Qusai Zakarya — a nom de guerre — still can’t believe he is alive. The Syrian opposition activist was recently released to Beirut after 17 days in detention in Damascus, held by the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s notorious Fourth Armoured Division, the elite Republican Guard commanded by the President’s bloodthirsty younger brother and commander of the armed forces, Maher.

Thousands of Syrian prisoners of conscience have died inside Syrian prisons, while thousands more languish in detention, with few ever facing charges. Fewer still who find themselves in Fourth Division hands ever make it out alive.

But Qusai is a special case. The 29-year-old media activist had unwittingly become the face of what the Syrian regime has termed “national reconciliation” efforts — locally brokered ceasefires around the capital Damascus and elsewhere — but what the opposition and the United Nations say amount more to a “surrender or starve campaign” by the regime aimed at convincing the international community of co-operation at peace talks and winning back territory lost to the rebels.

Qusai handed himself over to regime authorities in January as part of one such deal in the rebel neighbourhood of Moadamiya, south-west of Damascus. Under a suffocating government siege for 18 months that restricted all food and medical supplies, activist and residents had reported dire conditions inside the town, eating herbs mixed with water, and even cats, to survive. Brought to their knees by hunger and desperation, the rebel council in the town agreed to a ceasefire deal, allowing the regime to enter the town and raise the regime flag. Rebels handed over their weapons, fighters and activists in return for food aid and the evacuation of the sick and injured.

“Starvation is a very powerful weapon,” said Zakarya shortly after arriving, shaken and hungry, to Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon. “I still can’t believe I am alive. It’s like waking up from a nightmare in where you dreamed you had died.”

According to one senior UN official, there are now some 70 local ceasefires being negotiated across Syria. After the announcement of the ceasefire in Moadamiya, regime media began circulating images of rebels and government soldiers embracing in other Damascus suburbs, trumpeting the success of the reconciliation efforts. Ceasefires were announced in Qudsaya, north-west of Damascus, the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, Barzeh in the north and Tadamon in the country’s south-east.

The success of the ceasefires has largely been determined by the desperation of the town’s inhabitants, as well as the level of co-ordination and resources of the rebel armies controlling the town.

In the central suburb of Barzeh in Damascus, for instance, rebels were able to gain greater leverage over negotiations. There, rebels with the Free Syrian Army were able to retain their weapons and now co-man checkpoints alongside the government forces, allowing thousands of displaced families to return home. Elsewhere they have proved divisive, with those opposed to the unequal conditions imposed by the government accusing those who agree of “treason”. Residents have also accused the rebels of failing to protect them.

“People who lost a lot of family in government shelling, chemical attacks, who are under siege, are in no way willing to negotiate with the regime.”

In Daraya, a rebel-held neighbourhood bordering Moadamiya, heavy government bombardment using tanks and crude “barrel bombs”, or crates packed with explosive that are rolled off the back of helicopters, are interpreted as the government’s punishment for the rebels’ refusal to comply with the terms of the truce.

“In areas where the Free Syrian Army is not so highly co-ordinated and where starvation is being used as a weapon by the regime, there is a lot of pressure from the civilians to accept the terms,” said Zakarya. “They are mad with hunger.”

Now that talks in Geneva have ended without result, the deals are clearly beginning to fray. Escalating breaches of the agreements and retribution attacks are revealing the level of mistrust between parties and the long road ahead to any real or lasting reconciliation between the two parties.

In Barzeh, Free Syrian Army spokesman Zeyad al-Shami predicted the truce would collapse imminently after the regime failed to uphold an agreement to release opposition prisoners. “A commander of the Free Syrian Army battalions told me we are going to cut off the main roads if the regime doesn’t start to release the prisoners and withdraw,” al-Shami said.

In Babila, a young child was killed and eight people were reportedly wounded when Assad forces opened fire on crowds this week, after an officer was killed by Free Syrian Army rebels, in the latest violation of the truce there.

Meanwhile, in the sprawling Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of the capital, a hard-wrought deal to allow food aid in broke down last week, with both the government and rebels accusing the other of breaching the terms of the deal.

“We know that we will have to reconcile sooner or later,” said Zakarya. “But revenge is something to think about from both sides. People who lost a lot of family in government shelling, chemical attacks, who are under siege, are in no way willing to negotiate with the regime. Not in a million years.”

Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the mainstream opposition Syrian National Council, says the regime has faced mounting international pressure to allow humanitarian assistance into besieged areas, but that the “truce option” amounted to no more than “a new, evil plot designed to demonstrate the regime’s willingness to negotiate an end to the siege, while finding new ways to continue to terrorise the people and maintain control”.

Today Moadamiya is once again under siege. “They tried so hard to make Moadamieh an example when they knew all eyes were watching,” said Zakarya. “Now the regime is back to their dirty games. It’s like they were only behaving themselves during Geneva.”

Nonetheless, the activist, who will travel to the United States to safety this week, says he still believes there is reason to hope. “I believe there is a lot of pressure form the US and Russia; all the world at this stage wants to find a solution,” he said. “I truly sense that they are tired, just like the rebels. They know they can’t keep on shelling and bombing forever.”

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey