Local Truces Are Syria’s Sad Little Pieces of Peace

The U.N. special representative has called for local ceasefires in Aleppo and elsewhere to start building a broader peace. ISIS, of course, will have none of it.

Ahmed Deeb/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — One afternoon in February, I was on the outskirts of Damascus, in a shopping mall that gleamed like easy money and casual modernity, when three men from the Harasta neighborhood entered, looking as if they had just stepped through a wormhole.

They were Harasta’s deputy mayor and two rebel fighters, dressed in ratty military fatigues, and they had crossed enemy lines, leaving behind their embattled home ground to meet with representatives of the government and talk about the possibility of a truce.

A short while earlier, another suburb, Barzeh, not far from the mall, had finalized a similar deal with the government, ending a brutal siege and starvation campaign in exchange for rebels agreeing to give up their weapons. The Barzeh truce sparked outrage from commentators aligned with the opposition, who viewed it as little more than capitulation. But so far the peace was holding, and for some residents of other miserable suburbs, where progress in the rebellion had been stalled for a year, a break in the hostilities suddenly didn’t look so bad.

Sitting at a long table in the mall’s food court, the men from Harasta stared at the bounty of greasy food stacked before them—plates of hummus and salad from Mamma Mia’s, fried chicken from Honey Bunny’s—and they hardly touched a thing. “It’s hard to eat this,” one of the rebel fighters said quietly. Under the table, I could see that his combat boots were actually black sneakers, frayed at the seams. “There are people back at home who have no food at all, children even. A meal like this would cost $2,000.”

The deputy mayor, Suleiman Salas, nodded. For many years before the war, Salas worked as a tour guide, taking visitors from the United States and Britain across a country he clearly loved to share. “Palmyra, Krac des Chevaliers, Afamia, the Umayyad Mosque—I took them everywhere,” he said, speaking to me in English. He apologized for the rustiness of his language skills. “I haven’t used my English in three years,” he said. Since the war started, he added, he hadn’t left Harasta once, except to come to meetings like this one.

“I will give you two words: Enough blood,” Salas said, when I asked him why he had agreed to talk to his enemy. “It doesn’t require any more convincing. We are at a dead end in a meaningless war, and we are paying the bill for this fighting every day. There are teachers who have become martyrs on all sides. We must stop the killing, and not look back.”

Nine months on, could the desire to put an end to the wretchedness of war plot a path out of Syria's four-year conflict? This hope is the centerpiece of a new plan for a “freeze” in the fighting in Aleppo, the major city in the north that is one of the final urban bastions of the revolution. The United Nations Special Representative for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, announced the project this month and last weekend brought it to Damascus, where the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promised to “study” it.

“If that ‘freeze’ works, and we hope it will, then this could be a building block for a political process,” De Mistura told the press Tuesday. “The alternative is more tragedy, more suffering, after almost four years of a war where there are no winners and no losers expect one major loser, which is the hope for peace in this region, and the people of Syria.”

The opposition’s criticisms of De Mistura’s plan echo its complaints about the earlier deals in the Damascus suburbs: The peace comes too much on the government’s terms; it grants the opposition too little; it looks an awful lot like surrender.

“Until the regime is prepared to recognize the liberated territories and the legitimacy of the political opposition, you don’t have a space for a sustainable process that could lead to a truce on the ground,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition coalition. “There already is a legal basis to pursue a political process and it is to acknowledge that Assad doesn’t have the right to rule.”

But there are also reasons why some rebels might, beyond their defiant rhetoric, be willing to entertain a deal: As in Harasta and Barzeh, the stalemate in Aleppo over the past few years has depleted the city and the rebel movement, while delivering little but suffering and tragedy. Across the north of Syria, moderate rebel brigades have been aggressively challenged by more radical groups like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State. And the regime army, despite bearing significant costs of its own, has been lately making advances on rebel-held frontlines in Aleppo.

“First of all, you are saving lives, and that matters,” said a source who has worked with the De Mistura team on the truce plan. “You’re admitting that there’s no military solution to overthrowing the regime, you’re conceding that probably. But what we’re also talking about is saving the opposition. They’re about to get their asses kicked in Aleppo, and this is about preventing the regime from taking Aleppo, not returning the city to the regime.”

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Aleppo’s plight is both familiar and poorly understood. The city’s once-vibrant population has been decimated by death and exile—down, by some estimates, as much as 90 percent, to 200,000 or 300,000 people. In rebel areas, the regime air force regularly hits apartment buildings with barrel bombs—improvised steel canisters filled with explosives and scraps of metal—killing anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way.

