72 hours in, Russia’s de-escalation zones bring respite for some Syrians

AMMAN: A Russian-led plan for “de-escalation zones” in Syria entered its third day on Monday, bringing a rare respite from violence for some residents of the four areas included in the deal, while others reported increased fighting.

“After six years of bombing, military escalation and displacement, the idea for safe zones is a little late,” Osama al-Omari, a citizen journalist in the blockaded East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

After an international plan to create de-escalation zones in rebel-held areas of Syria came into effect early on Saturday, East Ghouta saw a rare respite from daily airstrikes and bombardment.

“A pause in the bombing is a good thing,” said al-Omari, “but the plan should cover all of Syria; we do not accept peace in one area at the expense of the others.”

Syrian regime backers Russia and Iran agreed on a deal last week alongside opposition-supporter Turkey at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, to establish four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory across the country.

Opposition negotiators rejected the Russian plan this past Thursday, condemning Iran’s role and criticizing the zones as a step towards partitioning the country.

Walid al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said in a televised news conference on Monday that his government would abide by the agreement as long as rebels did the same. In the same conference, Muallem said the Assad government would “not accept a role for the UN or international forces” to monitor the agreement.

 Syrians ride a motorcycle past rubble in rebel-held Daraa on April 12, 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

Under the terms of the Russian proposal, which went into effect at 12am Saturday morning, “warfare between the government troops and armed opposition units” was to cease in four rebel-held zones, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian Defense Ministry said in a briefing last Friday.

The zones the Russian official referred to are the regime-blockaded East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus as well as territory in southern Syria’s Daraa and Quneitra provinces along the Jordanian border, a rebel-held pocket of northern Homs province, and rebel-held Idlib in the northwest. The zones also include neighboring parts of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo provinces. According to Russian estimates, more than 2.6 million people live in the zones.

However, the promise to halt ground battles and airstrikes in those rebel-held areas does not apply to battles against “terrorists of the ISIS [sic] and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria,” Rudskoy said.

Because of the exception, in the three days since the agreement went into effect, battles continued or intensified in parts of Hama and Homs provinces included in the safe zones, local sources told Syria Direct.

“Since the deal went into effect, we’ve become nostalgic for the days before it,” Abdelmanaf al-Hamawi, the director of the Civil Defense in al-Lataminah, a city in the north Hama countryside near the frontlines, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Hundreds of airstrikes, shells and rockets hit Lataminah and nearby villages in recent days, al-Hamawi said. Syrian regime forces advanced against rebels in the area this week as part of  an ongoing offensive. As the bombs fell, al-Lataminah’s local council declared the city a disaster area on Saturday, the first day the de-escalation zone was in effect.

On Sunday, advancing loyalist forces capture the village of Zalaqiyat, just south of al-Lataminah.

The following day, the Hmeimim Russian military base in Syria posted on its Facebook page that the “ongoing advance” in Hama province came with “direct air support by Russian bombers.” The battles did not go against the de-escalation memorandum, read the post, because “they are launched against extremist terrorist organizations.”

 A Russian military map of the de-escalation zones, marked in blue. Photo courtesy of Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.

Regime shelling was also reported further south, in an opposition-held pocket of territory in northern Homs, where Jabhat a-Nusra, the former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), does have a presence in some areas.

Muhannad al-Bakour, a citizen journalist from the north Homs town of al-Houleh, told Syria Direct on Monday that his hometown does not host Fatah a-Sham fighters, but was also subjected to “violent bombardment” over the past three days.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the presence or strength of JFS forces in the rebel-held pocket, and sources on the ground gave varying accounts.

“This agreement is just like those that came before,” said al-Bakour. “The regime can’t go one day without bombing civilians.”

On Monday, parts of al-Houleh were bombed by Syrian warplanes, al-Bakour added.

After the Russian proposal took effect, no airstrikes or shelling were reported in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, the main stronghold for Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a hardline rebel coalition that includes JFS.

For civilians, the lull in airstrikes provided relief. “If the agreement stops the bloodshed, it is a good thing,” Qusai al-Hussein, a civilian resident of the south Idlib town of Maarat a-Numan told Syria Direct on Sunday. “People are weak, tired of death and bombing.”

“The whole world has betrayed us,” said al-Hussein. “Even our fragmented factions have betrayed us.”

To the south, in southern Daraa province, “planes have left the sky since the agreement came into effect,” Ahmad al-Mousa, a citizen journalist there told Syria Direct on Monday.

Despite the lack of airstrikes, local news pages in the southern province reported heavy artillery bombardment against a handful of rebel-held towns and districts of Daraa city in recent days. Four people were killed since the de-escalation zone came into force, al-Mousa said, a claim that Syria Direct could not independently confirm.

Al-Mousa, like East Ghouta activist al-Omari, worries that the reduction of violence in some parts of the country will free up regime forces to focus more intensely on capturing long-contested territory.

“Assad can gather his forces and swoop down on stubborn areas,” said al-Omari, referring to districts and towns not included in the de-escalation zones, in eastern Damascus and northern Homs province.

In the north Homs town of al-Lataminah, “nothing has changed for us,” said citizen journalist al-Bakour.

But for some civilian residents of areas where the de-escalation zones have reduced bombings, such as the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the deal is making a real difference.

The agreement “is a good thing if it is fully implemented, Amati a-Dimashqi, a doctor in the blockaded suburbs told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“As Ghoutans, we have suffered the regime’s bombing, siege, hunger and poverty for years,” said a-Dimashqi.

“We do not have any other options. Things are only getting worse.”

Additional reporting by Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, Mohammad Ali, Majdoleen a-Zouabi and Marah Faraj.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Rahaf Abazaid

Originally from Daraa province, Rahaf moved to Jordan in 2013. She was unable to finish her studies in pharmacy due to the war.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.