Middle East

In Syria, few conciliatory signs as peace talks loom

Rubble of the Harasta area of eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, on 24 December 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nearly three years of fighting has left much of the country in ruins

In northern Damascus lies the neighbourhood of Barzeh, split between Barzeh with its pre-fabricated houses, old Barzeh al-Balad, and the slum of Ish al-Warwar.

It has been the scene of fighting for more than 15 months.

Like in other parts of the country, peaceful protests there gave way to armed confrontations, when the government brutally cracked down.

But there is something particular about Barzeh. It is mainly inhabited by Sunni Muslims in Barzeh al-Balad valley, and Alawites, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, concentrated in Ish al-Warwar on Mount Qassioun.

Government forces used the mountain to launch artillery and rocket attacks on Barzeh and elsewhere in the Ghouta, an agricultural belt around Damascus.

The valley of Barzeh al-Balad suffered the worst violence, with government shelling, kidnapping and mass killings by paramilitary Popular Committees, now known as the National Defence Army, mainly from the Alawite minority.

But today there is a truce in Barzeh. The government has struck a deal with the armed opposition there, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is returning heavy weapons - such as tanks - which they captured from the government, and in turn are allowed to become a civil police governing the neighbourhood.

Displaced families are being allowed back and the government is due to free detainees.

At the checkpoints of Barzeh, both forces now stand together and they eat the same food.

These two sides who have been fighting and killing each other have now come to terms. But Barzeh holds important strategic significance, as it is on the road that leads to Latakia where the government needs to secure the delivery of chemical weapons to the port.

Sending a message

In other areas, however, the government is still using a "starve to submission" policy, activists say, denying food access to opposition areas to force into submission.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The children of Yarmuk refugee camp are being denied access to much needed food aid, agencies say

More than 50 civilians including children are reported to have died of hunger in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus.

Muadhamiya in the western suburbs went through the same thing and the armed opposition had to surrender to break the siege.

The timing of the Barzeh truce is significant for the government. It wants to send the message before Geneva that it is capable of reconciliation without the need of international efforts.

It also wants to take pre-emptive measures to avoid any suggestions of introducing UN peacekeepers to Syria. This is something President Bashar al-Assad's government doesn't want to see, a UN official told me in Damascus.

Meanwhile, the Syrian leadership sees Geneva as a conference for fighting "terrorism" - a term used to describe the armed opposition - and they insist it is not about giving up power.

In fact, members of the government repeatedly said that President Assad has the right to run for elections in 2014 at the end of his term.

"President Assad is coming out of the cold again and becoming an important player after the deal on [removing] the chemical weapons," one analyst close to the government said.

"He is the only one who can deliver such a mission, so why should he make any concession?"

The National Defence Army does not seem to have any interest in peace talks. It has become an alternative force that rules district by district.

It is accused of having committed many offences, including kidnapping businessmen in government-controlled areas and making hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransoms. For them, the continuation of the conflict is feeding their economy.

Staunch allies

To outsiders, the regime seems to be one entity that is solid. But in fact, there are different powers at play inside Syria.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption This baby boy survived an air strike on a Damascus neighbourhood earlier this month, but many have not

There are internal power struggles and external forces like Hezbollah, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Shia militias like the Zulfikar and Abou al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigades. Many of these forces are seen in public, especially around Shia religious sites.

But what makes the regime strong is in fact its allies - Iran and Russia.

They have had one firm position since the start of the uprising - to support Syria's president.

An Iranian diplomat told members of the "tolerated" national opposition inside Syria during a meeting at the embassy: "Iran bets on Assad as a person, he is indispensible for us."

And while the rebel groups are locked in fighting with the al-Qaeda-linked Isis (also know as Isil) jihadists in the north, the government is pursuing its crackdown on peaceful activists in the capital.

Campaigns of arrest are continuing, targeting members of the "tolerated" opposition and members of Al-Shabab Al-Souri Al-Thaer - a group of Christians, Alawites and Druze who want to continue with peaceful activism amidst the rise of Islamist opposition groups.

Almost everyone is sent to the Anti-Terrorism Court (formed in 2012) - a sign the government is unwilling to make any concession.

But for the civilians who are caught up in the war, an end to the suffering is all they want.

What was once a call for freedom has now turned into a cry for survival.