Tentative Russian ceasefire undermined in East Ghouta as Syrian warplanes slam Douma

AMMAN: After Russia reportedly presented East Ghouta rebels with a 15-day ceasefire as a goodwill gesture slated to begin Thursday, the Syrian regime conducted an offensive on Douma the same day, killing the city's only remaining coroner while denying that a ceasefire had been reached.

Hours after the ceasefire was supposed to go into effect, the Syrian regime pounded the rebels’ stronghold of Douma in East Ghouta Thursday with nearly a dozen airstrikes, cluster bomb munitions and mortars, all while attempting to storm the city from the ground.  Six people were killed, including the city's only remaining coroner, and 75 wounded, reported the Unified Medical Office for Douma.

While none of the brigades ruling territory in East Ghouta issued a statement about the alleged Russian-sponsored ceasefire, a senior rebel advisor said Moscow was in fact behind it.

“Russia emphasized that it would present the initiative from one side [i.e. rebels did not have to agree] as a goodwill gesture, a 15-day ceasefire, during which the rebels could decide their final position concerning a [longer-term] ceasefire,” Osama Abu Zeid, legal advisor to the Free Syrian Army, told Syria Direct Thursday. The initiative was slated to begin Thursday morning.

“What was negotiated was a ceasefire, not a truce as some websites have claimed—that is to say, there were no conditions such as prisoner exchanges, or releasing detainees—just a ceasefire and the entrance of humanitarian aid,” said Abu Zeid, adding that “the ceasefire initiative was relayed through a go-between” to the rebels.

The spokesman for Jaish al-Islam's (JAI) Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hamza al-Bairaqdar, told Syria Direct Thursday that “a ceasefire proposal was presented on behalf of an international go-between” to rebels, and that JAI, the most powerful rebel faction in East Ghouta, was “studying the topic in the leadership council, but nothing has actually happened yet.”

Syria’s Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar denied that a ceasefire agreement had been reached in Ghouta in a video circulated Thursday by pro-regime Lebanese channel al-Mayadeen.

“The air force continues to bomb armed groups' locations on the outskirts and middle of Douma,” pro-regime news outlet Damascus Now reported on Thursday.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Thursday that they had no information about Russian participation in negotiations between the “armed Syrian opposition and the Syrian government” over a ceasefire in East Ghouta, Joanna Paraszczuk, a journalist with Radio Free Europe who tracks Russian-speaking jihadi groups in Syria, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“The MOD would surely flatly deny it if it were not true, rather than bother saying they have no information,” she added.

It was not immediately clear whether Russia offered the ceasefire unilaterally or with Syrian regime support. Nevertheless, public opinion in East Ghouta, just east of Damascus, appears to be largely in favor of a ceasefire proposal. The entire region of towns and villages has been encircled and effectively cut off from the world without power or water since June 2012. The tight cordon prevents anyone and anything from entering the area.

Ten civilians who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday and Thursday, among them two doctors, emphasized that residents long for an end to the fighting “after the sheer amount of blood that has been spilled,” Saeed Fuleitani, head of the SNC's office in Douma, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“After the sheer amount of blood that has been spilled, and the civilian victims—especially women and children—the entire street is with a ceasefire,” Fuleitani said.

“A ceasefire is a beautiful thing because it will stop the flow of Syrian blood, and is the beginning of a solution to get rid of Assad's regime,” said Anas al-Khouli, a resident of the town of Masraba.

“I'm in favor of anything that stops the destruction, the bombing,” Waleed a-Doumani, a former resident now living outside Syria, told Syria Direct Thursday.

"My mom is in Douma with her parents. My heart breaks for them. They're getting killed, they're getting wiped out, and no one feels for Ghouta.”

Back-room negotiations

Jaish al-Islam was a main participant in the ceasefire negotiations, according to five high-level military, political, judicial and media opposition figures who spoke to Syria Direct Wednesday and Thursday.

“There have been meetings recently between military brigades and civilian entities with respect to negotiations; the last of these meetings happened Wednesday night, when Sheikh Samir al-Kaka [JAI's religious judge, qadi sharai], confirmed that a ceasefire would start 6am Thursday,” a source who attended al-Kaka's meeting and requested anonymity told Syria Direct Thursday.

Jaish al-Islam is known for its opposition to negotiations with the Assad regime. High-level figures in JAI vehemently opposed rebels signing a truce with the regime over the Shiite villages of Kafriya and Fuaa, and the rebel-held Zabadani, in August and September.

Rebels' willingness to enter this round of negotiations is due to the fact that “previous offers were offers of surrender, they were not ceasefires,” said the spokesman for Jaish al-Islam's (JAI) Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hamza al-Bairaqdar.

When pressed on whether JAI's apparent shift in policy was related to the upcoming international conference in Vienna to pursue a political solution to the Syrian civil war, two Jaish al-Islam spokesmen refused to provide Syria Direct with a definitive answer.

Jaish al-Islam appears to be repositioning itself toward a more moderate stance regarding a future Syrian state in recent months. In a May interview with McClatchyDC, JAI head Zahran Aloush said he favored a future “technocratic, professional government,” a departure from his previous denunciations of democracy while calling for the establishment of an Islamic state.

One senior rebel official as well as a second high-ranking opposition political figure in Douma, both of whom insisted on anonymity, explained the contradictions in Jaish al-Islam’s stances to Syria Direct on Thursday: JAI seeks to hold onto its revolutionary credentials on the home front, while at the same time demonstrating its political flexibility and sway before the international community.

As for the other East Ghouta brigades, FSA legal advisor Abu Zeid told Syria Direct that they are hesitant to sign any ceasefire agreement that does not contain sufficient guarantees against regime offensives.

“There are [rebel] efforts for the agreement to include both East and West Ghouta,” Abu Zeid said. “Some rebel brigades fear a ceasefire for just East Ghouta, because the regime will simply move its forces and equipment to West Ghouta, for example to Daraya.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.