Regime blames Turkey for ceasefire failures as protesters blame regime

AMMAN: The Syrian government blamed Turkey on Tuesday for the failure of negotiations and subsequent breakdown of ceasefires in Zabadani and Idlib’s Shiite-majority towns of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent two letters to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the president of the UN Security Council, currently Russia, on Tuesday alleging “logistical support and direct instructions from Turkish leadership” for rebels on the ground in Syria, official regime news agency SANA reported.

Turkey bears “responsibility for any crime committed by the armed terrorist organizations in the towns of al-Fuaa and Kafariya,” the ministry said, adding that “the time to act has come, instead of silence at the crimes of armed terrorist organizations and those who support them.” 

The statements come after two days of protests in pro-regime areas across the country calling on the government to save civilians blockaded in al-Fuaa and Kafariya, where rebels have stepped up an assault in Idlib province in recent days as the regime closes in on Zabadani, a rebel-held town that serves as the gateway into the Qalamoun mountains bordering Lebanon. The three towns are now inextricably linked as both the regime and the Victory Army leverage their gains to pressure the other side.

A temporary ceasefire in Zabadani and the two Idlib towns collapsed late last week following the failure of negotiations between Ahrar a-Sham rebels and an Iranian delegation in Turkey after the Syrian regime refused to release 1,500 female detainees as part of a potential deal, an Ahrar a-Sham source told Syria Direct this week.

The regime did not directly participate in the Istanbul talks surrounding the future of Zabadani and the last two regime-held villages in Idlib province, encircled by Victory Army rebels for about six months.

Days of sectarian anger

As the regime blames Turkey, protesters blame the government for not doing more to save the estimated 30,000 people in both Shiite towns.

The protests began in the pro-regime south Damascus town of Sayeda Zainab on Monday when as many as 150 Shiite protesters took to the streets in what pro-regime media called “chaotic demonstrations,” burning tires and blocking the Damascus International Airport road to protest regime inaction to break the rebel blockade of al-Fuaa and Kafariya, pro-opposition All4Syria reported.

Many Sayeda Zainab residents have familial ties to those in al-Fuaa and Kafariya, which Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham Victory Army rebels have bombarded since the collapse of the most recent ceasefire over the weekend.

 Shiite protesters in Sayeda Zainab block the Damascus Airport road. Photo courtesy of Nubul and Zahraa News Network

State media criticized the protests, blaming them on “young anarchists,” Damascus Now reported on Monday as well as the complete deterrence of others “out of fear of passing the demonstrators after seeing the fires they had lit.”

Burning tires blocked traffic until Tuesday morning, drawing the ire of some regime supporters.

“Whomever is sad for Kafariya and al-Fuaa, let him go and fight there, not block the airport road!” one Facebook commenter said below images of the protests.

Also on Monday, in the coastal city of Latakia 250km northwest of Damascus, demonstrators expressed solidarity with the encircled people of al-Fuaa and Kafariya, the local NZFK news network reported, raising signs decrying what they termed the “sectarian slaughter of the children of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.”

The Latakia demonstrators emphasized the vulnerability of civilians in the two Shiite towns, a view that starkly contrasts oft-repeated assurances from rebel groups fighting near al-Fuaa that al-Fuaa and Kafariya “resemble a military barracks, nearly empty of women and children,” an Ahrar a-Sham fighter told Syria Direct this past June.

In Homs, a group of armed men from Shiite areas west of the provincial capital cut off a main thoroughfare, piling rocks across the street and sitting in the road, pro-opposition All4Syria reported

The same site alleged that demonstrators raised sectarian slogans and called for the annihilation of the people of the adjacent Sunni, rebel-held district of Al-Waer, though the main purpose of the protest was, like other actions on Monday, to call for an end to the rebel blockade of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

In a related event, the local al-Fuaa and Kafariya News Network posted two images on Monday calling for Al-Waer to be targeted by regime forces. “The correct equation: Al-Waer in exchange for al-Fuaa,” one image read.

