by Rhodri C. Williams
It is hard to read Syria these days. Hard to look as one horror rolls into another. And hard to understand the dynamic this creates in a population that knows something better, wanted something more and did nothing to deserve what they ultimately got. So, predictably, the day after I speculated that the Geneva talks risked become a pretext for a final ethnic cleansing of Homs in the guise of a humanitarian ceasefire evacuation, the talks collapsed and the ceasefire apparently continued.
Subsequent reporting, particularly by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, has provided a much clearer picture of how the humanitarian operation in Homs went, with UN personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) showing both courage and ingenuity in the face of direct targeting, most likely by pro-Assad regime militias:
Sources confirmed these attacks were the work of a local paramilitary group known as the National Defence Force determined to scupper a deal it saw as feeding and freeing their enemies. “All the devils in this crisis will always try to hinder our work,” Sarc’s head of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, told me on the telephone line from Damascus with a voice tinged with exhaustion and anger.
There are no angels in this war, only what one aid official called “good people in a very bad situation” on both sides of a bitter divide were determined to carry on.
By Wednesday, lessons had been learned. On the edge of the Old City, bundles of food and medicine were unloaded from lorries, and passed along a chain of Sarc volunteers on to two trailers. Supplies would be towed in by the UN’s armoured vehicles.
One of the most sensitive aspects of the operation involves the fate of about 300 “fighting age” men who left the besieged Old City of Homs along with the rest of the civilians evacuated. The willingness of the UN to go forward with the evacuation without guarantees of the humane treatment of fleeing men has been controversial from the outset. This issue, along with the failure of the regime to guarantee humanitarian access to other besieged areas and detention centers, led the ICRC to publicly withhold its support for the operation in Homs:
Evacuations are not the solution to every humanitarian problem, although the Syrian authorities and opposition groups must allow civilians to leave for safer areas. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to stay in their homes remain protected by international humanitarian law and must not be attacked. ….
Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families. In addition, our delegates should be allowed to register detainees so that we can follow up on their fate and whereabouts and restore and maintain family contact whenever necessary. We continue to negotiate with the Syrian authorities and other parties to have access to places of detention across the country.
However, as reported by both Doucet and the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, events took an unexpected turn early, beginning with a decision to release nearly one third of the detained men who signed “a pledge never to bear arms against the state”. As Dagher notes here, such leniency flows from the highest levels of the regime and involves a willful effort to recast the traumatized detainees as born again-Assad supporters, graciously spared the consequences of their own foolishness:
At a ceremony Thursday for those who were freed, the governor sought to allay their fears. He said President Bashar al-Assad was committed to forgiveness and reconciliation.
“This is the will of the leader of this country,” he said, flanked by the U.N.’s top representative in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, and Maj. Gen. Deeb Zeitoun, who heads a major intelligence agency. He was dispatched earlier in the week by Mr. Assad to help salvage the U.N. aid mission. They were seated on a stage adorned with portraits of Mr. Assad and his late father, former President Hafez al-Assad, in a high school auditorium.
“Do not be afraid at all. There is total commitment and readiness to facilitate your reintegration into the larger Syria,” Mr. El Hillo said to the released men.
They applauded dutifully as the governor spoke of the need to defeat “the foreign conspiracy” against Syria and soon “cleanse” the old quarter from combatants remaining inside.
In fact, trust appears to remain understandably low, as demonstrated by the terms of the release and its reception by opposition activists (cited in the same WSJ article):
Homs Governor Talal al Barazi, a regime representative, said all the released men must now get special clearance from the security agencies to travel abroad and all can be summoned anytime for further interrogation.
He had previously given assurances that they would be free to go where they wanted and to even leave the country. Those wishing to go to another rebel-held district in Homs called al Waer, which is under partial siege by pro- regime forces, must get special permission from one of the security agencies, the governor said.
