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Will The Cease-fires in the Southern Suburbs of Damascus Hold?

Earlier this week, a cease-fire was struck between the government and opposition groups in the southern Damascus suburb of Babila.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

It was the latest in a series of truces to be reached in the area; others include Qudsaya, Moadamiyet al-Sham, Barzeh, Beit Sahem, Yalda and the Yarmouk camp, which houses Palestinian refugees. Analysts say negotiations have been led by well-known businessmen and former government ministers from each area, and involve the halting of sieges and food and aid being sent in; opposition groups are forced to relinquish their weapons.

We asked Valerie Szybala, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on Damascus and the south, and Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, to weigh in on whether the cease-fires will hold and how they fit into the government’s strategy in the suburbs. 

Syria Deeply: How are these truces coming about?

Valerie Szybala: The agreements are happening in several different places. They came as a result of the regime pretty much bringing people to their knees and then pushing lopsided cease-fires or truces on various communities. In many cases where I’ve seen direct reports on the terms of these truces, the regime went in with a “divide and conquer” mentality, where they sent in people who had lived in a specific suburb with the goal of targeting one or two community leaders and convincing them to agree to a truce to save civilian lives.

You have a lot of people who aren’t happy with the deals. And then you have people who are literally starving to death, and some of them want to give it a shot and say that the deals might be worth trying.

Faysal Itani: My sense is, this is what it looks like: rebel agreement to negotiate cease-fires, mostly because the pressure on the civilian populations is very high. In some cases these agreement favor the regime and are essentially rebel surrenders, but in others they’ve favored the rebels, and the latter have been allowed to operate and retain control over their respective territories. I imagine this depends on the balance of power in each area, and the priorities of the respective parties.

SD: What is happening on the ground now that they have been implemented?

VS: The neighborhoods are divided from one another, and they’ve been separated for so long that they can’t see what’s happening elsewhere. There are very few cases where the regime has opened the suburbs and allowed a steady stream of food and aid in so that people can be self-sufficient. They’re mostly doing this to subjugate civilians.

These truces are likely not sustainable and not a solution to the conflict. The regime needs a little peace and quiet, it needs [goodwill] headlines out of this, and it’s been good for them to have this appearance of goodwill during the Geneva talks. I also believe that the regime has pulled some troops out of Damascus right now to reinforce other battlefronts in the south, in the Qalamoun mountain area, and further north in Hama and Aleppo, so quieting things down in a little in Damascus is in their short-term interest.

In the suburb of Moadamiya, people are being hand-fed meals, and then right next door in Darayya, the town is being leveled by an unprecedented number of barrel bombs. To me this is not a sign of any real progress.

FI: The southern rebel front is undergoing a restructuring of some sort, in which foreign support is playing a critical role in shaping a new, moderate rebel coalition. This coalition, or Southern Front, appears to be concentrated on Daraa, Quneytra and the southern approaches to the capital city. So perhaps these are tactical cease-fires that the rebellion sees as part of the effort to consolidate and concentrate efforts and capabilities in the south?

SD: How will these truces be enforced?

VS: In addition to food and medical supplies, the government also controls electricity and fuel oil flow into these areas, so a lot of them really got cut off from the world. The government has tried to disarm armed rebel groups, and then surrounded each town and control the flow of people going in and out.

A suburb just to the north of the city center called Barzeh may be a bit of an exception. There are some indications that the cease-fire there was based less on civilians being brought to the brink, and more on a genuine standoff where the two sides were militarily matched. It seems the armed rebel groups there were able to keep their weapons, and that the deal was more of what a genuine armistice would look like. Assad’s National Defense Forces and armed rebel groups are now even patrolling together. But that’s not what you’re seeing now in the southern suburbs.

SD: And who are the opposition groups in these suburbs where there’s been a truce?

VS: There’s a huge mix in the southern suburbs. There is a Jabhat al-Nusra contingent. Some areas have been under siege for so long that new groups, like the Islamic Front, haven’t been able to penetrate as much as you might think. There are some unaffiliated groups who never joined with the Free Syrian Army directly, and then there are some local FSA battalions as well. Sometimes they fight well together, and sometimes they don’t get along at all.

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