In an encircled Damascus suburb, rebels take aim at regime checkpoint as civilians pay the price.

Last Tuesday a small contingent of rebels opened fire on a regime checkpoint on the edge of Qudsaya, a town on the western slope of Mount Qasioun in Outer Damascus.

The attacked occurred at a regime-controlled checkpoint after government-allied forces reportedly launched a campaign of arrests, detaining tens of people at checkpoints around the town.

The repercussions were swift. The regime “heavily shelled” residential neighborhoods. A senior intelligence official came to the town and threatened airstrikes. The roads to and from Damascus were cut off, and checkpoints for now “are not allowing through any food,” Fadwa al-Homsi, a resident of Qudsaya, tells Syria Direct’s Shady al-Jundy.

Qudsaya was encircled in July 2015, according to Siege Watch, an independent monitoring group, after a Syrian army soldier was kidnapped by an FSA faction there.

The encirclement, still in place, is the third for the town, which met the same fate twice before in 2013, Qudsaya activist Omar al-Shami tells Israa Sadder.

Negotiations ended the previous two encirclements, but have not yet broken the third.

Interview with Qudsaya resident Fadwa al-Homsi

Q: How many fighters are in the city? Who are they affiliated with?

There are 20 militants in Qudsaya. They are originally from the town and belong to the al-Yazan Brigade, which used to be a part of Jaish al-Islam but split from the group after reconciling with the regime.

The young men who remain are from Qudsaya. But they weren’t brandishing their weapons nor did they control any territory. They were lying low to remove any pretext for the regime to begin bombarding the town.

 Photo from 2014 overlooking Qudsaya. Photo courtesy of Qudsaya Now.

Q: Describe what happened.

The clash started when rebels fired machine guns at the seven [regime] soldiers working at the checkpoint. The soldiers retreated to a nearby building. After the regime soldiers retreated, the rebels who opened fire on them followed them and surrounded the building. The two sides continued to exchange fire for several hours. Eventually the police and intelligence officials at a nearby post tried to end the siege on the soldiers, but their attempts didn’t bring any results.

By the time the battle was over, the regime soldiers had killed two rebels while losing one of their own. Additionally, a number of regime soldiers were injured.

Q: So why did the rebels withdraw?

Rebels withdrew when regime forces targeted residential neighborhoods with heavy shelling. At the same time the reconciliation committee intervened to stop things from escalating further.

All this came in addition to the arrival of General Jawdat Safi [Head of the Political Security Directorate intelligence agency], who threatened to use warplanes against the city if the opposition fighters didn’t stand down. This forced the opposition fighters to withdraw to avoid increased shelling of civilian areas.

As the scene concluded, ambulances came to take away wounded regime soldiers.

Q: What is the stance of Qudsaya’s residents towards the skirmish?

Despite that, the civilians don’t welcome military solutions, regardless of how bad things are. This whole area is surrounded by the regime’s security establishment, so any military action against the regime comes at a high cost to civilians. But the civilians have no way to control those who rush out to fight the regime.

Interview with Qudsaya citizen journalist Omar al-Shami

Q: What effect will this have on Qudsaya?

All roads leading to and from Damascus to Qudsaya have been cut off and checkpoints aren’t allowing through any food. The reconciliation committee is communicating with security officials to find a solution.

The security situation remains stable until now.

Q: Could you describe regime practices at the checkpoints?

Lately the regime-allied militias surrounding Qudsaya have subjected residents to strict searches at the checkpoints. But it’s more than just the searches; soldiers also blackmail residents. They will claim that the names of certain residents aren’t on the reconciliation committee’s list of those allowed to pass and take bribes to let them through.

Q: Who is on the reconciliation committee?

The committee is made up of members who have no allegiance to any faction and are committed to neutrality. It was created after civilians and opposition members in the area requested the formation of such a committee. [Activists in Qudsaya say the committee was created in 2012].

The mission behind the committee is to resolve the ongoing conflict between the rebels and the regime, and carry out negotiations necessary for a solution. For example, if a regime loyalist is arrested by the opposition, the committee negotiates with the opposition to solve the issue.

Q: What are the stipulations of the reconciliation agreement?

The stipulations are a commitment to a ceasefire from both sides.

Q: How did the clash affect civilians in Qudsaya?

Since the clash all the roads out have been closed. Civilians haven’t been allowed to enter or exit.

There has been a change in who is manning the checkpoints as well as the leadership at some of the checkpoints.

Q: Are there ongoing negotiations between the two sides?

As we speak, negotiations are taking place.

There is also a lot of fear of potential airstrikes. 

Shady al-Jundy

Shady is originally from Damascus but was raised in Hama. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in law before moving to Jordan in 2012. Shady wants to learn journalism as he believes in the strong ties between law and journalism, especially when it comes to the Syrian issue. He wants to use journalism to point out breaches of human rights laws and international protocols.

Israa Sadder

Israa was born in 1992 and is from Damascus. She moved to Jordan in 2012. She received a UNHCR DAFI Scholarship in 2013 and completed her Bachelor’s degree in the English language and literature at the University of Jordan.

David Leestma, Reporter/Translator

David Leestma studied International Relations at Grand Valley State University. His studies took him to Lebanon, as well as Morocco and Oman with the Critical Language Scholarship in 2014 and 2015. Before joining Syria Direct as a full time reporter, David interned with Syria Direct as a translator and collaborated with ISW to produce the Syria Situation Report.

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.