Syria: A ceasefire only in name?

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent

image captionThe Free Army fighters are a loose collective of militias more than a unified army

Abu Mufaa, commander of a rebel unit called The Righteous Special Forces Brigade, was in a hurry.

He was just about to bury two of his men, killed in the latest skirmish with government forces outside Damascus.

But, speaking on a faint mobile phone line, he had time to deliver a pithy verdict on the ceasefire proposed by the UN for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha: "On the ground, it means nothing".

We had spent a few days with his fighters in the hills outside the capital. Powerfully built, with an alarming scar etched into his cheek, Abu Mufaa was an apple farmer and amateur Thai kickboxing champion before he started up and led his own rebel group.

Beloved by his men, he is not - as he might be the first to admit - a man overly concerned with political subtleties.

A more nuanced response was set out by Brigadier Methqal Husani al-Btaish al-Neemeh, "spokesman of the joint command of military and revolutionary councils in all Syria".

In a YouTube video, sitting at a desk and flanked by fighters, he said the rebels would observe the ceasefire if the government released all prisoners, lifted the siege of Homs, ceased all aerial activity, and did not use the truce to reinforce or resupply.

'Treachery and scheming'

It was a longer way of saying the same as the former kick-boxer, Abu Mufaa: the ceasefire would exist in name only.

image captionPiles of rubbish litter the streets of Aleppo, where the battle for control continues

And even then, despite Brigadier General al-Btaish's impressive title, it is not clear how many rebel fighters he speaks for.

The officer describing himself as the Free Syrian Army's chief of staff, Col Ahmad Hijazi, rejected the idea of a ceasefire altogether: "We did not and will not agree to a ceasefire," he told BBC Arabic on Wednesday.

"The regime is used to treachery and scheming. It is not to be trusted."

The Syrian government has formally accepted the truce - but reserves the right to retaliate if attacked.

The Free Army is, in reality, more a brand name for hundreds of different militias than a single organisation with a unified command structure.

Decisive battle

The UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, says "most" rebel commanders agree with his proposal.

But, even if that is true of the highly qualified statements from some FSA leaders, there are other groups involved in the fight.

One of those is the al-Nusra Front, militant jihadis fighting alongside the FSA. On Wednesday, they issued a communique stating: "There will be no truce between us and this whorish, murderous regime... Only the sword shall be between us and God is the almighty judge."

It was the same situation the last time there was a UN-sponsored ceasefire, when Kofi Annan was trying to bring the two sides together. We were in Homs province at the time, earlier this year. There was shooting every day, wherever we found ourselves.

Each side would blame the other for firing first. For the hard-pressed civilians, under siege from government force in places like Homs, Qusayr or Rastan, the ceasefire made no difference at all.

And, back then, there were small skirmishes breaking out between the two sides. Now, there is a big and possibly decisive battle going on for the city of Aleppo.

It is hard to see either side stepping back and conceding an advantage to the other side in Syria's biggest city, especially as the latest reports speak of rebel gains, with government forces re-grouping to counter-attack.

"How long will this go on?" is a question heard often, within Syria and beyond its borders. There have been 20 months of bloodshed and 30,000 dead, according to some estimates. The end does not seem to be in sight.

Civil wars have a trajectory: anger and energy at the beginning, mounting bloodshed and exhaustion at the end as the losses mount.

Forlorn hope

Last March, I spoke to a terrified woman fleeing Baba Amr with her children.

"We want freedom," she told me, "but if we had known what would happen, we would never have begun this."

Her husband was missing. She had spent many weeks under bombardment. She had had enough. Other parts of Syria - Aleppo now - are undergoing the same punishment, yet Syria might only be at the beginning of the slow upward curve of violence before the regret and the war-weariness set in.

There are small local ceasefires: places where the local army commander and the rebels have just decided to leave each other alone for the time being (usually to the relief of the local population).

In one village, in August, we found that a well-known local drug lord who led one rebel group had killed the local Free Army commander and taken over leadership of all the fighters in the area.

He then did a deal with the police and army - he would not attack them; they would leave him to his drugs-smuggling business. In that village, at least, a kind of peace reigned.

Lakhdar Brahimi is, of course, attempting something far more ambitious. "If we succeed with this modest initiative, a longer ceasefire can be built," he said, one that might allow the launch of a political process to end the civil war.

That would relieve Syria's hard-pressed civilians. Some, in places like Aleppo are sheltering in basements and wondering if they will starve or freeze this winter. But they do not believe it - the fighting has too much momentum.

The hope for an "Eid without funerals" as one Arab newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, expressed it, is probably a forlorn one.

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