‘They will do what they want to do’: How the Syrian regime has managed former rebel communities

Tuesday 19 February 201906:17 pm
It was not so long ago that the notion of negotiating with the Syrian regime was considered an untenable prospect to the residents of areas formerly under the control of the armed opposition. Whether the aim of such negotiations was allowing the entry of food supplies to besieged residents, opening closed crossings or reaching certain local agreements, such calls were often considered insufferable, and the fate of those who proposed such negotiations was sometimes assassination. However, when the regime’s sieges started to tighten on one opposition area after another, compounded in 2015 with the start of the Russian air force’s intensive bombardments of rebel-held areas - the increasingly-exhausted locals of the besieged areas started to soften their stance towards negotiations. In time a clear shift started to transpire, whereby “Local Reconciliation Truces” (and later full-blown “settlement agreements”) started to become a demand of some in rebel-held areas. One official involved in negotiating such a reconciliation agreement on behalf of former rebel-held areas in Southern Damascus, describe the change in attitude: “A few months before signing the agreement with the regime, we distributed 3,000 paper questionnaires to the population to find out whether they were indeed leaning towards negotiating with the regime. The result was that 76% of them wanted to negotiate – and that was before the last bombardments by the Russian air force in the area. After the bombardments, the proportion surpassed 90%.” Dozens of such agreements were signed in the countryside of Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Southern Damascus, Dara’a and other areas across the country. They were distinguished in form by only minor differences, and the key clauses and general template remained the same: evacuating those who refused to subjugate themselves to regime authority; surrendering heavy weaponry; and offering guarantees of safety to those who decided to stay. These agreements were signed by committees that represented the populations of the besieged areas. Yet following the implementation of the agreements, many of the very same committee members could be found amongst the first contingents of displaced residents to Syria’s north, arriving in the now-infamous “green buses” to the remaining areas still under rebel control. Others remained to share the fate of the residents on whose behalf they negotiated. Whilst some of these were sometimes targeted and intermittently subjected to accusations of “treachery”, they are today faced with a new and far more perilous reality. At a rate that has markedly intensified in recent times, many are being arrested by regime security forces - especially in the southern province of Dara’a, once the cradle of Syria’s revolt.

The emergence of negotiation committees and their former role

In general, the opposition-held areas that signed “reconciliation” settlements all underwent a similar scenario. First, communication channels would be opened with the regime, to be followed with the formation of a negotiations committee and the commencement of meetings with regime representatives. The drafts of the agreements would then be presented to the civil and armed local authorities in the area, before being signed and subsequently implemented. Abdullah Al-Hariri, one of the members of the negotiations committee for Southern Damascus as a representative of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), recounted: “The committees, particularly with their first representatives, did not include the notable religious, academic, or public opinion leaders in the areas they were negotiating for. Instead, they encompassed those who had the ability to reach influential individuals within regime circles - and those who had contacts on the opposing side who they could communicate with to try and obtain food supplies in the first stage [of implementation]”. He adds that the committees became more organised at a later stage, transforming into “negotiation sittings, in which [the aim would be] to surrender the areas with the least possible losses”. Delineating how the makeup of the negotiation committees would evolve, Al-Hariri said: “When the idea of negotiation was still in its early days, the original proponent of the concept in Southern Damascus, Shaikh Abu Omar Khalifa, was assassinated. After the siege tightened however, every segment began looking for a representative to negotiate on its behalf - leading to the increase in prominence of negotiators as intermediaries with connections to the regime, which in turn allowed them to occupy a social and political status in their areas since they were responsible for the entry of aid supplies to civilians and fighters. Thus, negotiators with the regime at a certain stage became leaders in their areas.” In Dara’a however, the situation was different, Hariri noted. On the one hand, negotiations were rapid and did not follow a period of prolonged siege, as took place in Southern Damascus and Eastern Ghouta. Omar Al-Khateeb, a journalist who was forcibly displaced from Dara’a following the signing of a reconciliation settlement in his area, said that the negotiation committees in Dara’a were initially founded by groups locally known as “the men of reconciliation” - individuals who negotiated with the regime after its latest military offensive there. On who constituted their membership, Al-Khateeb said: “Some of them were cooperative [even] originally with the regime and this was discovered afterwards; they had a large role in inciting the population against the [armed] factions, as well as spreading rumours”. Al-Khateeb marks the Russian entry into the negotiation process - and its request of the rebel factions to form a negotiations committee – as the moment which crystallised a split between the opponents and supporters of reconciliation. “Popular pressure was moving towards negotiation in order to cease the continued bombardment and destruction of the areas,” he said. “Subsequently meetings began and a settlement was reached”. Soon, the emergent situation in the northern countryside of Homs, which would be subject to threats of a pro-regime offensive, before agreeing to a settlement, would be replicated in Dara’a. Mahmoud, a member of the negotiation committee that represented areas of the Northern Homs countryside, who requested anonymity for security purposes, said that among the members of the committee were representatives of the armed and civil factions. “Some of whom had an intimate relationship with the regime, and indeed counted amongst them individuals who would leak the private deliberations of these committees before [even] sitting on the negotiation table with the regime,” he said. “Most of these committees were infiltrated, with each negotiating with the regime individually to try and attain the best conditions for its own area, whereas the regime was negotiating professionally as a single body, knowing how to impose what it wanted and how to infiltrate one committee or another.”

