How did the alternative Syrian newspapers deal with the truce and reconciliations?

How did the alternative Syrian newspapers deal with the truce and reconciliations?


Printed Edition ‖ No.: 214

The truce in Syria, and observing it, was the hit news in all international and local media of the month of April, as all of a sudden and with no prior warning/heads up, both US and Russian Foreign Ministers imposed a truce in Syria. Despite the circumstances of this declared truce and the exceptions it included, yet it provided a valuable opportunity for rebels to revive the peaceful movement once more.

The truce path is not something unconventional for the Syrian revolution, as the Syrian regime has had many truces with the opposition over the five years of the revolution. This truce was different because it was declared on a national level as a whole and all parties relatively committed to it, including the non-involved parties, like Al-Nusra front.

In this article, we try to trace the coverage of a number of alternative printed newspapers in regards to the truce, starting with the first one in the middle of 2014, till the latest ones late last month. This article is divided into an introduction in which we briefly review the path of truces or “conciliations”, then we look at the way the case of the truce has been covered by each of “Souriatna, Telena Ala El Horya (freedom raise), Enab Baladi, Zaiton and Hibr” newspapers.

Prominent truces and settlements between Assad and the opposition

In his interviews with 8 Russian newspapers, Bashar Al Assad considered that the “national reconciliations” in Syria have achieved great success, and have improved the security situation for many Syrian citizens. The regime portrays these truces as falling into his best interest, yet they have eased the suffering of people with the poor political and military prospects, moreover, cities that embraced the truce were sometimes beneficial for other cities that refused the truce, just like the situation with Daraya and Modamieh. The conditions of each truce differed more or less according to the circumstances of each city and its military status, however, generally speaking, cease of heavy arms, flying the regime’s flag in the opposing areas and releasing fighters or resolving their situations were definite terms the regime always had to get.

In its 198 issue, Enab Baladi published a report prepared by Obada Kujan talking about the most prominent truces and reconciliations between Assad regime and the opposition in Syria, here are some quotes:

Opposition fighters leave Homs

The 7th of May, 2014 was the date for the Syrian opposition fighters to depart the old neighborhoods of Homs heading north towards the countryside which was out of Assad’s control. For two years, Ahrar Al-Sham, Al-Nusra Front and the free army bear the burden of two years of siege in a number of neighborhoods in the city, which activists called “the revolution capital”, in addition to a number of families who preferred to stay, rather than suffer from the bitterness of displacement, amid destruction that affected most buildings and public facilities, only to have the city back later on to the grip of Assad’s regime under the patronage of Iran and the UN.

Failing truces in Hama

Assad’s forces turned to the truce methods early in Hama; considering the truce of the town of Al-Madeeq Castle in the northwest countryside to probably be the oldest almost three years ago, and which, in fact, presented a unique example based on the principle of balanced forces inside the city adjacent to Al-Ghab plain. The town was constantly under threat due to the battles of Al-Ghab plain, in addition to the confrontations taking place in its neighboring town of Kafer Naboodeh.

The example set by Kafer Naboodeh is totally different from the nearby “castle”, as the truce in that one started at the beginning of August 2014, where they were able to rebuild some destroyed houses and clean up streets of rubble caused by long battles lasting for a year and a half. Allowing the residents to go back there was with the condition of not making it a military position. Early in October 2015, the truce was violated by Assad’s forces, who gave the residents a choice between making the town a position for the passage of on-land weapons heading towards villages and towns of the southern countryside of Idlib or destroying it through various kinds of shelling, to be given the second choice and have the residents leave town again to become a battlefield. Assad’s forces tried to control the town but they completely failed to do so and it continues to be under the control of the free army with no residents in it.

“Idlib – Zabadani” Agreement… Obstacles and Violations

Beginning June 2015, the battles over the borders of Al-Zabadani city continued for three months with the failure of Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah and supportive militia’s to completely control it, as the city fighters, mostly belonging to the Islamic “Ahrar Ash-Sham” movement, were able to resist and survive.

The last agreement under the patronage of Tehran and Ankara, signed in Istanbul with the participation of delegates of Al-Fateh army, seemed at first glance a true breakthrough for the towns of the south and north included in the agreement, but obstacles emerged with the Russian intervention in Syria, as both Madaya and Bakeen continue to suffer under complete siege.

Earlier this year, the besieged towns in Al-Zabadani witnessed a relative breakthrough with the aids delivered to them, especially the town of Madaya, in return for similar aids delivered to the regime’s supportive towns of Kafraya and Foaa to the north of Idlib.

