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Middle east

In Syria, local ceasefires end shooting, but at what cost?

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-27

While Syria peace talks in Switzerland crawl slowly forward, a different type of dialogue has been established on the ground in the war-torn country, where rebels and the regular army in several cities have agreed to ceasefires.

It is a phenomenon that is beginning to gain momentum. Truces have been signed in several Syrian cities, mostly in the province of Damascus, but local coordinating committees in the cities of Homs and Hama have also reported via social networks that they have concluded similar agreements.

"Yes, there has truces in Syria," a source who preferred to remain anonymous told FRANCE 24. "But they are not to the liking of everyone in the opposition; some refuse to recognize the deals.Most of the cities where there are agreements are around Damascus and were besieged and bombarded for months."

The most recent truce was agreed in Barzeh near Damascus in mid-January, but the source also cited the rebel strongholds of Douma and Daraya and other towns in the Ghouta region around Damascus.

At Moadamiyet al-Sham, three kilometers south of Damascus, a truce in late December broke a siege that had lasted for over a year and ended the daily bombardment. Food and medicine have reached residents .

"It’s working. Since the truce, not a single bullet has been fired in Moadamiyet al-Sham," said the source, who also emphasised that the local ceasefire gave the displaced, a third of the town's 15,000 population, a chance to return home.

These deals have been made for a variety of reasons, mostly humanitarian, but they follow a pattern. Rebels agree to hand over their heavy weapons while keeping their light arms. In exchange, the army stops shelling and allows the rebels to retain control of the area. The authorities allow food in and often restore electricity and running water.

After enduring bombardments and shortages the people in some towns have welcomed the truces, and the return of staple foods, with enthusiasm.

Regime stratagem?

One non-negotiable element of the agreements is that the rebels, who early in the uprising adopted their own flag, must hoist the Syrian flag over each town.

Fabrice Balanche, a Syria specialist and director of the Research Group in Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern studies at the University of Lyon, however, said that the demand that the official flag be flown where it could be seen as a sign of good faith was part of the regime’s strategy of using truces to retake territory, regain control and save its forces.

"Raising the official flag that the rebels view as representing the government is not only symbolic. The sight of the hated banner might make other rebel groups want to attack the town," Balanche said.

"Disarmed and weakened, those who have signed the truce might be driven to seek the protection of the army. That will further the regime’s objective of drawing them closer.”

This is precisely what happened in Khanasser, a small town north of Hama. After months of shelling and despite internal disagreements on the subject, the rebels in the city reached a truce with the army. As soon as the official flag was hoisted, the city was attacked by the al- Nosra Front, after which it had to seek help from the army.

The truces are recent a recent development and are linked to the rise of the jihadist groups,the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant and al- Nosra.

“After almost three years of conflict, the rebels that can be described as moderate are exhausted," said Balanche, pointing out that those groups who were supported by the West no longer receive aid, unlike the jihadists who are supported by Saudi or Qatari donors.

The more moderate rebels remain caught between a rock and a hard place: at  the mercy of the regime that is prepared to win the struggle by force, on the one hand, and the moderate rebels' former allies the jihadists, on the other,  with whom they have been at war now for months.

Limited by time and scant resources, the moderate rebels are less focused on fighting the regime in order to concentrate their struggle against the jihadists they view has having hijacked their revolution.

No easy decisions

The decision to surrender heavy weapons to the regular army was not made without opposition in Moadamiyet.

At the end of December, AFP reported that Abu Malek, an official of the town's local council, said that the few thousand people still left there were highly divided over this condition. Some believed the most important thing was to feed population, while others wanted to continue fighting the regime until the end and not surrender their arms.

Nonetheless, the condition was accepted  and the truces multiplying around Damascus are putting a stop the shooting and saving lives. For Balanche, such truces may foreshadow at least a part of a solution to the crisis.

While international diplomatic action is essential, Balanche said, the Syrian crisis will ultimately be resolved at the local level.
 

Date created : 2014-01-27

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