A new chapter: nullifying the settlement

The Syrian regime has lately begun to implement a new stage of the settlement agreements – one naturally absent from its provisions, but considered implicit by many who preferred displacement – namely, the stage of nullifying the settlement. Beyond the forcible displacement of those who refused to subsume themselves to regime authority to Northern Syria, along with the surrendering of heavy weaponry, the terms of the reconciliation agreements also entailed granting “settlement [identification] cards” to former rebels who surrendered themselves. Under these terms, former rebels were guaranteed that they would not be transferred to military fronts outside of their local areas – indeed, going further to even provision for their retention as a strong local security force. Furthermore, conscripts required for military service would not be taken to frontlines before a certain period had elapsed - granting some of them the right to obtain a deferral of service or choose to travel. Finally, the terms of the agreed settlement offered the guarantee that civilians would not again be subject to arbitrary arrest.   Ultimately however, the aforementioned promises which would serve as the main basis of “guarantees” within the reconciliation settlements - in which Russia would play the role of “guarantor” - have collapsed one after the other in all the “reconciliated” areas following the entry of the regime into them. Symbolising this de facto reality, a group of women arrested almost two months ago by regime security forces would include the wife of a member of the negotiation committee, then representing Dara’a. Indeed, activists and journalists have documented dozens of cases of arbitrary detention - which have not only targeted former activists, but have also expanded to include dozens of former members of negotiation committees, as well as former rebels who have been granted “settlement cards”. Recently, these cards have mutated into what could perhaps be more accurately described as “condemnation identifiers” - serving as witness to their holder’s past as a fighter in an opposition faction, and expediting the arrest of its carrier. One local journalist in Dara’a, Emad Al-Ahmed, has documented the arrest of dozens of former negotiation committee members and holders of settlement cards. “The current number of detainees from the negotiation committees exceeds twenty, whereas the number of settlement card carriers in Dara’a who have been detained has surpassed hundreds”, he said. “The regime is arresting those that it granted settlement cards on a daily basis and under various pretexts. Additionally, it has arrested those who have not yet enlisted in military service before the passing of the six-month period that was granted them as part of the settlement agreement.” Various charges are invoked under which former negotiation committee members are taken to detention camps: ranging from the theft and smuggling of antiques; working in unlicensed money transfer bureaus; possession of unlicensed weapons and building violations, among others. Some of those detained are released after a few days, only to be eventually re-arrested – a common occurrence according to local sources. Others remain in detention today. These events serve as testimony to the easy manipulation of the agreed settlement clauses, which some say was a reality known to the Russian “mediators” themselves from the start. Abdullah Al-Hariri said: “In our last session with the Russian officers, they told us: ‘the regime will impose its conditions, and will not accept except what it wants, and will not abide by its promises’. They used to indirectly communicate to us that none of us should stay in the area after signing the agreement.” He added: “They offered us, as a negotiation committee, to travel to Moscow to continue our lives there, which we rejected. We signed [the settlement] and went to Idlib knowing what the regime would do, and praying that those who remained can endure the upcoming injustice as they endured the hunger, deprivation and bombardments before”. Al-Hariri arrived at his evaluation after closely following the trajectory of the negotiation process. “It is laughable to call them negotiations,” he said. “We were only trying to guarantee our exit, and reduce the level of suffering that those who remained would live under, nothing more.” Evoking an incident that took place during the negotiation process, he said: “I remember that we submitted a paper [in the negotiations] asking that the regime does not enter our areas, and that they give us the right to govern our localities; the paper returned to us torn up via the Russians.”. The goal of the “negotiations”, he concluded, was obvious, and it was “evacuating those who did not want to stay, and ruling the rest by iron and fire.” Expounding on the likely fate of others who, like him, had also been members of the negotiation committees, following the implementation of the “reconciliation settlements”, Al-Hariri said he had no illusions. “Most of the committee members in Southern Damascus left the area, because they knew that the regime would not take it easy with anyone,” he said. The regime knows exactly who we were, knows that we are his enemies that were forced to sign reconciliations with it, knows that we utterly hated negotiating with it, but did so because we were negotiating to safeguard the safety of people. Of course, [it was clear that] it [the regime] would not be lax with anyone, especially the committee members, and it will arrest them, as has transpired recently in the countryside of Homs, Dara’a and elsewhere.” Al-Hariri left Southern Damascus after the signing of the reconciliation settlement and was displaced to Northern Syria and then Turkey, following eight years as a field doctor and political activist in an area that witnessed the harshest siege in Syria. It is still nonetheless the case that some committee members have not left their areas following the regime’s entry, and have also not turned into agents of the regime. Absent any political solution however, Al-Hariri’s prediction for their fate is a somber, morbid one. “Of course, their fate will be death or detention,” he said. “The regime entered these areas to implement its law, and will find a thousand excuses to arrest whoever it wants - whether it be those who sat with it to sign the “reconciliation” settlement, or those [former fighters] who hold settlement cards”.
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