Besieged South Damascus ‘wants truce not war’

The last rebel-held districts near Damascus are under increasing pressure by the Syrian government to give up for good.

Syria Siege Ghouta Damascus
South Damascus remains a complex mishmash hosting almost every major actor currently fighting in Syria [Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Food comes in and then sometimes it does not. Occasionally, the bomb blasts and machine-gun rattles of the few remaining active front lines close-by sound over the rooftops.

Life in the besieged suburbs of south Damascus is often dictated by what is happening outside, both near and far.

At war since 2012, and under total or partial siege since 2013, three of the last rebel-held districts inside Damascus are now coming under increasing pressure from the Syrian government to give up for good.

Renewed truce talks began in Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem in October, and have seen several meetings between government representatives and a seven-member opposition committee, formed last month, that includes local council officials from each of the three districts, rebel faction representatives from Jaish al-Islam and the Sham al-Rasoul Brigades, as well as two Palestinian community figures.

Palestinian committee member Ammar Eissa said he anticipates “either an evacuation, or a full, comprehensive settlement to return [civilians] under government control”, but adds that there are still sticking points.

READ MORE: Syria’s war – East Ghouta ‘refuses any evacuation deal’

There are an estimated 42,500 civilians still living inside Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem, historically poorer, working-class areas that link the Syrian capital’s urban and rural south.

As with neighbouring areas currently controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group and former al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebel-held south has been besieged by pro-government forces, including Palestinian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah, for up to three years. 

Government negotiators, according to Syrian activists, want weapons handovers, security cooperation and for civilians to “regularise their status”. There have been reported threats of “escalation” if government demands are not met, but civilians appear reluctant to accept without safeguards to prevent the kind of evacuation deals seen in several Damascus suburbs since August last year.

Others fear the return of government control because it may also herald the return of conscription. 

While talks continue, the highest price is being paid by civilians in the three districts.

“Prices on all goods on the markets here are rising, and people’s incomes aren’t enough,” said 48-year-old shopkeeper Mohamed Abu Khalil from Yalda, complaining that his 30,000 lira ($60) monthly salary is barely enough to support his family.

Restrictions on the only road running in and out of the capital’s rebel-held south are making life more difficult, too.

The Babila-Meqdad checkpoint, a government-run “humanitarian crossing … for food and medical goods”, opened after the three districts accepted partial truce terms in early 2014, explained Abu Hassan, a local councilman in Babila.

“It’s the only crossing in south Damascus and is subject to taxation by regime forces … who impose a tax on the proportion of all goods,” Abu Hassan added.

According to monitoring group Siege Watch, goods are restricted and government-imposed tariffs can inflate prices by 20 percent.

Checkpoint closures have occasionally accompanied truce talks “when the regime prevents people from bringing food in”, says Abu Khalil, describing it as a form of political pressure, a taste of the siege.

“Two months ago, there was a five-day closure,” he claims, “And during that time we couldn’t find sugar, rice, bread or most fruits and vegetables in the markets. We fear the return of the siege”. 

EXPLAINER: Syria’s Civil War Explained

Others, though, suggest local siege traders with good relations on either side of the barrier are the driving force behind an amoral war economy that has emerged in other besieged areas of Syria.

South Damascus remains a complex mishmash, hosting almost every major actor currently fighting in Syria – sometimes at either end of the same street.

The Syrian army, affiliated Palestinian-Syrian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah surround the remaining areas outside of the government’s control, while Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias have been stationed at nearby Sayeda Zeinab, home to one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, since 2012.

Former al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham controls areas around al-Rijeh Square in northern Yarmouk, while the ISIL’s last foothold in Damascus spans Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad just to the south.

Two months ago, there was a five-day closure ... and during that time we couldn't find sugar, rice, bread or most fruits and vegetables in the markets. We fear the return of the siege.

by Mohamed Abu Khalil, a shopkeeper from Yalda

Between Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda runs A’roubeh Street, where ISIL and rebel-controlled neighbourhoods are separated at opposite ends by just a few hundred metres. Although many of these fronts have been quiet for months, there are barriers, checkpoints and loaded rifles everywhere.

Because of the complex dynamics around them, the three districts have taken in new influxes of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), particularly since 2015 when the ISIL took over the majority of Yarmouk camp and pushed an estimated 8,600 Palestinian and Syrian former camp residents into Yalda.

Palestinians in south Damascus now “depend on aid”, explained Osama Moussa, operations manager at the Beirut office of the Jafra Foundation, a Palestinian-Syrian relief organisation that serves the south’s displaced communities.

“This area has been considered hard to reach since [April] 2015 … when ISIL took control of Yarmouk. About 50 percent of people who were besieged in Yarmouk camp moved to the three villages,” Moussa added.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has had no access to Yarmouk since then and the UN agency last delivered aid to displaced Palestinians in south Damascus in May, last year.

“Unfortunately, for people who’ve been without work or suitable income for more than four years, stopping UNRWA aid has made it so difficult [for them] just to find basic needs,” Moussa said.

INTERACTIVE: What is left of Syria?

Despite the complexities on the ground, the Syrian government will likely maintain the upper hand in south Damascus, just as it is in every other direction around the capital since the first in a series of truce-evacuation deals in August. It appears the dormant rebellion in south Damascus is living on bided time.

“We all want truce rather than war, but we want the truce to be on good terms,” said shopkeeper Abu Khalil, who fears for an agreement that runs the risk of his sons being sent off to fight on government front lines, or that might see families like his evacuated to northern Syria.

“We want to stay on our land and not be forced to leave,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera