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.

Read more:
Syria Geneva II talks: the long road to peace?
16 arrested amid fears Britons linked to Syria violence
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Life and Style
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biomass Sales Consultant

£20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Java Developer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

£45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game