Syria Geneva II talks: Scepticism on the streets as al-Qa’ida poses as peacemaker

Patrick Cockburn in Damascus finds people resigned to Geneva talks failure

Syrians in Damascus say they are resigned to the talks in Geneva not doing much to end the violence or improve their living conditions. They point out that the opposition delegation does not have enough support in rebel-held areas of Syria to deliver on any promises it might make on ceasefires, safe passage for foreign aid or prisoner exchanges.

“So what if Geneva II does not succeed?” said a Syrian woman who did not want her name published. “If they did agree anything, would it really mean less blood or more electricity? People are fed up with politics.” She said Syrians feel that their country is only a small player in determining the outcome of the conflict compared to the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Expectations of international diplomacy are low, but in Damascus, conditions are a little better than six months ago in government-held parts of the city. There is less outgoing artillery on the government side aimed at rebel districts, and people in central Damascus say there are fewer mortars being fired at them by the rebels. The mood is more relaxed than last summer.

There are adequate supplies of bread, gasoline and cooking gas, though the latter two items were in short supply when the rebels captured the industrial area off Adra north east of the capital six weeks ago – they have since been driven back. The rebels were accused of killing 32 members of minorities – Allawi, Christians, Druze and Ismaili – in the town.

One reason for reduced violence is that there are many local ceasefires and accommodations in place in the capital and elsewhere. These vary from place to place, but in the district of Barzeh, long an opposition bastion in Damascus, rebels have reached an understanding with the government forces, by one account giving up their heavy weapons and promising to observe a truce. Other observers in Damascus say that in some cases the local rebels give up their weapons in exchange for arms from the government and act as a sort of local militia.

 

These local ceasefires are what the Syrian government says it would like to see extended. They are easier to reach in Damascus because many rebel enclaves have been besieged and cut off for a long time and are in desperate need of food and medical supplies.

It would be difficult, however, to agree such ceasefires where jihadi or al-Qa’ida type groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida affiliate, are in control, as they are in much of the northern and eastern parts of Syria.

Exactly who holds power in these towns and districts after a local ceasefire agreement is a moot point and varies from place to place. Even if the government forces are more than holding their own, they do not seem to have the strength to inflict a permanent defeat on the rebels.

For instance, Jabhat al-Nusra has retaken the historic Christian town of Maloula, whose inhabitants have fled to Damascus. It is not far from the crucial road linking Damascus to Homs, the third largest Syrian city, a route which was cut for 17 days a couple of months ago. Jabhat al-Nusra rebels are still present in the town of Yabrud just off the main road.

The biggest change in the military and political situation in the last six months has been “the civil war within the civil war” fought with varying degree of enthusiasm by rebels opposing the Isis, which is notorious for extreme violence to anybody who opposes it. The civil war got going on 3 January after the torture and murder of Abu Rayyan, a popular commander of the Ahrar al-Sham jihadi group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London says that, since then, 1,395 people have been killed in the internecine rebel fighting, including 760 anti-Isis fighters, 426 Isis and 190 civilians. In one battle at Jarabulus Turkish border crossing, Isis won a victory, cut off the heads of ten of its prisoners and put them on spikes.

One man was executed for having given a glass of water to a member of the Free Syrian Army, the supposedly secular military group supported by the US and Britain that is now disintegrating.

Such has been the ferocity of the fighting between the jihadists in Syria that they have attracted a mediator not previously known for his moderation. This is none other than the head of al-Qa’ida and successor to Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who this week pleaded in a speech posted on YouTube for a peaceable solution to intra-jihadi differences internecine struggle.

Mr Zawahiri asks for “every free person in Syria seeking to overthrow (President Bashar) al-Assad ... to seek an end to fighting between brothers in jihad and Islam immediately.” The brothers in question are primarily the Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis whose attempt to dominate rebel-held areas by detaining and murdering its opponents has provoked the present backlash

So far neither side has landed a knockout blow, Mr Zawahiri saying “jihadist groups are our brothers whom we refuse to accuse of apostasy”. Absorbed in their own struggle, the rebels have largely stopped attacking government forces.

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