DAMASCUS – Hanbali Street is the only barrier separating opposition-controlled areas from those under the Syrian government’s grip in Barzeh, a town in the northern outskirts of Damascus. Opposition fighters and their weapons line the sidewalks of every alley. Despite the relative calm, the buildings marked with bullet holes and remnants of past explosions are a reminder of the long battles that took place in this neighborhood on the fringes of the capital. But in Barzeh, the war itself has gotten tired.
In late 2012, rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of the Barzeh district, then home to about 50,000 people. For more than a year after the takeover, rebels clashed with pro-government forces, and civilians were pummeled by government airstrikes and artillery bombardment. In January 2014, government and rebel forces accepted a cease-fire agreement to end the bloody deadlock. Three years later, that truce is one of few to survive in Damascus, and has largely allowed residents to return to a semblance of normal life. Despite its imperfections, it is far more appealing than the alternatives.
Truces between the Syrian government and armed opposition factions are often negotiated when military tactics reach an impasse, and each party agrees to strict rules in order to avoid more casualties. According to a July 2016 report by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, 57 percent of people living in opposition-controlled areas are in favor of negotiating with the Syrian government to end fighting. However, 66 percent of them believe that the truces are not fair, and are weighted toward Syrian government interests.
“The situation is not great, but it is much better than being so close to a fighting front,” said Sanaa, a 27-year-old university student, who asked that her last name be omitted for security reasons. She returned to Barzeh with her family a few weeks after the truce was enforced.
In Barzeh, a committee of armed opposition fighters, government security officials and prominent local figures negotiated the agreement, which allowed rebels to keep light weapons and control over areas they had gained. Government troops had to withdraw from their posts in the neighborhood, including tall buildings that could be used as vantage points for snipers. In exchange, rebels agreed to maintain the cease-fire and keep the roads between the capital and other government-held neighborhoods unblocked.
The agreement enabled the government to secure access to a strategic road that passes through Barzeh and connects Damascus to the government-held towns of Ish al-Warwar and Dahiyet al-Assad, home to many government military officers. The road to the Tishreen military hospital also passes through Barzeh. Besides keeping the roads open, the terms of the agreement called on both government and opposition forces to remove mines they had planted in the area. In exchange, the government would return services like water and electricity, repair infrastructure and end its blockade of the area.
It has been three years since the truce, and life is still not completely back to normal for Barzeh’s residents. Government checkpoints scrutinize everything residents bring in to the area, enforcing limits on food and supplies despite the siege being theoretically over. Sometimes only one bag of bread per person is allowed in; other times there are limits on sugar and rice, Sanaa explained. Propane gas containers used for heating and cooking, for example, are not allowed at all.
“Many goods are banned for no reason,” said Sanaa, adding that women and children are often the ones who go grocery shopping as men still fear being detained.
The Barzeh truce is typical of many cease-fire deals in Syria, with both sides accusing each of other multiple breaches, or failing to implement all the agreed terms. Three years since signing the truce, the government has still not released the majority of detainees arrested in Barzeh; only a small number have returned home since the opposition demanded they be freed.
“Many feel that the agreed-upon conditions were not fair, especially since the government has not implemented many of the truce’s conditions,” Sanaa said.
However, the situation in Barzeh is calm enough for children to attend schools again, and the roads are secure enough for employees and university students like Sanaa to commute to and from downtown Damascus. And people are afraid of the alternative. “Everyone wants the truce to continue – and no one wants to return to the pre-truce situation,” Sanaa said.
Hell or Defeat
When a truce falls apart, residents of opposition-held areas face a resumption of government air raids, artillery bombardment and siege conditions. In some cases, a new “reconciliatory deal” is reached that involves the evacuation of fighters and their families, or sometimes, the district’s entire population.
The suburb of Qudsaya just west of Damascus had a deal similar to Barzeh’s, but renewed clashes resulted in the defeat and expulsion of rebel fighters who were transported by bus to the northern province of Idlib in October. Intense government attacks on the town turned its residents against the rebels living among them, according to Abdulrahman Fattouh, a pro-opposition activist who recently left Qudsaya.
“The majority of people were in favor of a solution that would allow them to live, and would keep the roads open,” he said.
These massive expulsions not only remove opposition fighters, Fattouh said, but also eradicate any potential social or political opposition to the government. Fattouh said he left Qudsaya with a group of civilians ordered to leave due to “possessing a jihadist mentality.” While some of those forced to leave were in fact jihadists, Fattouh said, “the majority were normal people, many of whom only worked in relief aid and medical treatment.”
The entire population of Darayya, another formerly rebel-held town outside the capital, was expelled in August 2016, after initial negotiations collapsed and clashes broke out between rebels and government fighters.
“A few weeks before the fall of Darayya, we were ordered to put all of our attacks on hold – rumors spread that negotiations were in place,” said Shadi, a 26-year-old man fighting for a pro-government militia near Damascus who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “When negotiations failed, the Syrian government put more military pressure on the city. We were ordered to intensify our attacks, both in number and in the weight of the shells. Air raids intensified as well.”
A few days later, an evacuation deal was reached for rebels and civilians. After nearly four years of a government-led siege without access to humanitarian aid, and continuous air bombardment that destroyed the town’s infrastructure, residents were forced to board green government buses to transport them to Idlib. They left their property and their possessions behind, which were later plundered by government forces.
As the government and its allies continue to clash with rebels in other Damascus suburbs, these past truces foreshadow what a larger political solution to the conflict could look like: fatigued and fragile.
“These truces lack justice,” Fattouh said. “Justice is the only thing that will help peace prevail.”