Syria: Local Negotiations Collapse as Damascus Countryside Ignited

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Syrians take a picture at a public garden in Damascus on 3 September 2013. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Laith al-Khatib

Published Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Takfiri forces have sought to block any effort for a negotiated settlement in the Damascus countryside, most recently in Zabadani. Fighting continues to intensify outside of Damascus with the approach of a possible ‘grand settlement’ in Geneva.

Damascus Countryside – As soon as Western threats of intervention in Syria slightly subsided, battles in the Damascus countryside, which have not stopped since the Syrian army launched Operation Capital Shield, have returned to the fore.

Battles are expanding on a near-daily basis, to the extent of threatening to blow up all efforts made during the past two years to achieve some kind of accord in various parts of the capital’s countryside. Whether initiated by the inhabitants of these areas or government officials, these efforts were beginning to bear fruit with the popular mood shifting toward rejecting militarization and violence.

The paradox remains that each side in the conflict is seeking, through these battles, to make gains before Geneva II, as though violence is an inevitable path to a political solution.

A Series of Truces Buried

The city of Zabadani, located 45 km north of Damascus, is no stranger to political work. This small city is home to many Baathists, communists, and Syrian nationalists. It is open to all Syrians, being a summer resort renowned across the country.

Since armed clashes first began in the Damascus countryside, a group of Zabadani dignitaries and political factions sought to help de-escalate the tension, acting as liaisons between the government and the militants, and organizing indirect dialogues between the two sides.

Adnan al-Tall, one such member of the group, spoke to Al-Akhbar. He said, “We succeeded in achieving three truces during the crisis, though they did not endure because of the breaches by extremist forces on both sides. But we did not give up.”

However, substantial obstacles began to appear a month ago, after the mediators managed to secure approval for a meeting between the governor of the Damascus countryside – who chairs a committee tasked by the government to hold dialogue with opposition and pro-government forces – and militants in Zabadani. After the mediating group obtained the consent of both sides, two members of the group were assassinated, Majed Tinawi, mayor of Zabadani, and Ghassan Hajj Mahmoud, a retired officer from Zabadani.

Tall said, “The assassination took place in an area under the control of the militants, who pledged to identify the killers and hold them accountable. We believe that religious extremists had murdered the two martyrs, because they are opposed to the planned dialogue.”

After three days of mourning following the incident, the group of mediators resumed its efforts to bring about a settlement. However, the rising complexity of the current situation, due to the recent military operation in the countryside, has impeded mediation efforts.

“Submission to Allah”: The Battle Expands

New areas in the Damascus countryside have now been drawn into the heavy battles. In addition to eastern and western Ghouta, and Damascus’ southern suburbs, the fighting is quickly spreading to the northern suburbs of the Syrian capital.

In Qudsia, the Free Syrian Army has launched mortar rounds and attacked Syrian army positions, during which a general was killed with his companions. The Syrian army responded by striking at militant positions in the area, using heavy artillery and airstrikes.

Khalid Amayri, a resident of the area, told Al-Akhbar, “Our home was hit by mortars fired by the militants. We had barely escaped when all kinds of shells rained on the area, from both the FSA and the regular army.”

The area of Hama also saw similar clashes that are arguably the most violent of their kind since the start of the battles. Observers believe the battles will not subside, as was the case in the past, and will instead continue, until militants are pushed back completely.

During the past 48 hours, fierce battles erupted in the Qalamoun area, where the armed opposition launched a battle it dubbed “Submission to Allah.” The group called Liwaa al-Islam launched an attack against the 81st Brigade of the Syrian army near Ruhaiba, seizing armed vehicles, according to opposition sources.

In the meantime, the Syrian army continued shelling the positions of the armed opposition in Ruhaiba out of the 14th Battalion posts. Shelling also continued in Yabroud, the Rima farms, Madaya, and Baqqine, in parallel with fierce battles in the northern Damascus countryside. The Syrian army also sustained its attacks on armed opposition outposts in the southern area in Daria and Zabadani, while clashes broke out in Kuswa, south of the capital.

The Syrian army continues to make slow progress in the eastern Ghouta, with clashes reported in Jobar, south of the Electric Company and east of Manasher roundabout. Clashes also took place in the farms surrounding the towns of Qasimiyah and Deir Salman in the eastern Ghouta. This effectively puts 90 percent of the Damascus countryside in the battle zone.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army was able to kill around 40 militants belonging to al-Nusra Front as they attempted to slip into the eastern Ghouta, according to the opposition al-Sham network.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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