Damascene Truces

Assad’s efforts focus on extinguishing all the rebelling provinces against him whether it be inside the capital or around it. Two years ago, the regime began a series of agreements and truces that included cities and towns of south and west of Damascus, in addition to neighborhoods inside Damascus, most notably is the truce of Barzah agreed since February 2014 –which was beneficial for Eastern Ghota to use as a food passage – followed by the truces of Qaboon and Tishreen in September of the same year. 

The truce in AlBarzah is experiencing a “shake” that may lead to terminating it due to shutting down the only road that gets into the city by the Syrian regime, putting the city under a partial besiege along with the neighborhoods of Al-Kaboon and Teshreen, all of which coincided with new demands by the regime summarized by submitting heavy weapons and flying the regime’s flag inside the city.

South of Damascus… Neutralizing Neighborhoods

In the south of Damascus, specifically in the towns of Beit Sahem, Yielda and Pepeela, the factions of these neighborhoods signed an open truce with Assad’s forces in February 2014 and it stands till this moment.

Three month later, in May 2014, Assad’s regime succeeded in neutralizing the neighborhoods of Al-Kadam and Al-Asaaly off the military conflict through signing a truce with the opposing forces in those two neighborhoods, and with similar items to those of Pepeela, Yielda and Beit Sahem, adding to it; Assad regime’s termination of destruction operations started with the beginning of the revolution in the south of Damascus, in addition to the condition of withdrawing all of the fighters’ heavy weapons.

According to the above, the south of Damascus became an almost completely safe area of Assad’s regime, with the exception of Al-Tadamon neighborhood which continues to witness intermittent confrontations between the neighborhood’s fighters and Assad’s forces, in addition to the neighborhood of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad (the black stone) – which is under the control of the “Islamic State” since the beginning of 2014- as well as Al-Yarmook refugee camp, which witnessed fights between the organization and Al-Nusra front on one hand and other Palestinian factions on the other.

West of Al Ghota… Flying Flags

The truces’ projects started in the surroundings of Damascus to include the city of Moadamiet As-Sham, neighboring the city of Daraya in the western Al-Ghota of the capital, the Syrian regime’s flag was flying over the water tank in the city center on the 25th of December, 2013 for 72 hours as a gesture of goodwill, following battles and siege that continued for more than one year. The truce was violated dozens of times by the regime, who shut the road connecting the city and Damascus, then was shelled with barrels in order to completely isolate it from the city of Daraya, until he achieved his goal in January of this year.

Qudsayya and Beyond

A 135 fighters from the city of Qudsayya left the city with their families heading towards the province of Idlib, to the north of Syria, accompanied by the Syrian Red Crescent and Reconciliation Committee in the city on November 30th, as a main condition stated by the regime in order to reopen the road and end the complete siege against the city.

The truce, that took place under the auspices of Reconciliation committees and Damascus and its countryside’s Mufti (expounder of Islamic law), Mohammad Adnan Al-Afyoni, will expand to include the town of Hammeh, which will completely open the Qudsayya-Damascus road after a 6-months-shut down, only if its fighters agree to the same items (as those of former truces).

Activists assert the regime of Assad’s seek to implement the same “reconciliations” in the towns of Wadi Barada (Baseema, Ein Al-Fija, Wadi Maqren, Kfeir AlZeit…) in order to attain a safe area stretching from Zabadani to Madaya all the way to the capital, thus ensuring the security and military stability of Assad’s regime as a result of “taming” the artery connecting Qalmoun and Damascus.

Global research centers interested in truces

The truces featured high attention in global research centers, as many researchers and politicians considered the truce could be developed and built upon; Stephen Simons and Jonathan Stevenson, former employees at the US administration, presented a paper supporting the idea of truces and proposing the establishment of Sunnah-self-ruling areas as the ruling authority, while the army stays under the control of the ruling Alawi authority, considering this a favorable opportunity due to the existence of a mutual enemy embodied in the organization of the “Islamic State”. The researcher, Yazeed Sayegh in Carnegie, adopted the same logic, as he considered the only way to defeat ISIS begins with an inclusive truce between the regime and its opposers.

De Mistura based his plan, presented in November 2014, on these truces which states; withhold fighting in the city of Aleppo and in other Syrian areas and forge temporary truces and conciliations that permit self-administration in those areas, expressing these administrations would be through elected local or consensual councils representing the armed opposing factions depending on size and effectiveness of each faction. Unfortunately, Mistura faced many obstacles, notably was the fact that Russia and the US were not serious about forging the truce.

