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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power