The economy in Aleppo barely exists, and the attitude of those who remain hovers somewhere between defiance and defeat. “Some say that they don’t want to leave, while others say that they can’t,” wrote Christoph Reuter, a reporter for the German publication Der Spiegel, who visited Aleppo in September. “If death has an appointment with them, he will find them, they say. If he doesn’t, he won’t. So they stay put and wait.”

The regime, meanwhile, has its own incentives for halting the violence in the city. Despite its recent gains on the battlefield, the fight against rebel brigades has taken a significant toll on the government army. Inside the city, civilians in government-held neighborhoods are also regularly bombarded by rebel groups, who fire mortars and gas-filled canisters that kill just as indiscriminately, if with less deadly efficiency than the barrel bombs. And while electricity currently flows almost nonstop on the rebel side of the city, Reuter reported that on the government-held side there is often as little as two hours a day.

Most of the details in De Mistura’s plan are yet to be worked out, people familiar with the talks say, but broadly it would include a halt in the hostilities between the sides, and permission for civilians to move back and forth, something that is currently all but impossible. Unlike the circumstances in the Damascus suburbs, where truces arrived only after rebel neighborhoods found themselves largely encircled by the regime, both sides in Aleppo have their own lines of supply, and would be permitted to maintain them. (A spokesperson for De Mistura’s office declined to comment.)

Before traveling to Damascus, De Mistura visited Washington and Istanbul, where he picked up tacit approval for attempting his plan, sources say. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokesperson, said earlier in the week that the U.S. would “certainly support cease-fires that would provide genuine relief to Syrian civilians,” although she dismissed the previous efforts as one-sided deals.

“The Americans are happy to back it,” said a former senior American official who worked on Syria and is familiar with De Mistura’s plan. “They’re just desperate. They have no plan so they’re just grasping at any straw that flies by in the wind.”

The former official cautioned, however, that the plan still faced a high bar for success, and without a comprehensive effort to extend the truce beyond Aleppo, it was unlikely to bring about the larger goals of peace.

“Do they have a plan for how to translate a ceasefire into something more durable?” he asked. “No. Do they know how to enforce it if it actually happens? No.” An attack by al Nusra or the Islamic State against government areas of Aleppo could be all it took to destroy the fragile agreement, he noted. Wrangling the rebels will also be tough: Some rebel leaders say they only heard about the plan last week, when they were first contacted by De Mistura’s team. “I understand why Staffan’s trying it, and I suppose it’s worth trying. But it’s going to have a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

The lack of direct international oversight is another potential problem, analysts say. “The idea of local truces which are civil society- and government-managed, without any third, independent party, and without strengthened opposition groups, is actually a recipe for regime forces simply taking back space,” said Kristyan Benedict, a Syrian crisis manager for Amnesty International UK. “I’m suspicious of it, and the level of retribution the regime would be able to carry out.”

De Mistura and his team believe that any small portion of progress is something to endorse—and would gather support quickly once it came into effect.

“You need to build trust,” said the source close to his team. “Everybody wants it. But no one wants to be the first to admit they support it.”

A few days after the February meeting at the mall, Suleiman Salas was assassinated in the streets of Harasta. He had told me that his willingness to meet with the government had caused some residents to “call me a traitor,” but he was determined to do it nonetheless. He was shot twice in the head, his body left lying on a curb.

I had known when I met him that he had not said all he had to say, and I had hoped we could speak again, away from hovering government officials. “You can read my eyes for the truth,” he told me at one point at the mall, before he switched to speaking Arabic. All I saw in his eyes was exhaustion.

Despite the murder of Salas, the plan he had advocated went into effect, and an agreement was reached between the government and the western part of the neighborhood. (The rebels in the east refused to take part.)

Two recent studies by international monitoring groups, one by Daleel Madani, the other by Integrity Research, have looked at the truces around Damascus, and a more recent one in the Old City of Homs, and described them as somewhat successful, although in limited and isolated ways. The government has broken the ceasefires periodically, and it has not always lived up to the terms of the bargains, including the promised release of prisoners. “You have a positive outcome, people have better lives, but you also see that the regime is still doing what it’s always been doing,” said Wisam Elhamoui, a co-author of one of the studies, said of the situation in places like Barzeh.

We were sitting in a café in southern Turkey, where Elhamoui has come to live. “When I started working on this, I was optimistic that this could be an opening, that we could have something lasting out of it,” he said. “But the more you get involved in it, the more gloomy you become.”

Still, the urge to seek a return to normalcy remains powerful, he said, and could drive more people in Syria toward the truces. “A lot of people, even activists, if they could know that the regime would guarantee their safety, would promise to stop killing people, they would go home,” he said. “It makes sense, if you think about it, because they joined this revolution because they wanted to create a better life for their people, and this is not a better life.”