On the 31st of December, 2015, the “War Study Center” published a study that concludes the cease-fire between the regime and its opposition in Syria, led by the United Nations, has achieved some tangible results, yet it might not increase the probability of having negotiations in Syria. The UN aims at using those local agreements to achieve a cease-fire on a national level, as a measure to build trust prior to negotiations between the regime and the opposition forces (Geneva 3), however, the success of these deals was mainly a result of the besiege and aerial shelling, by the regime’s supportive forces, over the areas controlled by the opposition, so the local opposing fighters and civilian residents were then forced to submit to the cease-fire, in this way, agreements might not really support the oppositions’ confidence at the negotiation table.

In the study, the war study center believes that the regime supportive forces seek the cease-fire in three additional areas in Damascus and in another area to the north of the city of Homs prior to negotiations of January (Geneva 3). The regime targeted areas of densely civilian population with explosive barrels, intensive air raids, shelling and alleged use of chemical weapons, all of which probably to force local forces as well as civilian residents to surrender. The war study center considers each of eastern Ghota in Damascus, Rustan, Talbeese, AlYarmouk camp, AlHajar AlAswad and Modamieh to be probably included in the targeted areas.

Omran Center for Strategic Studies’ Poll:

Truce is a demand imposed by the circumstances…the opposition is incapable of correctly employing it

The shortage of surveys and scientific analysis based on figures issued by Syrian or Arab research centers, as well as alternative newspapers is something to note, as we will see. Our research was limited to a poll published by Omran Center for Strategic Studies – almost a year and a half – because it is closely connected temporally to the beginnings of the idea of local reconciliations.

In a poll conducted by Omran center in August 2014 that included 1000 people, generally selected from truce and conciliation areas, the majority of respondents (residents and displaced people) asserted that they still support truces taking place in their areas, compared to nearly a quarter of respondents who opposed truces.

The refugees displaced from their towns were more supportive of truces than those who are still staying in their areas. Nearly 25% respondents gave first priority to lifting besiege as a reason to accept the truce, while nearly 32% respondents considered security and cease-fire as the leading reason for accepting a truce, and around 66% respondents confirmed their steadfast stand of the revolution.

Regarding the pros of the truce, the respondents explained in the poll that there is a slight improvement on the service level, a relative quietness in addition to taking advantage of the truce as an opportunity to empower the revolutionary act, on the other hand, the cons of the truce are that it did not ensure human values, the ineffectiveness of revolutionary objects, the lack of reinforcing the relation with the popular incubator as well as updating the security data of the regime.

The study concludes that accepting the principle of the truce imposes itself on the incubator environment of the revolution. However, the absence of the opposing forces to document these truces in a legal sense, following them and developing the revolutionary tools is noticeable. A strategic establishment should be built in a way that makes the truce a stimulating case for evaluation, readiness and development. The strategy should be launched on three levels; the military and security, the administrative and the political levels.

The promoted truces’ agreements in their current state cannot form an introductory to end the conflict in Syria, as presenting them within a detached frame and employing them to deal with the circumstances created by the violent policies of the regime would not be effective in resolving the essence of the conflict, in addition to the weak chances for their sustainability, which is something measured through two indicators; one is trust and the other is contentment, and the study shows these are both clearly low.

How did the new local newspapers cover the truce, conciliations and cease-fire conditions?

Everyone wants a truce and everyone wants the regime to fall (Souriatna newspaper)

Souriatna newspaper covers the news around the truces and conciliations in a neutral method, without commenting on its events or even analyzing them. Generally speaking, the coverage of the truce and conciliation’s topic is considered meager, but in 221 edition, after Qudsayya’s truce, they covered the observers’ opinions in that the truces the regime is conducting in the surrounding of the capital aims at emptying those cities of its residents and making a demographic change to produce “a sectarian Alawi canton in a freak state”. In 222 edition, there is a report about AlWaer, two weeks after its truce, with an opening quote of an activist that could be considered a representation of the confusion caused by truces; “there is a lump in these young people’s hearts, everyone wants the truce and everyone wants the regime to fall”.

