Syrian rebels say cease-fire deals are deceptive

The government is accused of treating truces like surrenders and using food as leverage.


To the starving residents and rebel fighters in the bitterly contested suburbs of Damascus, the offer from the Syrian government can be tempting enough to overcome their deep mistrust: a cease-fire accompanied by the delivery of food supplies, if they agree to give up their heavy weapons and let state-run news media show the government’s flag flying over their town.

However, residents and rebel officials in some of the communities described in interviews a disturbing pattern in which the government has used the cease-fires as cover for an operation designed to attain a victory it could not achieve any other way.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said this week that they would work for similar localized cease-fires — or rather, an internationally backed version of them — ahead of peace talks on Syria scheduled to open next week in Switzerland.

Kerry on Thursday also offered an unusual assurance that the United States had not pulled back from its goal of establishing a transitional government that did not include President Bashar Assad.

For Russia, the strategy builds on its effort to portray Assad as a responsible leader whom the West can deal with, begun last year with the deal to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad government, for its part, capitalizing on recent insurgent infighting to make advances on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, is eager to portray itself as offering mercy from a position of strength.

But up to now, rebels and civilians say, the picture is far different.

The government rains aerial attacks on areas that refuse cease-fire offers. People in places that accept can find themselves facing new demands: to turn over wanted men, give up their light weapons and accept a military governor.

Food is delivered piecemeal to retain the government’s leverage.

Rather than a mutually agreed cease-fire, one rebel leader said, it seemed “more like surrender.”

For cease-fires to become the start of a peace process, said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, they must offer rebel-held areas meaningful local autonomy and be enforced by Russia with the same muscle it applied to the chemical deal.

Up to now, they have been negotiated between local leaders and government-approved mediators. In those deals, civilians have been attacked and killed while trying to flee blockaded areas after promises of safe passage.

International aid workers say that the government has shown little commitment to the politically neutral delivery of aid.

Many contend that the government uses the truces more as a tool of surrender than as building blocks of compromise.

Qusai Zakarya, a rebel council member in the town of Moadhamiya, said it was painful to see Assad win by starvation what he could not with arms.

“It can destroy your soul before it destroys your body, make you feel helpless,” he said. “This is their idea of negotiations.”

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