*Since the beginning of the year, the Syrian government has been negotiating small cease-fires with community leaders in various towns and suburbs in Damascus. On Jan. 6, a deal was reached in Barzeh, which had been under siege by Assad forces since spring of last year.
Much of Barzeh, once home to 50,000, has been badly damaged by air raids, and looting has been prevalent. Hundreds of refugee families returning after the truce were distraught to find massive damage to their homes. Free Syrian Army officials in the town have complained that government checkpoints were keeping food aid from reaching civilians, but acknowledged that Assad’s forces had pulled back from several points.
We spoke to a civil activist and a regime loyalist for two different views of the event.*
The First View: A Civil Activist
Abu Ahmad is a 32-year-old civil activist from the Barzeh neighborhood in Damascus. He participated in the area’s anti-Assad protests before Barzeh came under a months long government siege. He says that the temporary cease-fire deals reached between community leaders and the Syrian army in the Damascus suburbs in January is nebulous: “It is neither a victory for the regime, nor is it a national reconciliation as the state media is claiming.”
Abu Ahmad says Free Syrian Army officials in Barzeh have been able to set their own conditions while negotiating the cease-fire, denying rumors that opposition forces will, as part of the agreement, join Assad’s National Defense Forces. “The rebels control most of the neighborhood, and regime forces aren’t allowed into most of its areas,” he says.
He adds that the rebels were able to set their own conditions, speaking of a “miracle” that happened in Barzeh. “The rebels have been able to hold regime forces at bay, causing them to sustain severe casualties. We might have accepted that the regime controls the edges of the neighborhood and its entrances – a thing we would have never accepted a few months back – but this is war. The blockade was too much to bear and the conditions of besieged civilians were dismal.”
Abu Ahmad says that despite gains, the government has failed to take full control of Barzeh. “This isn’t a reconciliation,” he says. “Barzeh hasn’t surrendered yet. This is a cease-fire until circumstances play in the revolution’s favor,” he says. “In any case, we have forced the regime to recognize us, and that’s a step in the right direction.”
In Barzeh, government checkpoints are set up close to new stops manned by the FSA. “The fact that the regime has accepted to have the FSA set up its own checkpoints, which civilians and Syrian army soldiers have to go through, is in itself a moral victory for the revolution,” he says. “No doubt it is painful for army soldiers who previously were shelling Barzeh to safely pass through FSA checkpoints. This is a cease-fire in an ongoing war, and this is the best that can be achieved [for now.]”
The Other View: A Regime Loyalist
Kassem is a 30-year-old soldier fighting for the Assad regime. Now on patrol in Barzeh, he fought on the front lines of eastern Ghouta. On a recent visit to the Tishreen military hospital, near Barzeh, he says he had to pass through a checkpoint manned by “militants,” which is how pro-government supporters here refer to opposition forces.
Kassem says that leading up to the truce, the battles in Barzeh were fierce. He considers the cease-fire proof of the government’s ability to coerce opposition officials on the ground, even though, he says, they failed in their quest for military control of the neighborhood.
“The army hasn’t been able to storm Barzeh,” he says. “Many of my friends were wounded or martyred in the battles, and if the Syrian army was willing to destroy the neighborhood to enter it, it could have easily done so. However, the cease-fire has forced the militants to recognize state authority, and this is an acceptable accomplishment for this phase.”
Kassem says he doesn’t believe the truces are a victory for the state, or that they present a solution for national reconciliation. “Let’s be realistic,” he says. “It’s impossible to take control of the Barzeh neighborhood without completely destroying it. Right now, this can’t be done. We have forced [the gunmen] to surrender while maintaining some of their dignity and restoring state authority. However, when battles resume at a later stage, the army will be able to storm Barzeh because [officials] now know everything about the militants there.”
Kassem recalls going through the FSA checkpoint as being “extremely painful and strange. Previously, being captured by them meant either death or being taking hostage. Today, they are forced to allow us to pass. It’s true that they may have killed some of my friends a few weeks ago, but today, they are subject to the state.”
Both Kassem and Abu Ahmad agree that the Barzeh cease-fire is neither a prelude to national reconciliation, nor a “victory” to be claimed by either side. Both men also say that fighting will resume, regardless of this cease-fire, and others reached in neighboring areas.
(Both Abu Ahmad and Kassem are pseudonyms.)