Residents of a blockaded opposition-held town near the Syrian capital have raised the flag of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in exchange for food, activists said.
The deal accepted on Thursday by the town of Muadamiyat al-Sham, west of Damascus, is one of a number of local truces reached between opposition-held towns and government forces in recent months, although the terms – which also included the rebels handing over heavy weapons and expelling outsiders – are unusual.
For almost a year, the town has been surrounded by government checkpoints that have blocked food, clean water and fuel from reaching residents, in an attempt to drive out those opposed to the Assad government.
The Syrian national flag of red, black and white stripes with two green stars could be seen flying over a water tanker, according to a Lebanon-based news channel. That flag is often associated with the ruling Baath party and many opposition fighters instead use a flag with green, white and black stripes and three red stars.
“There’s sadness inside us, but we raised the flag because nobody helped us, nobody extended their hands to us,” said a Muadamiyat al-Sham resident who identified only as Ahmad. “We are ready to save the lives of [hungry] children. There’s no bread in Muadamiyat al-Sham. For three months, there’s been not even a grain of rice,” he said.
The deal requires opposition fighters to hand over heavy weapons and all non-residents must vacate the town.
After all heavy weapons are handed over, residents will establish local armed groups who will protect the town, according to George Nakhleh, a Syrian legislator. The army will only guard Muadamiyat al-Sham from the outside.
‘Food as a tool of war’
Nakhleh said that state institutions will eventually return to normal and gates will be opened to allow for the entry of food and other necessities into the town.
“The army will protect Muadamiyat al-Sham but inside the town the residents will protect it,” said Nakhleh in an interview with the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV. “They will carry weapons and set up checkpoints to prevent the entrance of strangers who come from around the world to destroy our country.”
The Western-backed exiled opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, said the deal proves that Assad’s government uses “food as a tool of war.”
Malnutrition has been a problem among Muadamiyat al-Sham’s estimated 8,000 residents for months, according to activists, with children and the elderly often falling ill.
A similar series of truces allowed about 5,000 residents of Muadamiyat al-Sham to flee the town in the autumn.
The timing of this deal is viewed by some as a technique to bolster Assad’s position ahead of internationally-brokered peace talks scheduled for January.