“This is a ruthless regime and if these men do not go to Waer or leave the country, do not be surprised if they are arrested again when the United Nations leaves,” said Ahmed, a 22-year-old opposition activist living in Waer.
“They are just playing nice now in front of the U.N.,” he added.
Meanwhile, the UN finds itself in an uneasy alliance with Governor al-Barazi, both heavily invested in the processing of the remaining 200 men proceeding smoothly, albeit with different motivations. Mr. al-Barazi finds himself on a tightrope between the Assad regime, which wants to parade itself as both winning the war and treating the losers humanely, and the “National Defense Force” (NDF) militias it unleashed. As reported here by Dagher, these militias are furious over alleged massacres and abductions of Alawites in the region:
…tensions were on display again Monday as soldiers and officers from the regime’s myriad security branches as well as members of the NDF tried to enter a makeshift receiving center near the front line, where those evacuated were first brought.
They wanted to photograph, film and interrogate many of the military-age men evacuated. Some of the pro-regime force members slipped into the receiving center wearing civilian clothes. Others in military fatigues and carrying arms also demanded they be let in.
This prompted a rare outburst by Homs Governor Talal al Barazi, who shouted at them to move away and even threatened to have them arrested by their commanders.
“What’s wrong with you? This is the United Nations. We have been getting calls from Geneva,” screamed Mr. Barazi, referring to the city where a second round of U.N.-mediated peace talks between the regime and opposition started Monday.
Meanwhile, the UN seems determined not to allow the detentions to turn into another atrocity on its watch, and has so far managed to check the NDF militias with robust monitoring. Again, citing Dagher:
“We are stretching our mandate,” said the U.N. official. “The concern is making sure there is free and fair trials for anybody who is going to be tried.”Under the U.N.’s deal with the regime, the detained men are supposed to be interrogated by security officers to see if they have committed crimes. Suspects will be put on trial while the rest would be given amnesty and freed.He said the U.N. has full access during the day to the school where detained men are held. But at night, it has designated protection officers from a local NGO to make sure nobody is snatched by security forces.
He said three detainees were taken out of the school by security forces on Sunday but that they were later returned after the U.N. protested strenuously. He said all the men are registered and that additional U.N. staff have been brought from Damascus to deal with this issue.
But he expressed fear for the ultimate fate of these men because the U.N. has no control or say over the process the regime has put in place to deal with them.
As newly evacuated men came off the buses Wednesday and walked into a banquet hall near the front line where all evacuees are taken, pro-regime soldiers gathered around and snapped photographs of them.
Inside, they huddled under blankets, looking frail and scared. …
Nearby, a member of the Syrian security forces dressed in plainclothes said these men would be treated differently once the U.N. mission in Homs ends.
“We are all waiting for the blue ones to leave,” he said with a smile, referring to the U.N.
This leaves the fate of the 200 men in the hands of Governor Barazi – or his superiors – who have not committed to any concrete timelines and may continue at their leisure to consider the relative merits of pleasing the UN versus pleasing the militias. However, for the time being, the triumphalist pageantry seems to have taken on a role no less important than the underlying interrogations. Here Lyse Doucet reports on a visit to the al-Andalus school in Homs where the men are being held:
When the Governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, sweeps into the school with his entourage, I ask him what will happen to the men. “I believe most of the men will be cleared or be given an amnesty,” he declares. “They will be free to go wherever they wish. For those who are not, they will be tried in civilian courts.”
Then he quickly steps outside, grabs a microphone, and takes a seat at a wooden table to address the large crowd of men now seated cross-legged in the courtyard. “We are all on the same side; we are all Syrian,” he tells them in an impassioned speech rooted in his conviction that the road to peace goes through country, God, and President Bashar al-Assad.
