In two towns, residents say regime’s ‘kneel or starve’ campaign is long gone; ‘now it’s kneel or die’

AMMAN: The regime’s stated policy of “kneel or starve” in order to coerce rebel-held areas to surrender is taking a new form, residents of two small towns northwest of Damascus tell Syria Direct, in what they call the option to “kneel or die.”

On September 27, regime forces attempted to storm the sister towns of Qudsaya and al-Hameh, which sit alongside the highway from Damascus to Beirut. The FSA rebels ruling these towns—fewer than 200 in total—drove back the advancing tanks, and almost immediately thereafter agreed to begin truce talks with regime representatives.

As negotiations were underway in recent days, the regime and its Hezbollah allies continued shelling the two towns 10km northwest of the capital with mortars, tank fire and surface-to-surface missiles, hinting that airstrikes could also be launched at any time.

 “Yes to peace, no to war,” reads one al-Hameh protestor’s sign. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Revolution in al-Hameh.

Opposition negotiators expressed frustration to Syria Direct that the regime’s demands appear unclear and ever-shifting. Regime negotiators initially demanded the total surrender or departure of every rebel from the two towns, opposition negotiators told Syria Direct. Now, in addition to that, representatives are also asking that six rebel commanders, including two regime defectors, leave for rebel-held territory in Idlib province.

Rebel negotiators say that this demand cannot be met without proper assurances.

“These men are our sons. They aren’t ISIS or Nusra,” the negotiator said. “Letting them go isn’t easy, but it’s unimaginable without any assurances from the regime.”

Qais Al-Farwa, the regime’s lead negotiator, is reportedly “not even discussing the cessation of bombings at the negotiating table, much less making promises as to the safety of civilians nor to the lifting of the siege.”

Meanwhile, SANA, Syria’s state-run news agency, reported this weekend that rebel groups shot into crowds of protestors, “thousands of whom were demonstrating against the armed [rebel] groups that have opposed the accomplishment of the local negotiation team.”

One of the two defectors the regime is demanding to leave says that he is willing to do so.

“We care about keeping the people living here safe more than we care about ourselves, and we’re prepared to leave,” the defector, who asked that his name not be used, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “But the regime doesn’t know what it wants, and so every time it returns to negotiate, it comes back with new demands and always without any guarantees that the siege will be broken or that the civilians will be kept safe.”

 Aftermath of regime shelling Qudsaya on Monday. Photo courtesy of Qudsaya Media Team.

Without guarantees of safe passage out of Qudsaya and al-Hameh, rebels are refusing to surrender their heavy weaponry and allow the Syrian regime to rule the town.

Two civilians have been killed and dozens more injured over the course of the regime's daily bombardments and concurrent attempts to storm both towns. The majority of the towns’ residents are taking cover in underground bomb shelters. These tactics, says one of the opposition’s negotiators, amount to gunpoint diplomacy, or negotiating through coercion and the fear of death.

The regime “had been negotiating through a ‘kneel or starve’ campaign,” one of the negotiators, who requested anonymity, told Syria Direct. “Today, we’re way past that. It’s become a negotiating stance of ‘kneel or die.’”

Unlike other battle-hardened towns in Syria—such as Waer, Madaya or Darayya—the two sister towns of Qudsaya and al-Hameh have lived a less punishing form of encirclement.

Located on the western slope of Mount Qasioun in Outer Damascus, Qudsaya and al-Hameh have gone through periods of encirclement since the start of the war. Negotiations ended two previous encirclements in 2013. Talks have been unsuccessful in breaking the current and third encirclement, which dates back to July 2015, after an FSA faction reportedly kidnapped a Syrian army soldier.

Despite electricity and water shortages—in addition to a 95 percent unemployment rate—over the past year and a half, the nearly quarter million residents of Qudsaya and al-Hameh have maintained a tenuous peace with Damascus. This past May, 54 humanitarian aid trucks from Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations reached the two towns, reportedly due to progress toward reaching a permanent truce with the regime, Syria Direct reported

Since another round of active fighting began in August after rebels opened fire on a regime checkpoint in Qudsaya, local residents—unaccustomed to the daily realities of bombardment that typify other besieged cities and towns—are now divided over the truce negotiations with the regime.

Thousands of residents have taken to the streets in recent days to repeatedly protest, both for and against the negotiations.

On Tuesday, 3,000 residents silently marched from Qudsaya’s central square to the heart of al-Hameh in opposition to the regime’s ongoing shelling and the rebels’ unwillingness to acquiesce to regime demands. The march-turned sit-in dispersed in the late evening, and only after two barrel bombs exploded just 50 meters away.

A smaller demonstration earlier in the week demanded that towns’ negotiators not cede any ground to the regime, while others called for complete acquiescence in the name of a peaceful resolution.

“If agreeing to the regime’s terms means an end to this bloodshed, then I’m in favor,” Mahmoud, a resident of al-Hameh, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “If we don’t find a peaceful solution, then our situation will become just like every other encircled city.”

Even as the Assad government plants its flag in Darayya, drains Waer of its fighters and chips away at rebel strongholds in Aleppo and East Ghouta, the regime has demonstrated that negotiating peace with encircled pockets of resistance cannot be expected to follow a single trajectory.

For Qudsaya and al-Hameh, the recent spate of daily bombings alongside negotiations look more like an attempt to force the hand of residents.

“The regime negotiates through bombing the city on a daily basis with every weapon imaginable,” the opposition negotiator told Syria Direct. “It’s not just a tactic for putting pressure on the rebels to leave the city…it’s a means of forcing a total surrender and the rebels’ compliance with all their conditions.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

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.