A local truce emerges from Syria’s tangle

Ever-changing landscape of nation’s civil war, with its multitude of militias, makes it hard to devise an international strategy for Syria.

By Zvi Bar’el | Feb. 14, 2014 | 7:42 AM


Members of the Syrian Red Crescent help people leave the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp, south of Damascus. February 1, 2014. Photo by AP

By Reuters | Feb. 15, 2014 | 12:22 PM

On Tuesday, representatives of Palestinian organizations and Syrian militias convened at the entrance to Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp to sign an agreement that would bring an end to the siege of the camp. According to reports from Syria, two radical Sunni militias agreed to leave the camp and return control of it to the Palestinians. Next, a committee of militia representatives is supposed to examine ways to clear the streets of mines and bombs. Only then – barring some last-minute reversal – will it be possible to send food and medicine into the camp, which has been besieged for six months now.

In contrast, the city of Homs is still besieged. Though a cease-fire was agreed upon during last month’s Geneva talks, it broke down after only a day. A few hundred civilians did manage to flee the city, but most of the men who did so were detained for interrogation by the regime’s forces.

Why was it possible to reach a deal in Yarmouk, but not in Homs? Why are some areas quieter than others? The answer lies not just in the Assad regime’s policy, but also in the local or regional balance of power between rebel militias and the Syrian army, or among the rival militias themselves.

The Yarmouk deal, which effectively removed the Palestinian camp from Syria’s civil war, was credited to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. According to reports from Syria, Meshal secured Iranian guarantees that the Syrian army wouldn’t enter the camp once the militias left, and that no rebel who laid down his arms would be mistreated. Why did the Syrian government accept Meshal’s offer to mediate after he had severed ties with the regime and removed his headquarters from Damascus? It seems the Syrian civil war is forging new alliances – and new enmities – every morning.


Civilians clean a street from rubble of damaged buildings at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus, February 12, 2014. Photo by Reuters

Meshal, who now lives in Qatar, has had to go begging to continue funding his organization; Iran isn’t rushing to forgive him. But it is preparing for the next phase in Syria, and doesn’t want to lose its Palestinian foothold. Solving the crisis in Yarmouk enabled it to earn brownie points on the Palestinian issue without incurring any debt to Meshal, while at the same time eliminating an unnecessary point of friction between the Syrian regime and the West.

The Qalamoun hills region, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, is a very different theater. Vital logistical aid flows through it from Lebanon to the Islamist militias that have bases in these hills, and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah is very active alongside Syrian forces in this region. Thus unlike in Yarmouk, here no compromise is possible.

Hezbollah also has a private account to settle with the militias in Qalamoun, and especially with the city of Yabroud, located about 20 kilometers from the Lebanese border, which was heavily bombed by the Syrian air force this week. According to Hezbollah, the booby-trapped cars that have exploded near its Beirut headquarters in recent weeks came from there.

Despite having lost an estimated 700 fighters, Hezbollah doesn’t plan to cease its involvement in Syria. Just this week, its deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said the Syrian war is a war to defend Lebanon. The Shi’ite organization is now trying hard to recruit more fighters, and has even published advertisements urging young Lebanese to enroll in military training courses. Some reports say it’s recruiting young Shi’ites from area near the Syrian border and sending them to Syria to fight.


Two Palestinian women carry banners and loaves of bread that read “we are all Yarmouk,” during a Ramallah protest in solidarity with the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. January 1, 2014. Photo by AP

But all is not smooth sailing between Hezbollah and the Syrian army. A Hezbollah fighter told the website Lebanon Debate that Syrian officers don’t give the organization accurate information, and sometimes, he said, they even sell rebel militias information about the location and movements of Hezbollah forces. “We can no longer trust the Syrian officers we’re supposed to cooperate with,” he said.

The discovery that Syrian officers are cooperating with the rebels to give Hezbollah erroneous information, which has resulted in losses, has prompted the organization to start spending a lot of money on buying its own intelligence, he added.

Thus it seems local relations between Hezbollah and Syrian officers are determining whether battles are won or lost, regardless of the strategic agreements between the Syrian regime and the Lebanese group. What remains unclear is the relationship between ordinary Syrian soldiers and their Hezbollah counterparts. Some Lebanese websites have quoted Syrian soldiers lauding Hezbollah fighters as “our brothers,” but Hezbollah fighters have complained that the Syrian army uses them as cannon fodder, while keeping its own soldiers out of danger by relying on aerial bombardments.

The kaleidoscopic, ever-changing picture of Syria’s different theaters, with its numerous militias – about 1,500, according to U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper – makes it hard to devise an international strategy for Syria, either humanitarian or military. Moreover, Syria is serving as a centrifuge for terror, spinning off terrorists to Arab states and even Europe. Thousands of foreign volunteers (about 7,500, according to Clapper) are in Syria learning combat tactics, bomb-making and how to use weapons. But, as in Afghanistan, most of these volunteers don’t stay; eventually, they return home.

Egyptian media reports said this week that of the thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who have gone to fight alongside the Syrian rebels, at least 400 recently returned, and are now ready to take up the armed struggle against the Egyptian regime. The Iraqi government reported recently that hundreds of Iraqi Al-Qaida members who had gone to fight in Syria have now returned to battle their own government. British citizens have chatted on social networks about their role in the Syrian war, and on Wednesday, the British police raided the house of one “Abu Sulayman al-Britani,” who was apparently behind a car bombing in Aleppo last week.

The activity of these radicals concerns the international community far more than the war in Syria itself does. This plays into the hands of Russia, which is expected to submit a UN Security Council resolution on fighting terror in Syria in order to counter an American-European resolution seeking sanctions on Syria if the regime continues to impede humanitarian aid.

Ostensibly, the need to open safe passages to supply this aid is just about the only thing all the powers agree on. But with Russia threatening to veto even a resolution aimed at forcing Syria to ensure that aid gets where it’s needed, it’s hard to believe there will be anything to talk about at the next Geneva conference, which the powers are now planning.

Thus the best Syrians can hope for is that local arrangements, even if temporary ones, among the various warring groups far from Geneva’s conference halls will enable food and medicine to reach a given neighborhood or street, just as happened in Yarmouk.

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