Rebels leave, but roads still closed as regime governor calls Qudsaya agreement a ‘pardon, not reconciliation’

AMMAN: A pro-regime journalist said on Tuesday that life “has returned to normal” in two Damascus towns that surrendered after nearly two weeks of heavy bombardment, while a resident who lived through the siege said that it “has not been lifted and roads have not been opened for residents.”

On Monday, multiple pro-regime media outlets reported thousands of Qudsaya residents filling the streets to receive a delegation that included the mufti of Outer Damascus, military officers and the local governor. In a speech before the audience, Outer Damascus Governor Alaa Ibrahim described the negotiated surrender as a “pardon, not reconciliation.” 

The delegation’s visit, a first in nearly five years, follows last Thursday’s departure of more than 600 rebels and their families from the two sister towns of Qudsaya and al-Hameh, which face each other on the Damascus-Beirut highway 10km northwest of the capital.

Qudsaya and al-Hameh have gone through periods of encirclement since the start of the war. Negotiations ended two previous encirclements in 2013. Last Thursday’s rebel evacuation may conclude the third encirclement, which dates back to July 2015.

 Qudsaya residents receive a regime delegation on Monday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

The evacuation of fighters to rebel-held Idlib province last week was the cornerstone of a deal struck with the regime, which followed two weeks of aerial bombardment, ground fighting and negotiations. The fighting killed at least 10 people, with dozens more injured. Barrel bombs and tank shells struck the only hospitals in the two towns earlier this month, part of what one rebel negotiator characterized to Syria Direct earlier this month as a “kneel or die” strategy to elicit their surrender.

Pro-opposition media has remained largely silent about the two towns over the past five days.

In accordance with the agreement between regime and rebel negotiators, 20 aid trucks entered Qudsaya on Monday, carrying food aid and other supplies for as many as 50,000 residents, according to pro-regime media outlet Damascus Now, and corroborated by an activist inside the town.

 Humanitarian aid reaches Qudsaya and al-Hameh on Monday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

The delivery is the largest since this past May, when 54 humanitarian aid trucks from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations entered the two towns. The delivery was reportedly permitted by the regime due to progress toward reaching an agreement with the regime, Syria Direct reportedat the time.  

A Damascus Now correspondent who has covered Qudsaya from outside the town—which has a remaining population of almost 200,000 residents—entered with the regime delegation on Monday and said that “the atmosphere is fantastic, and things have returned to normal.”

The entrance of aid “is a positive development, bearing in mind the bad conditions residents were experiencing under the oppression of armed militias,” Wisam Qassem told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “As a result of the agreement, the towns can now return to the bosom of the nation.”

The pro-regime news page Qudsaya Now reported on Monday that the town is entering a new phase. “We all need to forget the war, the bombings and the sound of bullets…We need to build bridges of love, peace and agreement with everyone because this is our country, and it’s our duty to protect it with our blood and our souls.”

One pro-opposition official in Qudsaya told Syria Direct on Tuesday that the regime “promised to lift the siege, release prisoners and open the roads in and out of the town after the rebels left.” None of these things has happened, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of possible reprisals.

“Getting aid is a cheap consolation for losing the city,” said the official.

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.

Mohammed al-Aseel

Mohammad was a law student at Damascus University when the revolution began. Originally from Daraa, he moved to Jordan in 2013.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.