'Reconciliations' provide relief from fighting in towns near Damascus

CBC's Margaret Evans reports from Qudsaya, one of a number of heavily damaged communities near Damascus where "reconciliations" engineered by the Assad government have seen militants turn over their weapons.

People in Qudsaya talk to CBC journalists after end of siege that lasted on and off for 4 years

The town of Qudsaya near the Syrian capital of Damascus was, until recently, an anti-government enclave under siege by government armed forces. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Syrian town of Qudsaya lies just seven kilometres from the centre of Damascus and only a stone's throw from the presidential palace of Bashar al-Assad, perched on chalky hills overlooking a main road into the capital.

And yet it managed to remain a rebel thorn in the side of the Syrian armed forces until just a few weeks ago, when about 150 opposition fighters agreed to lay down their heavy weapons and board green buses for rebel strongholds to the north, in Idlib province.

In exchange, the Syrian armed forces lifted the siege they had been imposing on Qudsaya on and off for four years. Opposition fighters not affiliated with jihadist groups were allowed to remain and meld back in with local security. Checkpoints in and out of the town are still heavily manned.

Maha Mohammed, 20, fled fighting in the nearby Yarmouk refugee camp for Qudsaya in 2014, only to find the town under seige. She says conditions have improved in recent weeks. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"It was very bad the last few months," said 20-year-old Maha Mohammed, who fled fighting in the nearby Yarmouk refugee camp for Qudsaya in 2014, only to find herself hemmed in again. "The roads were closed, there was no food in this area," she said of Qudsaya, "but now, very good."

Qudsaya is one of the latest converts to what the Syrian government calls "reconciliation." Whether forced or voluntary depends on how you view the sieges imposed by, and backed up with, some rather serious military persuasion from pro-regime forces.

The town is a place the Syrian government wanted us to see. It's proof, they say, that most Syrians support Assad, playing into their own narrative that opposition fighters — or terrorists as the government calls them — have taken ordinary people hostage in anti-government enclaves.

Checkpoints in and out of Qudsaya remain, and not everyone living there supports President Bashar al-Assad, but government minders point to the town as a success in its campaign to disarm militants and regain control of the suburbs and towns near Damascus. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Qudsaya is one of a number of towns and suburbs near Damascus that have brought the war right to Assad's own backyard. But in recent months "reconciliations" like the one in Qudsaya have been imposed — or accepted according to your view — in a growing number of towns near Damascus, including Daraya, where hundreds of militants turned over the heavy weapons and left earlier this fall.

This man, who sells oranges in the city's main square, complained about the price of food during the siege and said he's happy with the way things are now. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

UN agencies condemn the sieges as acts of deprivation, starving civilians or withholding from them the essential services of every day life. But advocates see them as a potential way forward in the midst of a conflict where international diplomacy has repeatedly failed.

"Since everyone knows the war is not going to end soon in Syria, the idea is to differentiate between local reconciliation, which is happening now … and the national reconciliation," said Elia Samman, an adviser to the Syrian minister for reconciliation. 

"The national project would come after a comprehensive political solution to the crisis. But in the meantime, we work to save lives," he said.

Opposition party among converts

Samman is a member of the Syrian National Socialist Party, one of the Syrian regime's tolerated opposition groups, although its leader is in government as the minister for reconciliation.

Elia Samman, an adviser to the Syrian minister for reconciliation, is with a political party that was one of the original participants in the massive anti-government street demonstrations that took place in 2011. He's seen here with CBC's Margaret Evans at Qudsaya's city gates. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Samman said the party was one of the original participants in the massive street demonstrations that took place against the Assad regime back in 2011 and that many of its members were jailed at the time.

The party decided to stop demonstrating when sectarianism began to infiltrate the protests, he said. "We don't think democracy and freedom can be achieved by violence. We are a secular party."

Today, he said, he's not worried about appearing complicit with a government he once protested. 

