POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 17, 2014
BEIRUT » To the starving residents and rebel fighters in the bitterly contested suburbs of Damascus, the offer from the Syrian government can be tempting enough to overcome their deep mistrust: a cease-fire accompanied by the delivery of food supplies, if they agree to give up their heavy weapons and let state-run news media show the government's flag flying over their town.
However, residents and rebel officials in some of the communities described in interviews a disturbing pattern in which the government has used the cease-fires as cover for an operation designed to attain a victory it could not achieve any other way.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said this week that they would work for similar localized cease-fires — or rather, an internationally backed version of them — ahead of peace talks on Syria scheduled to open next week in Switzerland. Kerry on Thursday also offered an unusual assurance that the United States had not pulled back from its goal of establishing a transitional government that did not include President Bashar Assad.
For Russia, the strategy builds on its effort to portray Assad as a responsible leader whom the West can deal with, begun last year with the deal to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons. The Assad government, for its part, capitalizing on recent insurgent infighting to make advances on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, is eager to portray itself as offering mercy from a position of strength.
But up to now, rebels and civilians say, the picture is far different. The government rains aerial attacks on areas that refuse cease-fire offers. People in places that accept can find themselves facing new demands: to turn over wanted men, give up their light weapons and accept a military governor. Food is delivered piecemeal to retain the government's leverage.
Rather than a mutually agreed cease-fire, one rebel leader said, it seemed "more like surrender."
For cease-fires to become the start of a peace process, said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, they must offer rebel-held areas meaningful local autonomy and be enforced by Russia with the same muscle it applied to the chemical deal. Up to now, they have been negotiated between local leaders and government-approved mediators with no known international involvement.
In those deals, civilians have been attacked and killed while trying to flee blockaded areas after promises of safe passage. The government and rebels blame each other. The government has repeatedly given permission for aid convoys to enter, then blocked them, as people continue to suffer and even die from a lack of food and medical care.
On Monday, a relief convoy to the Yarmouk camp, home to Syria's largest cluster of Palestinians, was forced by gunfire to turn back. The United Nations agency for Palestinian relief said that the government had insisted the convoy enter through the southern gate, requiring a dangerous drive through contested territory, not the more secure, government-controlled northern one.
International aid workers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect aid projects, say that the government has shown little commitment to the politically neutral delivery of aid. Many contend that the government uses the truces more as a tool of surrender - starving people and luring them into one-sided deals - than as building blocks of compromise.
The government allowed a month's supply of food to reach two besieged areas Thursday, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, apparently without conditions, days after the statements from Kerry and Lavrov.
The conditional truces elsewhere have helped the government by sowing division and mistrust inside opposition areas. In Yarmouk, the traditional Palestinian divide between the Hamas and Fatah parties has been replaced, one resident said, by a gulf between those for and against a truce.
"It's a very nasty way, but it was unfortunately effective," said Qusai Zakarya, a rebel council member in the town of Moadhamiya, who said opponents of a truce had ended up appearing to deny food to residents, although it was the government that had imposed the blockade.
"The message of Bashar al-Assad is, 'I can give you food and a secure life without shelling and bombardment,'" he said. "Few people still believe he can be brought down. I can't blame them, because they have seen things no one can handle."
It was painful, he said, to see Assad win by starvation what he could not with arms. "It can destroy your soul before it destroys your body, make you feel helpless. This is their idea of negotiations."
In Moadhamiya, the truce efforts began with an unlikely dialogue between Mother Agnes Mariam, the nun who rose to prominence with declarations that videos of the August chemical weapons attack were staged and now works on mediation efforts, and Zakarya, a former English student who nearly died in the chemical weapons attack. But it has dissolved into mutual allegations of lies and betrayal.
Three weeks after accepting a government cease-fire deal, Moadhamiya has received just one food shipment, residents said, enough for perhaps a meal apiece. Several thousand civilians were evacuated from the town under an earlier, equally rocky truce, but the departures stopped after shelling hit a group as they left and others disappeared into the jails of the security forces.
Mother Agnes says that 20 are still being held; Zakarya puts the number in the hundreds and says a government contact told him that eight had been executed. He says the government at first agreed to let locals keep light arms and govern themselves, but reneged.
Zakarya, who uses a nom de guerre to protect his family, said that after his criticism of the deal, one mediator relayed a message from a government official: "Shut up or we will shut you up for good."
In a recent interview in Beirut, Mother Agnes, who says she speaks with senior intelligence officials but does not represent the government, said that the plan was to let residents remain in "opposition, but peaceful opposition."
She said she could not control abuses that mar the deals, blaming people on both sides with an interest in continuing the conflict. "If 20 are still detained, should I not have evacuated anyone?" she said, adding that the more pragmatic in the government hope the deals will be replicated in many places.
A truce in Barzeh, on the northern edge of Damascus, looked promising on Monday. Government footage showed bulldozers clearing rubble and the local governor speaking to residents; rebel footage showed that their fighters were still present, neither shooting nor being rounded up. The deal was more voluntary there, a local opposition activist said; rebels were tired and wanted their destroyed town cleaned up.
But the deal is now in danger, the activist said, after the state news media falsely reported the rebels had surrendered, the governor denounced them as terrorists and eight fugitives from Barzeh were arrested. The cease-fire will not hold, he said, "without a real, real, real change of mentality."
On Tuesday, the local opposition committee in the suburb of Beit Sahem proposed to the government a cease-fire with local autonomy, according to a resident of a neighboring town familiar with the talks. People there were shot as they tried to leave under an abortive deal in December, but they are hungry, and ready to try again.
Anne Barnard, New York Times