However, civilian anger at rebel advances and fears for those in al-Fuaa and Kafariya were accompanied by overt violence in Sayeda Zainab on Monday, opposition media alleged, as Shiite militias in the town shelled the nearby south Damascus Sunni town of Babila.

Eight shells struck Babila on Monday, injuring several people, grassroots news campaign Revolutionary Spring reported. The same site posted images of unexploded shells with the phrase “al-Fuaa Lions” written on them.

Babila and the neighboring towns of Beit Sahm and Yalda are areas under truces with the regime.

Also on Monday, a commander of the Imam Hussein Brigades in Sayeda Zainab released an announcement threatening to storm the south Damascus towns of Beit Sahm and Babila if Victory Army rebels’ assault on al-Fuaa and Kafariya did not stop.

Those threats did not translate into action, Matar Ismail, a Babila media activist told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “The situation is now calm; there is no sense of Shiite militias storming the towns.”

 Children at an al-Fuaa and Kafariya solidarity protest in Latakia City. Photo Courtesy of NZFK News Network.

Rebel advances ‘in exchange for Zabadani’

Monday’s protests occurred against a backdrop of Victory Army rebel advances on two positions near al-Fuaa and Kafariya after renewing their assault following the collapse of negotiations with the Iranian delegation in Turkey.

Ahrar a-Sham and allied groups fighting within the Idlib Victory Army operations room announced they had taken control of the village of al-Suwaghiyah, about 3km northeast of al-Fuaa in fighting with regime forces and allied militias early on Monday, pro-opposition Smart News reported.

A video posted on YouTube later the same day shows a commander of the al-Suwaghiyah campaign walking throughout various significant points in the town, including an electrical plant, a school and former regime fortifications, some of which hold the bodies of fallen regime fighters.

“We will not sleep as long as you are encircled,” the Sunni commander says, drawing a direct connection betweenhis efforts to move closer to al-Fuaa and the fate of rebels encircled in the Outer Damascus city of Zabadani by regime and allied militias since this past July. “Hopefully we will advance until the blockade is completely broken.”

Other rebel sources also connected the assault on al-Fuaa and Kafariya with the fate of their fellow fighters in Zabadani.

“Victory Army battles will continue in al-Fuaa and Kafariya unless there are any new negotiations or a truce,” a member of the Ahrar a-Sham media office told Syria Direct Tuesday, adding that the al-Fuaa advances were “in exchange for Zabadani.”

Opposition media also reported on Monday that the village of Deir al-Zaghab, due south of Kafariya and southeast of al-Fuaa, had also been captured by rebels, while the pro-regime Iranian news agency Alalam reported that the regime had repelled an armed attack on the area.

While a number of those who demonstrated Monday and Tuesday accused the regime and its allies of sitting idly by while rebels closed in on the towns, official regime news agency SANA reported that airstrikes had “destroyed terrorist dens and machinery” near the towns on Monday. The agency also claimed that regime forces killed “at least 64 terrorists” on Tuesday “during army operations in the surroundings of al-Fuaa.”

Opposition media has made no mention of the killing of 64 fighters, though heavy clashes were reported on the ground on Tuesday, and regime warplanes struck several targets in areas around al-Suwaghiyah and the town of Taftanaz near al-Fuaa and Kafariya on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

‘Future solutions’

Syrian parliamentary member Omar Awsa on Tuesday spoke of the potential for “future solutions in the days and weeks to come in al-Zabadani, Madaya, Baqin and Wadi Barada” in a statement published on the Syrian parliament’s website.  

“We do not have any information about future truces, and the battles surrounding al-Fuaa are ongoing,” Ahrar a-Sham spokesman Abu al-Yazid Taftanaz told Syria Direct on Wednesday, denying that there would be a truce in the near future.

The uncertainty around the three towns comes at a high price for regime supporters, whose family and friends are participating in battles and trapped by rebel blockades.

“Where are the planes? Our people are being slaughtered and our young men killed every day,” a sign held by a young boy at the Latakia City solidarity protest read on Monday.

“Where are you, decision makers? Where are you? Where are you, Iran? By God, we will not forgive all.”

Reporting by:

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.