The governor has made this operation in the Old City his personal mission. He’s been a constant presence, at all hours, throughout the evacuation. Said to be backed by the president himself, he’s reportedly stood up to groups like the pro-government paramilitary National Defence Force, whose members are known to have attacked the aid convoys they see as freeing and feeding their enemy. …
With a sunken cheek, and twisted mouth, he presides with a forceful presence over daily “re-education” classes on everything from religion to reconciliation. On the day we visit, he’s flanked by white turbaned mullahs who’ve come to instruct the men about the true meaning and mission of Islam.
When he takes the microphone, his speech is peppered with both wit and warnings as he urges the fighters not to take up arms again. A few young men in the front row clap with approval; those further back stand stone-faced, arms crossed.
On the top floor of the school, we walk down the hallway where wooden desks are piled high. Through glass windows of empty classrooms, we can see men being questioned.
Several tell us, off camera, that the interrogations involving police and the intelligence services also focus on gathering information on the rebel fighters still in the Old City, including the top commanders.
As if all this were not curious enough, reports have recently come in of a set of local truces in the Damascus suburbs, the terms of which appear to involve allowing the regime to symbolically reassert its authority in exchange for a ceasefire and access to aid. As reported here in the Lebanon Daily Star:
In the southern suburb of Babbila, AFP journalists on Monday saw rebels and soldiers — all armed — in conversation, which would have been unthinkable just days ago.
The local truces come 18 months into fierce fighting in and around the capital that has led rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to compromise, with neither side able to clinch victory.
In addition to Babbila, deals have been struck for Qudsaya, Moadamiyet al-Sham, Barzeh, Beit Sahem, Yalda and Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp.
Negotiated by public figures, the accords involve a truce, a siege being lifted and food allowed in to rebel-held areas, with opposition fighters handing over heavy weapons and the regime raising its flag.
It is hard to credit these type of reports against the backdrop of three years of increasingly savage fighting. Borrowing liberally from the old Communist saw about “we pretend to work…”, it hardly seems likely that an accommodation based on “we pretend to surrender and you pretend to win” will be sustainable. However, as Anne Barnard suggests, writing for National Geographic, there may be a combination of general factors such as combat fatigue and local factors such as a relatively robust tradition of tolerance in the Syrian capital:
Now Assad’s long-standing claim—after me, Islamic extremists—has proved true in many parts of the country. How and why will be long debated. But as both sides grow exhausted, forced to face the real prospect of demolishing all they are fighting for, perhaps resolution lies somewhere in the Damascene model of coexistence. Or simply in shared love for the millennia-old city that no one wants to see die.
One way of ending the Syrian conflict would be for those fighting it to collectively decide that the game was no longer worth the candle. However, the sense one gets from Homs is that of a regime seeking to position itself favorably by fostering the impression that it is winning not only the conflict but also hearts and minds. It recalls uncomfortably the efforts by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in the late-2000s to rehabilitate his father’s regime in Libya through a personal initiative to release captured Islamist insurgents who had been led gently to recognize the error of their ways.
Meanwhile, there is every reason to believe that the regime’s earlier strategy of predicting sectarian apocalypse and then sparing no effort to bring it about has been too successful to be blunted by any subsequent policy of reconciliation. Writing on his blog, Robin Yassin-Kassab described a sectarian divide now no less real for having been imposed by state policy.
…a minority of Alawis have supported the revolution, openly or in clandestine fashion. But these are unimportant details to many of those on the receiving end of the regime’s war and ethnic cleansing machine. For many, even those who bore no sectarian grudges three years ago, their lives have been ruined by an Alawi regime backed by Shia Iran.
Its hard to rank crimes of the enormity of child torture and mass rape, but perhaps the regime’s exploitation of sectarian hatreds is its greatest crime, because it’s the one that will keep on killing years from now. It’s also its greatest strategic victory – the fact that a significant section of the opposition is now influenced by a Sunni backlash frightens Syrian minorities into loyalty and ensures that the West will never support the revolution.
Some local reductions of the large-scale fighting may be in the offing, and that would be an undoubted improvement. But reconciliation will come no closer for that alone.