which have seized control of gas pipelines in the town of Mahsa, which supply power plants in Damascus, have been extorting money from the govern­ment and trying to win the release of prisoners.
Syria has had acute power ration­ing since mid-July with cuts reaching 18 hours a day in Damascus and other major cities. Analysts agree that the deals, which followed months of siege by the Syrian military in what oppo­nents have called a “surrender or starve” strategy, are not sustainable but are being constantly breached and will eventually collapse.
“Only the truce deals brokered in Latakia have been maintained with­out any breaches, simply because the area is still outside the blackmail­ing and pressure game between the government and the opposition, at least for now,” Sleiman contended.