BEIRUT – In one besieged neighborhood after another, weary rebels have turned over their weapons to the Syrian government in exchange for an easing of suffocating blockades that have prevented food, medicine and other staples from reaching civilians trapped inside.
The local cease-fires struck in at least four neighborhoods in and around the Syrian capital in recent weeks have brought an end to the shelling and most of the fighting in the affected areas. While deep distrust lingers on both sides, in some neighborhoods the lull has prompted residents displaced by earlier violence to return.
The government touts the truces as part of its program of “national reconciliation” to end Syria’s crisis, which has killed more than 140,000 people since March 2011. But activists and rebels describe the deals as the final stage of a ruthless tactic President Bashar Assad’s government has employed to devastating effect: shelling and starving fighters and civilians alike in opposition-held areas into submission.
With two rounds of United Nations-brokered peace talks with the political opposition in exile failing to make any substantial progress, and neither side able to clinch a military victory, Assad may be counting on such local truces to pacify flashpoint areas around the capital.
The deals carry two additional benefits for Assad: they free up troops in his overstretched military to be shifted to fighting fronts elsewhere in the country; and they allow the government to present itself abroad as a responsible actor actively trying to broker peace at home.
“It’s important for the regime to have reconciliation,” said an activist in Damascus who goes by the name of Abu Akram. “They want us to submit or be hungry. They want to free up their troops for other battles.”
The exact terms have varied depending on the balance of power in each area, but the truces generally have followed a basic formula: the rebels relinquish their heavy weapons and observe a cease-fire in exchange for the government to allow aid into the communities.
In many cases, gunmen also have had to hand themselves over to authorities. Some have returned from government custody, others have not, activists say.
“Part of the regime strategy, virtually since the beginning of the armed struggle, has been to separate the people from the rebels. To try to break the connection between the rebels and their popular support base,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute.
The authorities have relied on individuals with good government ties from the respective communities to act as middlemen and shuffle between the sides to broker the agreements.
The first major deal was struck in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, where residents raised the two-starred government flag over the city in late December. The latest truce took hold last week in the capital’s Babila neighborhood, where news cameras captured footage of armed opposition fighters with full beards standing next to government soldiers in camouflage uniforms.
In between, cease-fires also have been struck in Beit Sahim, Yalda, Barzeh, as well as a shaky agreement in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. A pause in the fighting also allowed aid shipments in and civilians out of the Old City of Homs.
Rebels in Barzeh, a strategically located neighborhood in northeast Damascus where fighters had battled the military to a stalemate, wrangled the most favorable terms. Fighters there have kept most of their weapons, and now man joint checkpoints with government forces.
In most of the other areas, however, the truces swing heavily in the government’s favor.
In Moadamiyeh, for example, the military pounded the community with artillery and airstrikes for nearly a year. Government forces eventually encircled the town with checkpoints, then refused to allow in food, medicine, clean water and fuel.
Conditions turned desperate for the estimated 8,000 civilians still inside. Malnutrition was rife. Residents resorted to eating boiled grape leaves and raw olives because they had run out of food. Activists said children and the elderly were badly affected and frequently fell sick with illnesses exacerbated by hunger.
With little hope of breaking the siege, the town west of Damascus agreed in late December to the government’s terms. Since then, conditions have improved, and some residents who fled have returned. But the government hasn’t lifted the siege. Rather, it permits food shipments to enter in small batches, a tactic that allows the authorities to maintain their leverage over residents.
“The siege wasn’t broken, they still have their tanks and troops and checkpoints,” said Qusai Zakarya, an activist from Moadamiyeh who recently fled to Beirut after being held by authorities for 17 days. “Everybody who wants to go in and out should have their permission. It’s like a prison.”
He said authorities stopped food shipments into Moadamiyeh this week after the rebels refused to hand over all of the weapons the government demanded, and for siphoning some of the aid for residents to families from the nearby town of Daraya, which is still under government siege.
Daraya provides a stark example of the price of rebuffing truce overtures. For weeks, government helicopters have conducted a brutal aerial campaign to devastating effect, pounding the suburb with massive barrel bombs — large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal.
For rebels, the cease-fires are a particularly bitter tactic because Syrian officials paint the “reconciliation committees” as peace makers.
“It’s a submission strategy,” said a rebel in the besieged neighborhood of Mleiha who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Mansour.
While Mleiha has held out so far, Abu Mansour said he understands why some neighborhoods opt to accept the government’s terms, even if they are unfavorable.
“The people are tired. They will do anything to let in food,” he said. “I’m not talking about rebels. I’m talking about people: the barber, the grocer, the housewife. They are the people who are blockaded. They don’t have water. They don’t have food. They have no communication with the outside world. There’s nothing.”
White said the starvation and use of barrel bomb tactics have the effect of pacifying rebellious areas.
“It doesn’t necessarily transfer them to full regime control, but for the regime it’s working,” he said.
One place where a tentative truce has been reached to allow in small, intermittent shipments of aid is the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. The conditions there provide a window into the desperation weighing down all of the besieged areas.
The head of the U.N. relief agency that supports Palestinian refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited the camp this week, and described the haunting scene of emaciated and desperate people emerging from a cityscape of charred, blown-out buildings and gray, rubble-strewn streets to collect aid shipments.
“It’s like the appearance of ghosts,” Grandi said. “These are people that have not been out of there, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medicines, clean water — all the basics — but also probably completely subjected to fear because there was fierce fighting and noisy fighting going all along, and that was the most shocking point. They can hardly speak.”
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.