Syria: Local rebels willing to compromise but are ready for all scenarios

Rebel fighters (C & R) walk with an unidentified gunman in the town of Babbila, a suburb of Damascus, during a cease fire agreement between the group controlling the town and the regime on February 17, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Louai Beshara)

By: Laith al-Khatib

Published Friday, February 21, 2014

The standing of over 500 fighters in Babbila has been resolved according to AFP. The agreement to resolve the standing of rebel fighters in the Damascus countryside has so far included a few thousand men. These fighters did not express concern over their fate after an agreement was reached. The agreement was done in a way to build confidence between rebels and the government, allowing them to confront crimes committed by foreign fighters.

Damascus countryside- The standing of rebel fighters is usually addressed at the outset of preparations for any compromise or agreement in the Damascus countryside. At first, mediators - made up of neighborhood elders or national reconciliation committees - give Syrian army officers in charge of the reconciliation process lists of the names of dozens of fighters. These officers come up with a plan regarding the fate of these fighters if they surrender to the army, which then puts the reconciliation process in motion.

This step usually serves as a token of how serious both sides are over the reconciliation efforts and as a way to gauge the mediators’ influence. Based on the success of the first step, the outcome of the remaining steps is determined by addressing the standing of the rest of the fighters who usually keep their light weapons under the leadership of the National Defense Force, which in turn falls under the leadership of the Syrian army.

Thanks to this process, the standing of a few thousand rebel fighters in the Damascus countryside was gradually resolved. In Madaya, located in the northwestern countryside of Damascus, the status of 500 fighters was resolved all at once. More than 150 fighters have turned themselves over to popular committees, or what has come to be known as the National Defense Force, in Qudsaya in the north of Damascus. The standing of about 20 leaders of armed groups and their fighters (who are estimated to be in the hundreds) in Barzeh, located to the northeast of Damascus, was resolved in the National Defense Force center in al-Mazzeh. The same scenario happened in Moadamiyeh and with hundreds of fighters in Western Ghouta as well.

Reconciliation efforts in many areas in the Damascus countryside began a long time before this latest success, but these initial attempts failed because “the political leadership did not adopt these steps in the past,” a known activist in the reconciliation efforts who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Akhbar. He added: “The truth is, the agreements began in the Damascus countryside as traps that some security agencies set up for the rebel fighters. Many of the fighters whom we convinced to return to national ranks, were entrapped and arrested by some security agencies.” This affected the credibility of all the national reconciliation committees, whether those belonging to the National Reconciliation Ministry or the ones created through popular initiatives. “Many members of the national reconciliation committees were assassinated by fighters to avenge what happened.” However, an opportunity came when an officer from the Syrian Republican Guard began to call reconciliation committees under orders from the political leadership to discuss the possibility of making reconciliation efforts work. Then they began making compromises.

The reconciliation committees spoke with rebel leaders who come from the neighborhoods where agreements were reached and they, in turn, took on the task of talking to the foreign fighters and to drive them out of the neighborhoods they were occupying.

Sheikh Anas al-Tawil, who is an activist in Babbila, told Al-Akhbar : “We have principles that govern these reconciliation efforts. The first principle is that there is no dialogue with foreign fighters.” In all the attempts to reach a compromise in the Damascus countryside, the difference in opinion was between the local and foreign fighters.

Rabih Mustafa, a fighter from Babbila, told Al-Akhbar: “As a result of contacts with the elders months ago, we received warnings from the Saudi, Tunisian and Libyan fighters, in addition to some Syrian fighters from al-Nusra Front, against pressing ahead with the dialogue with the reconciliation committees describing their members as Shabiha, i.e, regime thugs.” This infuriated fighters from Babbilah. “None of us agreed to describing the town’s sheikhs, mayor and elders as such.”

In the second phase, the foreign fighters tried to reason with local rebels after reconciliation efforts took off. They warned against the security agencies recalling numerous incidents whereby rebel fighters were entrapped. But the elders, in cooperation with the officers in charge of this issue, had taken this into consideration, “so they agreed to allow the fighters to keep light arms and to receive a monthly salary from the National Defense Army as we became members of it.”

The details of the reconciliation process convinced local fighters and the residents left in Barzeh, Babbila, Beit Sahem, Moadamieh, Qudsia, Madaya, al-Zabadani and al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp to take part in reconciliation efforts since they were slowly dieing of starvation and they did not see the point of military confrontations. This made foreign fighters, mostly from al-Nusra Front, face two options, either fight with the residents and the local fighters or withdraw.

“Although the scale tipped in favor of the second option, this did not prevent foreign fighters from expressing their opposition to the compromises in different ways. Some threatened retribution after victory and some of them decided to withdraw at inappropriate military times to teach those who demanded their withdrawal a lesson. Some expressed their opposition by assassinating figures that had called for a compromise.”

Rebel fighters who accepted reconciliation agreements do not fear being pursued or avenged by hardline security agencies in the government. Mohammed al-Moadamani (a pseudonym), a fighter from Moadamieh tells Al-Akhbar: “The government is serious about reaching a compromise. This conviction does not stem from promises, oral or written guarantees, but from the fact that reconciliation process is a comprehensive process.”

He explains that the process includes: determining the roles of the fighters, rehabilitating local infrastructure, the return of residents to their homes and the coverage of the event by the media. He adds: “The reconciliation seems serious. It is obvious that the officers from the Syrian Republican Guard who are in charge have instructions from the top to treat us well.” For Mohammed, they can still face the worst case scenario. “The weapons are still with us, according to the terms of the agreement to protect us from any hardline party whether they are foreign fighters or al-Nusra Front fighters or even from the other side."

Oddly enough, the process of these agreements included some civilians or those unable to carry arms. One such civilian is Ramadan Hijazi, originially from Daraya, whose left hand is paralyzed. He moved from Daraya to Moadamieh when he heard about the reconciliation efforts, hoping to get out of both areas. Ramadan tells his story to Al-Akhbar with a smile: “I went with a group of fighters to Mazzeh and we engaged in a dialogue there. Like the others, I vowed not to direct arms, which I never used, against the state.”

Today, Ramadan is living in Jdeidet al-Fadl and he doubts that his life is in danger. He is still in contact with the “good guys” among the officers in charge of this issue and the national reconciliation. Those familiar with the details of most agreements point out that concept of the fighter in the compromise reached includes all males between the ages of 15-55 because investigating to know the identity of those who carried arms is truly a complicated matter and might take a long time.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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