Rebels suspend Barzeh evacuation deal after regime reportedly fails to release 300 detainees

Rebel officials in the opposition-controlled east Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh suspended their negotiations with the Syrian government on Wednesday evening, effectively halting an evacuation deal for several thousand rebel fighters and Barzeh residents to relocate to north Syria.

Opposition negotiators accuse the regime of failing to follow through on releasing some 300 detainees, including seven women, originally from Barzeh. The demand comprises a “fundamental” term of Sunday’s evacuation deal, Abu Bahaa, the head of Barzeh’s local opposition council, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira a-Zarier.

The deal ended an intense regime offensive to seize control of the small Damascus neighborhood. The regime’s campaign began in February when they encircled Barzeh and the adjacent rebel-held neighborhoods of al-Qaboun and Tishreen.

With Barzeh’s 40,000 residents behind regime siege, the humanitarian situation quickly deteriorated. The price of basic food and medicine quadrupled as hospitals and stores began to run out of supplies, Syria Direct reported last month.

 Barzeh, earlier this week. Photo by Saria Abu Zaid/AFP

Per Sunday’s agreement, some 10,000 rebel fighters and Barzeh residents were set to board government buses and relocate to either opposition-controlled Idlib province or the city of Jarablus, currently held by Turkish-backed rebels. The first round of evacuees—several hundred rebel fighters and their families—left for Idlib on Monday, Syria Direct reported.

For now, the roads in and out of Barzeh are closed.

Q: Why were negotiations between the regime and the opposition in Barzeh suspended?

The negotiations were suspended after the regime refused to release a group of detainees that includes women.

Releasing these detainees after the first round of evacuees left for Idlib [on Monday] was one of the fundamental terms of our agreement with the government. When they refused to follow through, the opposition suspended the negotiations.

Q: What happened after the negotiations with the regime were suspended?

After the negotiations were suspended Wednesday at 5pm, the crossings in and out of Barzeh were closed to university students.

The regime originally permitted university students to attend classes in Damascus, but as of Wednesday they closed the roads and prevented them from returning to Barzeh. Even now, students are trapped outside Barzeh, staying with their friends.

If this continues, we will not see any further rounds of evacuations in the coming days, a result of the terms of the agreement not being fulfilled.

In the long term, only the length of the [evacuation process] will be affected by [the suspension of negotiations].

Q: If the regime refuses to release the detainees, what options are available to the opposition in Barzeh?

That’s up to the military factions. I can’t give you an answer to this.

Q: Are you, as a civilian, afraid that what happened in the Waer neighborhood of Homs could repeat itself in Barzeh? In Waer, the regime didn’t release detainees being held in Homs city, and bombed the neighborhood until it dropped that provision.

As long as the negotiations are suspended—not completely halted—I’m not worried that there will be renewed fighting. I don’t see that as a possibility. We think that this agreement will continue.

It’s in the regime’s interest to stick to the terms of the agreement and release the detainees so the agreement can continue.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Aya Emad

Aya is from Homs province in central Syria. She moved to Jordan with her family in 2013. Aya is a journalism student at the Amity Online University. She joined Syria Direct to practice journalism and help her people.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.