"Our main concern today is to put an end to this bloodshed. It doesn't matter how people are looking at us. We do believe what we are doing is serving the interest of Syrians, and that's our main concern today."

This boy asked the visiting journalists if he could sing a song, and then began to rap about the pain of Qudsaya: 'The screams of the mothers ring out asking where are my children? The sounds of explosion have replaced the sounds of the birds.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

There's no doubt that the people of Qudsaya are happy to see their streets crowded with people and the markets flowing with fresh herbs and vegetables again.

During the siege, students and workers were sometimes allowed to travel to Damascus, but often not, and people say they relish the return of these small freedoms.

Crowds gathered around and seemed genuinely happy to see a Canadian news crew in their midst when we visited, offering us oranges and hot falafel dusted in sumac.

Aleppo: Labyrinth of war

6 years ago
Duration 2:53
Margaret Evans reports on the toll in six days of continued bombardment

One little boy asked if he could sing us a song. He smoothed down his hair and then proceeded to deliver a rap odyssey … about the pain of Qudsaya: "The screams of the mothers ring out asking where are my children?  The sounds of explosion have replaced the sounds of the birds." Then he slipped away into the crowd.

Dr. Rami Esmail left Qudsaya in 2011 when anti-government protests were picking up in the town.

'There were no doctors here'

"I went out because the situation was not good," he recalled. "I felt uncomfortable, unsafe. Some people with masked faces began to come here with arms and money."

Esmail is a plastic surgeon, but he's come back to Qudsaya to practise general medicine as well. He opened a new surgery clinic last week in an apartment block overlooking the market square, where a fruit seller is shouting out the prices of oranges down below.

Dr. Rami Esmail, has returned to practise general medicine in Qudsaya. He left in 2011, when anti-government protests were growing and he began seeing people 'with arms and money' arriving. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"They didn't have medicine," he said of the town during the siege. "Also there were no doctors here." Simple ailments like ear infections went untreated and developed into much bigger problems.

The reconciliation negotiations are presented as a small-scale, local, step-by-step effort. But the face of the larger conflict is apparent if you just take a look at the Russian ministry of defence website, which posts bulletins from the "Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic."

It claims that 961 reconciliation agreements have been signed and even offers what it said is a tally of rebels leaving the besieged neighbourhoods of Eastern Aleppo: eight over a 24-hour period, it reported on Nov. 30.

The day CBC journalists visited Qudsaya, the finishing touches were just being painted onto a giant billboard depicting President Bashar al-Assad at the town’s entrance. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

And the Syrian government wasn't wasting any time covering over any dissent in the so-called reconciliation towns. The day we visited, the finishing touches were just being painted onto a giant billboard depicting Assad at the town's entrance. The billboards are ubiquitous in Syrian government-held territory, and Qudsaya is just now catching up.

But one man's reconciliation is another's defeat or surrender. With war still raging in so many parts of the country, the word "reconciliation" has the ring of a science-fiction novel to it, set in a world of false utopianism.

And there were tensions on the streets in Qudsaya, too: a few scuffles broke out now and again, tempers easily fraying. Our government minders wanted to whisk us away when they did.

Lesser of 2 evils

As one man watching us film our on-camera quietly told me, most Syrians do not support the government. It is, rather, simply the lesser of two evils, he said.

More than five years of civil war have reduced the number of choices Syrians have on offer, rather than expanded them.

The moderate opposition in Syria has been stripped away or weakened, activists having fled the country, and militants deliberately targeted by the regime and its Russian allies, according to critics, even though they claim to be fighting mainly Islamic militants.

For many ordinary Syrians faced with a stark choice between the religious fanaticism and barbarism of groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or others, and a regime that can at least offer them a reminder of what life used to be like before the war, however imperfect, the choice is clear.

Not normal. Not necessarily happy. And very likely not a long-term solution. But for a time, at least, it offers a semblance of normality.  And for a people so very tired of war and bloodshed, that is a welcome relief.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.