AMMAN: New temporary ceasefires began in two Shiite-majority Idlib villages and the regime-encircled city of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside early Thursday morning, opposition media reported, for the second time this month as bilateral negotiations between Ahrar a-Sham rebels and Iranian negotiators continue in Istanbul.
“This evening, matters will become clearer,” an Ahrar a-Sham spokesman who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Thursday, referring to a meeting planned for later the same day. He declined to comment further on the details of the temporary truces.
One of the main obstacles to a permanent agreement remains “the Iranian request to evacuate all of Zabadani,” a request which Ahrar a-Sham negotiators have previously refused, said a journalist with local pro-opposition Ahrar Zabadani news network who asked not to be identified. The news network is not affiliated with Ahrar a-Sham.
After the first ceasefire ended and fighting resumed on August 15, Ahrar a-Sham announced they had broken off the Zabadani talks in response to Iranian requests to move the residents of Zabadani, Kafariya and al-Fuaa to other undefined areas.
The prospect of evacuating civilians from Zabadani amounts to “sectarian expulsion,” the Ahrar announcement read.
A Zabadani rebel rests during Thursday’s ceasefire. Photo courtesy of Mousa al-Omar.
Regime forces and allied militias launched an assault on the city of Zabadani just east of the Lebanese border this past July in an effort to retake it from rebels who have held it since 2012. The city is the gateway into the Qalamoun Mountains, which overlap into Lebanon. Hezbollah, and Iran by extension, are deeply invested in maintaining access to the mountain range, home to hundreds of foot paths, some so narrow as to only have room for one donkey to walk through, that are used for smuggling in and out of Lebanon.
After Zabadani came under threat from regime forces and their allies in July, Idlib countryside rebels chose to play their own card to pressure the regime over Zabadani.
Two weeks ago, Victory Army fighters launched a heavy assault on al-Fuaa and Kafariya in response to the failure of talks in Turkey, edging closer to taking control of the last regime-held villages in Idlib province. As rebels closed in on the towns a 72-hour ceasefire temporarily halted the fighting.
Victory Army rebels have encircled the regime-held Shiite villages since this past March. In an interview with Syria Direct in June, an Ahrar a-Sham fighter using the alias Abdul Rahman al-Idlibi said that “Kafariya and al-Fuaa might be, in the future, a card in the rebels’ hands.”
In addition to providing time for negotiators in Turkey to grapple with the sticking points standing in the way of an agreement on the future of Zabadani, Kafariya and al-Fuaa, the temporary truces provided for the evacuation of the wounded from all three towns, pro-regime news site Syria Scope reported Thursday.
Ceasefires went into effect “at six in the morning [Thursday], and regime forces abided by it,” the Ahrar Zabadani journalist told Syria Direct, adding that “all Wednesday night there was continuous severe regime bombardment.”
Thursday’s ceasefire temporarily halts regime advances in Zabadani, after a series of hit-and-run battles in which “regime forces took control of a large portion” of the city, the Ahrar Zabadani network spokesman said.
The push and pull between both sides around the three towns may well influence decisions made at the bargaining table in Turkey.
“After the failure of the previous negotiations,” Ahmad Karali, Ahrar a-Sham’s media director told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on Thursday, if an acceptable solution could be reached “in consultation with everyone, then all options are open.”