Syria: The Man Behind Qusayr’s Mediation Efforts

A Lebanese man stands on a dirt barrier which separates Lebanon from Syria in the Bekaa Valley region of al-Qaa in eastern Lebanon on 21 October 2011. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Doha Shams

Published Monday, May 20, 2013

On Sunday, the anticipated assault on the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr began. This put an end to the race to find a peaceful solution in the town, one that would safeguard its civilian population and lay the ground for future reconciliation by preventing further loss of life.

Before the latest assault, there were already clear signs that the attempts to reach a settlement had stalled, albeit other mediation efforts have managed to secure a safe corridor out of the town for many civilians.

The phone of Ali Zaayter was ringing off the hook. He’s one of the most prominent mediators working both with the militants holed up in Qusayr and the Syrian government. Zaayter hails from al-Qasr near the city of Hermel, which was hit by six rockets on Sunday, added to the 19 other shells that have landed on the city since the start of the conflict.

Zaayter took on his mediation mission out of his compassion for the civilians on the other side of the border, as well as for those within Lebanon. He believes that without coexistence, the region has no future. The solid and comprehensive relations Zaayter maintains with people on both sides of the border, their confidence in him, and his knowledge of the real geography of the region, which does not recognize the demarcations of Sykes-Picot, have all helped him out in his mission.

When he finally answered our call, Zaayter sounded tense. He usually communicates with the militants in Qusayr through Skype or telephone, and since Sunday, he has been stepping up his efforts to reduce “losses” between the two sides. Indeed, as a Lebanese who experienced civil war, he knows that limiting the bloodletting could help the cause of reconciliation after the guns fall silent.

“They have not been answering since Saturday,” he said. “The BBC said that they are in touch with me, but no one has contacted me since yesterday, unfortunately. We are trying but there has been no answer. We are still waiting.”

Zaayter seemed disappointed by the unresponsiveness of both sides. He said, “Saturday morning, we tried as peace-seeking mediators, without consulting any official party, to put together a large delegation of people from the Murshidi, Christian, and Muslim communities of Homs, and from Hermel and the villages adjoining Qusayr, in an effort to stop the war and take control of Qusayr, but to no avail.”

We had visited Zaayter on Thursday to cover his mediation efforts. On that day, Zaayter received a message via Skype from Qassem Zein, the negotiator from the other side.

The message read, “We have started forming dialogue committees as you proposed. A committee has been created, made up of retired officers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and dissident officers, and I convinced them to end armed manifestations, continue the struggle peacefully, withdraw all heavy weaponry, and cease fire.”

The message continued, “Unfortunately, the regime has not shown any good faith. The regime bombed Qusayr and one of the shells killed Sheikh Mahdi Abbas (one of the men assisting the reconciliation committee). Is this the kind of dialogue you call for? If the regime is not serious, then let us continue our fight and victory shall be for the oppressed. Are these not your principles?”

Back then, Zaayter shook his head dejectedly, and said, “A shell fell and a man was killed, and they accused me of causing his death!” When we asked what he intended to do about what had transpired, he replied, “I will call the negotiator to discuss the following idea: If the regime seems to be planning to continue putting pressure, then make up your mind quickly so that we can help you.” After that, he lost contact with them.

But on Sunday, Zaayter seemed reassured on the fate of the civilians. He reckoned that no more than 20 percent of the total number of children and women were still trapped in the city, and said that they were allowed to leave without any problems through regular army checkpoints.

But what about other civilians who are not women or children? Zaayter replied, “Well, on Saturday, May 11, there was an attempt to evacuate civilians who wanted to leave Qusayr, and the government gave them safe passage. But at the last moment, that effort collapsed. The fighters in Qusayr felt that if they let all the civilians go, then this might encourage the government to kill them.”

But didn’t they know that before agreeing to negotiate in the first place? Zaayter said, “Yes, but they did not realize that everyone wanted to leave. So the opposition fighters refused to let them leave, fearing this would turn them into ‘clean’ targets.”

What about the Syrian government’s attitude? Zaayter answered, “There are proposals that the government also rejected. For example, the proposal that the state can only send in the police, but not the army…was rejected by the government.”

We also asked Zaayter about what kinds of agreements were proposed in the past two days, to which he replied, “First, cease-fire. Second, every person wishing to remain in Qusayr must lay down their weapons. Third, every person who does not lay down their arms has two options: vacate the area, or battle with the government. Fourth, government institutions must be allowed to resume their work. Fifth, possibly offering compensation for rebuilding what has been destroyed.”

We then asked him: What would have guaranteed that the opposition would speak with one voice, when it came to approving a settlement? Zaayter said, “The group who has the final say is the Farouq Brigade.” Zaayter then claimed that the government, meanwhile, “is open to various settlements out of its determination to safeguard Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.”

By today or tomorrow, the Syrian government is expected to have retaken the entire town of Qusayr, unless something unexpected happens, given the presence of nearly “a thousand foreign fighters” there, according to informed sources.

These fighters may have had a role in thwarting a settlement between the opposition fighters and the Syrian government, despite denials from the former, as we understood from mediators we spoke to. But others reckoned that it was the “foreign connections” of these fighters to blame for the failure to reach an accord.

Observers expect the battles in Qusayr to end in the next 24 to 48 hours. So what will happen to the mediation efforts after that? Zaayter said, “I am at everyone’s service. The best outcome for me would have been for a peaceful solution to succeed. But at any rate, I still hope that I will be able to help arrange reconciliation on the ground.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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