Syrian Government Sees An End Game, Block By Block

02/26/2014 01:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2014
AP Photo/Local Council of Barzeh

DAMASCUS, Syria -- When peace came to Ish al-Warwar, a pro-government, working-class neighborhood in the steep hills along this city’s northeastern edge, Hanan Aboud let her son go out to play.

It had been almost two years since the conflict that has burned through much of Syria first arrived at Aboud’s doorstep, bringing bullets and mortars onto the streets where her family lived and cutting off the road down to Barzeh, the pro-opposition neighborhood where her son went to school. Last year, Aboud’s brother was killed when a shell landed in his home; her son started refusing to leave the house without a parent in tow.

“Life was horrible,” said Aboud, who was an English teacher before the war. “We were surrounded. Schools were shut down. Bread was scarce; there were no vegetables. Even medicine was hard to find.”

So when the government orchestrated a ceasefire with the warring factions in Barzeh this January, bringing an end, for the moment at least, to the violence in one small corner of Syria’s grinding war, Aboud celebrated along with her neighbors.

The Huffington Post visited the narrow, crooked streets of Ish al-Warwar earlier this week on a rare tour organized by representatives of the Syrian government who had participated in the recent truce talks with the residents of Barzeh.

It was a chance, the government officials said, to show how the negotiated peace was taking shape after more than a month -- and to offer evidence that the Syrian government can resolve the three-year-old crisis without outside intervention. They said the process involves working directly with residents and reformed fighters in opposition areas to oust the “terrorists” who hold them hostage.

“The people from Barzeh, they came to us and said, we need your help. Because of Jabhat al-Nusra, everyone was afraid for his family,” said one of the negotiators, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. (Jabhat al-Nusra is an al Qaeda-linked group that has allied itself with the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad and that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.)

“We said to the families, look, let's find an end to this pointless war -- and they were very, very ready,” the negotiator added.

That assessment may prove to be an oversimplification, or at least overly optimistic. In the past few weeks, government teams have negotiated similar truces with rebel factions in a handful of neighborhoods across Damascus, but critics among the opposition note that not all have been successful. They also point out that in many cases, the settlements are reached after months of painful siege and bombardment of the rebel-held areas by government forces, making the ceasefires feel less like truces than negotiated surrenders.

In other areas, the war still shows little signs of abating. On Wednesday, for instance, the Syrian Army said it had killed nearly 200 rebel fighters in an ambush in another suburb south of Damascus.

The terms of the local truces vary, but generally include the end of the government siege and a pledge by residents to renounce violence against the state and to expel any extremist groups in their midst. Residents are typically allowed to keep their weapons, and the government has made promises to free prisoners from the neighborhoods. (It's not clear if these offers have been fully upheld.)

During a visit Monday to the older parts of Barzeh, where rebel fighters had been the strongest, it was evident where the brunt of the combat had fallen. What buildings remained upright were badly damaged, charred from fire and riddled with bullet holes. Along one main road, every structure had been destroyed, the pancaked slabs of concrete and rubble testifying to the punishing effects of sustained aerial bombardment and artillery.

But whatever the recent history, the sense of relief at the end of the fighting was also hard to ignore -- and not just among pro-government families in Ish al-Warwar. On the streets of Barzeh, a feeling of normality had returned: Traffic moved freely, and people walked about, shopping at stores that two months ago would have been closed or emptied of supplies.

At a checkpoint at a main traffic circle in the center of the district, two men who identified themselves as members of Barzeh’s local council introduced themselves. One showed an identification card that listed Barzeh as his residence.

Asked why he had agreed to join the government in a truce, the man with the ID card looked down and grimaced.

“We did this for the families,” he said.

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