AMMAN: The regime is throwing its military might at the Damascus suburb of Moadhamiyet a-Sham despite an active truce in an apparent attempt to force a rebel surrender and strengthen its position at the peace talks underway in Geneva.

Warplanes dropped 66 barrel bombs on Moadhamiyet Sunday, located 12km southwest of central Damascus, reported pro-opposition All4Syria Monday. Pro-opposition media widely reported that poisonous gases were deployed in the attack, leading to up to 100 cases of suffocation among residents.

Rebel-controlled Moadhamiyet a-Sham is located just southwest of the Mezzeh Military Airport, which houses the regime air force intelligence headquarters and serves as a detention center. To the east sits Darayya, a rebel-held town also under siege and continued aerial bombardment, which has not signed a truce with the Assad regime. Moadhamiyet and Darayya “drink from the same cup” as far as bombing and encirclement, Abu Ahmed, head of the Moadhamiyet a-Sham Media Center, told Syria Direct Monday.

After months of stalemate, the regime reportedly struck Moadhamiyet with chemical weapons in August 2013. Four months later, it was the first Syrian town to enter into a truce with the regime, after enduring a year-long encirclement leading to nearly a dozen civilians dying of starvation. It had become known internationally as the “starving suburb,” where residents survived on unripened olives and watery grass soup.  

As part of the 2013 truce, rebels handed over heavy weaponry while holding on to their individual arms. They also agreed to stop mounting further offensives into regime territory. In return, the regime was to open a passage into the city, allowing food and medicine to enter.

Moadimiyet e-Sham, February 2014. Photo courtesy of the Moadimiyet e-Sham LCC.

From the start, residents complained that the regime was not holding up its side of the bargain. Despite promises to the contrary, it only allowed small quantities of food and medicine into Moadhamiya, while prohibiting the entry of flour or medicine used to treat war injuries, according to a statement last year by the pro-opposition Moadhamiyet a-Sham Local Council.

When state media entered the city in February 2015 with rebel approval, intending to film a segment detailing how the truce had succeeded, residents staged a protest and embarrassed the journalist by talking about continued shelling of the city and their relatives still in detention, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Later that year, in November, the Syrian army and its allies began a new campaign to drive a wedge between the paths connecting Moadhamiyet a-Sham and neighboring Darayya. Last month, the regime was finally able to cut off the two towns.

Heavy aerial bombardment of Moadhamiyet a-Sham and repeated attempts to storm it accompanied that campaign, culminating on Sunday when warplanes dropped 66 barrel bombs, reported All4Syria Monday.

The escalation of hostilities coincides with the beginning of truce negotiations in Geneva between the opposition and regime, with international mediation, tasked with finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

The timing of the regime’s intensified bombardment is not a coincidence, Abu Ahmed, Moadhamiyet resident and head of the a-Sham Media Center, told Syria Direct. Is is a calculated move to force rebels into a surrender and dispose of an image problem elicited by the most recent example of a series of unfulfilled truces around Syria.

Moadhamiyet a-Sham will be at the top of the list “that the opposition committee will bring up at Geneva,” said Abu Ahmed. “It's the first city to enter a truce and is now suffering encirclement, starvation, barrel bombs and all other types of torture. The opposition will bring it up to the UN as an example of how the you cannot sign a truce or reconciliation with the regime.” 

The regime knows this, the journalist said, and should it secure a surrender from the rebels, “it will turn the tables on the opposition and say that in Moadhamiyet, things have worked out there, it's over, we've solved the problem between us and them and everything is under control.”

The regime negotiator charged with talking to Moadhamiyet rebels and residents is the head of the pro-regime al-Kawthar TV channel Rafiq Lutf, who recently began demanding a new truce under conditions “that resemble a surrender,” said Abu Ahmed. Lutf has called for the rebels inside the city, who were not required to leave under the terms of the truce, to hand over 10 men and 10 weapons a day in exchange for lifting the encirclement and ending the offensive.

A commander with Alwiat Seif a-Sham, a rebel group active in the city, confirmed that the regime has recently demanded that rebels surrender in an interview with All4Syria over the weekend. The regime relayed through its negotiating committee that rebels who wanted to stay must surrender their weapons, and others leave for northern Syria; should rebels not abide by the offer, the regime would begin bombing on January 29, which it did.

Rafiq Lutf, the television personality and regime negotiator in Moadhamiyet a-Sham, posted on his public Facebook page December 9 that “the time of reconciliations has ended—the coming days will bring full-on surrenders.”

The remaining 40,000 civilians still inside Moadhamiya are divided over whether to surrender, says Abu Ahmed. While some are committed to holding out, the prospect of hunger looms. “There are people who are only interested in food and drink,” said Abu Ahmed, adding that public opinion “is split about even.” 

One point residents do seem to agree on is the futility of the Geneva negotiations.

“We're not depending on Geneva or anything else, we'll wait for Geneva 25,” Abu Mohammed, a city resident, told Syria Direct Monday.

“How could that not be the case, when the West and Arabs have given Assad a medal for annihilating human and rock alike?” Abu Mohammed asked.  

"You no longer hear anything in Moadhamiya aside from the wail of hunger and the hellish barrel bombs.”