Amid Geneva failures, Syrian rebels and army agree new Damascus truce

Published February 18th, 2014 - 06:45 GMT

Syria’s army and rebels have agreed local truces in key flashpoints around Damascus, despite regime and opposition representatives failing to make any progress in Geneva peace talks.

In the southern suburb of Babila, AFP journalists Monday saw rebels and soldiers – all armed – in conversation, which would have been unthinkable just days ago.

The local truces come 18 months into fierce fighting in and around the capital that has led rebels and President Bashar Assad’s forces to compromise, with neither side able to clinch victory.

Besides Babila, deals have been struck for Moadamieh, Qudsaya, Beit Sahm, Yalda, Barzeh and Yarmouk – a former Palestinian camp.

Negotiated by public figures, the accords involve a truce, a siege being lifted and food allowed in to rebel-held areas, with opposition fighters handing over heavy weapons and the regime raising its flag.

A new agreement is reported to be in the offing for Harasta, a rebel bastion northeast of Damascus, and talks over Daraya to the southwest are also under way.

An AFP journalist visiting Babila accompanied by official regime escorts saw dozens of cheering residents chant: “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!”

There was widespread devastation. On Babila’s main street, every single building had been either destroyed or damaged.

Regime troops raised the flag Monday over the municipality in Babila, which was a rebel rear base until several months ago when the army laid siege to it.

Armed rebels were still present, as the terms of the pact also included an amnesty, a security source said.

Rebels in military fatigues stood idly around, chatting with soldiers. There was no shooting or shelling.

But rebels did protest during the symbolic hoisting of the regime’s flag, chanting: “Syria is free!”

Troops countered with: “God save the army!”

Graffiti on Babila’s walls called on the regime to release prisoners.

As bulldozers cleared away rubble, Damascus province Governor Hussein Makhluf pledged that public services would be restored to the ravaged area. “We can feel the sons of the nation uniting,” said Makhluf, blaming “foreigners” for the conflict.

Assad told AFP in January that such truces could “be more important than Geneva.”

Last week’s second round of the so-called Geneva II talks, sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, ended with no result and no date set for a third meeting.

Hungry Babila residents were grateful for the truce. One visibly exhausted man in rags told AFP: “This will allow me to eat, to buy food. I really hope the truce works.”

Tens of thousands of civilians in rebel areas have suffered for months under suffocating sieges. Some 100 people, notably in Moadamieh and Yarmouk, are reported to have died because of food and medicine shortages.

Activists say the truces come as the army turns to siege tactics after being unable to neutralize pockets of resistance, and as rebels failed to break into Damascus proper.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has long campaigned for the sieges of rebel-held areas to be lifted, calling the tactic a “war crime.”

“A real cease-fire serves the interests of all sides, whereas what we are seeing is the regime impose its will by starving people,” head of the Observatory’s Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

One Damascus activist calling himself Adam said the cease-fires have strong local backing from residents forced to pay exorbitant prices for basic needs, amid skyrocketing inflation and corruption. He said even those who wanted to see the rebels fight to the death have not opposed the truces.

“But there’s a difference between a truce and reconciliation. There is no reconciliation, at least not yet. As for the future? God only knows,” Adam told AFP via Skype.

Elsewhere, the Observatory cited reports that the commander of an Islamist militia was killed in the Yabroud region during clashes with regime troops, paramilitaries and Hezbollah fighters. Two other rebels were killed in the clashes, while the regime’s shelling of the town killed one man and wounded a number of others.

A Lebanese security source told The Daily Star that the campaign against rebels in Yabroud was “moving slowly but surely,” with an aim to limit civilian casualties.

The source said that Yabroud was now isolated from its supply lines leading toward the Lebanese town of Arsal.

“ Hezbollah hasn’t taken a decision to enter Yabroud for now, and the clashes are on the outskirts of the town” as the rebels try to break the siege, the source said.

In the province of Hama, the Observatory said that army troops seized the village of Maan, where it was claimed that rebels earlier this month committed a “massacre” of Alawites – opposition activists disputed the claim at the time, saying the dead were paramilitary fighters.

In Aleppo province, Alaa Jabbu, head of the rebel Kurdish Front, which has long battled the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), was killed in army shelling.

The Observatory reported that a jihadist of German origins was killed alongside other fighters in a bomb blast in the rebel-held town of Manbij, also in Aleppo province.

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