‘The people reject any evacuation’: Some residents of rebel-held south Damascus want out of Four Towns Agreement

An estimated 4,000 residents flooded the streets of rebel-held south Damascus on Wednesday to protest of the Four Towns agreement. [Read today’s full report on the agreement here.]

The deal between Syrian regime and rebels in Jaish al-Fateh—an operations room including members of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—was brokered last month by Qatar and Iran, Syria Direct reported at the time.

As part of the agreement, all residents of pro-Assad al-Fuaa and Kufraya will leave their rebel-encircled towns in Idlib province. The rebels will move in and take over al-Fuaa and Kufraya. Simultaneously, in Outer Damascus, rebel fighters in Madaya and Zabadani, along with any civilians wanting to leave, will depart for rebel areas. The Assad regime and its allies will take over Madaya and Zabadani.  

Though the deal focuses on these four towns, two clauses relate to the besieged rebel areas of south Damascus. The first ushers in a nine-month ceasefire, which began on March 28. The second stipulates that fighters for Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, a member of HTS, will evacuate the Yarmouk camp, south of the capital, at an unspecified date.

 Protest in south Damascus town of Babila Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Revolution’s Spring.

At Wednesday’s demonstration in Babila, an opposition-held town in south Damascus, residents called for an end to “forced displacement” and demanded that the region “not be lumped together with the Four Towns agreement,” Matar Ismael, a citizen journalist who protested, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali.

The people and the rebels here reject any evacuation,” says the 27-year-old, originally from the south Damascus town of Beit Sahm.

Q:  On Wednesday, thousands of residents in besieged southern Damascus protested the agreement to evacuate Madaya, Zabadani, Kafariya and al-Fuaa. Why are you and your fellow residents opposed to this agreement?

We protested the inclusion of south Damascus in the Four Towns Agreement without any input from the political committee that serves as a representative for the region. We do not want our situation tied to international negotiations, and we reject any representation of this region by Jabhat a-Nusra, known today as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

[Ed.: In August 2016, Jabhat a-Nusra announced they had severed ties with Al-Qaeda and changed their name to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS). JFS is now part of the Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. One clause of the Four Towns agreement stipulates that “fighters for a-Nusra” will be evacuated from the Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus.]

The agreement indicates that there will be a ceasefire in the [south Damascus towns] of Yelda, Babila and Beit Sahm for a period of nine months.

The protests are, of course, against forced displacement and demographic change as well. The people [of south Damascus] are against any talk about evacuating the area—this was clear in the political committee’s negotiation with the regime.

These negotiations didn’t lead to any results on the ground.

[Ed.: The last negotiations between the South Damascus Political Committee and the regime were on January 13, 2017.]

Demographic change is a strategy we must stand against, by all means possible. In south Damascus, we have organized a number of activities to confront the planned [demographic change], including a roundtable discussion attended by 75 local activists.

Q: In February, Syria Direct interviewed Madaya resident Dr. Mohammed Darwish who told us: “We’re ready for this suffering to finally end, and we’re prepared to do so by any means necessary.” If residents have decided to evacuate for their survival, why are you protesting the agreement?

It is the right of Madaya and Zabadani’s residents to decide the fate of their towns, but the [passage] of this agreement certainly doesn’t mean residents are for it. The international [community] has been incredibly weak and silent in the face of this displacement project.

As for us in south Damascus, our reality is not the same as that of Madaya and Zabadani. The people and the rebels here reject any evacuation.

The goal of the protest was to reject the inclusion of south Damascus in the agreement and the processes of forced displacement and demographic change whether here or anywhere else. But no one has the right to dictate what the people of Madaya and Zabadani should do, especially considering their tragic humanitarian situation. We hope that no new forced displacement will take place, that the sieges will be lifted and that there be an end to displacement.

 “South Damascus is not for sale.” Photo courtesy of Revolution’s Spring.

Q: Are there fears among southern Damascus residents that a similar agreement could be put into place in the opposition-controlled towns of south Damascus?

Yes. The regime in the past few months has tried to put pressure on south Damascus in order to impose what they call a ‘national reconciliation.’

This is a political battle, and it’s a game of last man standing. The political committee has offered up several proposals to reach a solution with regime about the future of south Damascus. But in the end, we never reach any agreement and nothing becomes a reality.

Q: What do you think residents of rebel-controlled south Damascus hoping to accomplish? Do you believe that large-scale political change can be accomplished through protests and the voices of civilians?

Certainly—what the people want is for our region to not be lumped together with the Four Towns agreement, and for this not to be turned into an international affair. The only representative of this region in negotiations is the political committee, not a-Nusra, Iran or anyone else.

We don’t deny the possibility that this agreement might be arbitrarily imposed on this region. But we will stand against it, because that is the consensus in the area.

Q: The inclusion of south Damascus in the agreement allows for humanitarian aid to enter the besieged region. Does this affect your view of the deal? Could talk about what the humanitarian situation is like right now in south Damascus?

A few days ago, Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid trucks entered. When people learned that these trucks came as part of the Four Towns agreement, they called for the demonstration. We refuse to be bought by humanitarian aid.

The humanitarian situation in south Damascus is bearable for now. There are enough good and basic necessities. Prices are close to those in the capital. Things were terrible in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but they’ve been improving since a year and a half ago.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.