April 3, 2014
Since January of this year, pro- and anti-Assad forces have reached a series of tenuous ceasefire agreements in neighborhoods in and around the Syrian capital, with opposition fighters agreeing to surrender their weapons in exchange for government pledges to ease suffocating blockades around rebel-held areas. Most such truces have been observed half-heartedly at best, with regime and opposition forces in areas such as Yarmouk and Moadimiyet a-Sham accusing one another of violating the terms of their respective agreements.
An international aid convoy delivered aid to Barzeh in February.
The exception to this trend is the multi-religious neighborhood of Barzeh, roughly 7 kilometers northeast of Damascus, where a January ceasefire effectively put a stop to more than a year of bombardment that displaced large cross-sections of the population while reducing wide swathes of the neighborhood to rubble. The regime hopes that calm in Barzeh will allow it to protect a key military hospital and two Alawite-heavy neighborhoods adjacent to it.
“Life in the neighborhood has returned to normal,” says Waseem Mahmoud, a 25-year-old opposition activist based in Barzeh. He tells Syria Direct’s Firas Abd that Barzeh’s truce has held because “because of the long planning that went into it.”
Q: What can you tell us about conditions in Barzeh since the ceasefire was signed?
Life in the neighborhood has returned to normal since the ceasefire took effect. Shelling and all sorts of military operations have stopped, and the electricity, water and communications networks are back. People have started returning to the homes that they left.
Q: What are the conditions that have allowed Barzeh’s truce to succeed?
It has succeeded because of the long planning that went into it—the government had been designing this ceasefire for more than five months. Also, most of the opposition forces present here are natives of the area. Neither side has violated any condition of the agreement.
Q: Can you elaborate on why you think neither side has violated the truce?
The opposition has been left with no other choice. Support for Barzeh has essentially vanished, whether medically, militarily or in terms of food, and the media center there is extremely weak—it can’t convey the reality there, the magnitude of the destruction. The intense siege left them with no choice but to accept reconciliation and abide by it.
As for the regime, the first point is that in Barzeh, like all other areas, the regime wants to relieve itself of an active front while also presenting itself in a positive light in front of the international community. The second and more important point is that the regime wants to secure the Tishreen military hospital, which is considered the most important military medical installation in the region, and which rebels have exhausted with continuous attacks.
It also wants to secure the routes to Dahiyat al-Assad and Esh al-Worour, which are of great importance to the regime because they’re completely loyal to Damascus and because most of their residents are Alawites. It also has officers’ quarters.
Q: What are residents’ priorities as they return to Barzeh?
The neighborhood has been subjected to massive destruction over the past year—there’s no street or home that hasn’t been shelled. So most people are repairing or rebuilding their homes.
Q: Barzeh was surrounded by a complete blockade for months—how would you describe the neighborhood’s markets and the essential goods available before and after the truce?
Before the truce, Barzeh’s markets had nothing in the way of construction materials, medical supplies or even essential food and drink due to the regime siege. Since the truce, regime checkpoints have allowed people and all sorts of goods to enter the neighborhood. Shops have reopened and almost all goods are available.
Q: How was the truce coordinated between the two sides?
In terms of the checkpoints—opposition forces control the inside of the neighborhood, the regime has set up checkpoints along the borders, and the reconciliation committees have checkpoints in between them.
As for security issues, there was an agreement to grant residents inside Barzeh a general amnesty and free prisoners held by the regime, while opposition groups pledged not to attack anyone from the regime forces.