The latest truce announced in February 2016 occupied a considerable space in “Souriatna”, as we find in edition 232, published a few hours after announcing the truce, with a catchy statement on the cover “cease of playing with fire” along with a photo of both of the US and Russia’s foreign ministers, a report observing the overall opinions in the revolutionary arena with a presentation of the journalist Tarek Amin reflected his cautious optimism in the success of the truce; “the hopes linked to the truce became rather modest due to the regime’s treachery, yet, since the international and regional circumstances have changed, the truce became more than merely words on paper.” At any rate, we could see that the opinion articles in this issue were in a way or another supportive of the truce, as “the aim of war is war”, put by journalist Khaled Kanoot in an opinion article, “the current war will continue and Syrians will be the ones paying the greatest price,… are not we all as Syrians facing a great national test that might be final and existential?”. With Kanoot’s admitting that Syrian people look forward to cease shelling and attacks against them, we find the writer Ahmed Mazhar Saado asserting in the same edition that “martyrs are the only ones making the history of the region” and not the truce or anything else.

In edition 233, the newspaper celebrated the return of peaceful demonstrations “back to the façade” attributing it to the cease-shelling. The writer Ali Safar suggested to alternative media “to conduct a news coverage based on the continuation rather than the intermittent periods of the event. The media activists should employ all of the experiences they have acquired over the past period in the service of the event”. In the same edition, we read a detailed report prepared by the newspaper’s correspondents in different areas in Syria regarding the truce path, where they point out that “the truce had positively affected some areas, whereas other areas had increasing rates of shelling and battles, especially that the truce had some exceptions that enabled the Syrian regime and his allies to expand the battles and shelling in some areas.”

An inclusive truce is the solution (Enab Baladi newspaper)

Among the newspapers that we followed, Enab Baladi is the one that mostly addresses the topic of truces and reconciliations, the reason behind that could be the fact that Daraya city, which the newspaper is issued carrying its name, is the mainly concerned city in regards to negotiations, in addition to the city of Moadamieh and Damascene countryside in general. The editions 102, 103, 118, 121, 128 tackled the news of the truce in Al-Modamieh, Daraya and Homs, as well as the divergent opinions of residents and revolutionary parties without commenting on them whether it be positively or negatively. In 112 edition (April 2014), Shamel Al-Joulani blames the revolutionary events that drove the southern neighborhoods to a bad situation that led to signing the truce. He calls for saving Al-Hajar Al-Aswad of falling into signing a truce before it is too late. In the same edition, we read in Lama Derani’s report that the deterioration of the living and financial conditions is the reason that compels towns to sign a truce. She tells the story of a young man who was killed while serving with the regime’s forces due to the living conditions that forced him to work in People’s committees.

In 118 edition, there is an article entitled “reconciliations pros and cons”, in which the writer compares the reconciliations to those that took place in the wars of Chechnya and Algeria, when those reconciliations were used as a method to subdue the rebellious people. He thinks that the cons of the reconciliation outweighs the pros, yet certainly no one could blame the people who signed the truce.

In the opening of edition 119 (June 2014), the newspaper expresses that the truce itself is not a mistake, however, when the revolutionists accept the regime’s conditions, which are imposed from a Pharaonic perspective with no guarantees or prospects, then they turn against their revolution’s principles and admit to the legitimacy of Assad.   

In edition 115 and 116, there is a coverage about the fighters of Homs leaving the city in return for releasing detainees of the regime and his allies, as well as the impacts of this operation, which are in favor for the regime. In a report by Ahmad Al-Shami, commenting on the fighters of Homs leaving the old city, where he compares between the regime’s allies who rush to rescue Homs while “Alloush army” (and the likes of it) fall into deep sleep… “How do we expect the world to help us when we are defending Nusra front?” adding; “At wars, there is a victor who gets everything and a loser who gets nothing.”

Editions 184, 187, 198, 199, 203 and others delivered news of the truces in each of Kafarya, Foaa-Zabadani and Al-Waer. In edition 197, Enab Baladi conducted a poll regarding the truce in Al-Ghouta, which resulted in a common belief that an “inclusive truce” is the solution, not a random truce here or there, not to mention that international guarantees are more effective than the Russian ones.

The newspaper dedicated a large space for the last truce in its edition, which could be attributed to the bad military and humanitarian situation in the city of Daraya up until the moment the truce was announced, not to mention the circulated rumors of excluding Daraya from the truce, which put the city under the center of attention. In the opening of edition number 211, the newspaper reflects “cautious optimism”, especially with the return of the peaceful demonstrations back to the scene, saying “that the country is facing a new opportunity, whose success relies on learning the lesson of the revolution itself.”

Opinion articles did not take on truces positively, Ahmad Al-Shami considers that “the agreement happens at the expense of Sunni Muslims”, asserting that “if the cease-fire is achieved, it would be more like a theatrical interval and a recess for murderers awaiting new massacres”. With the same doubts the truce was received by the writer Hizam Uday, “Syrians should not trust any initiative, as Russian and American initiatives are the same”, to rectify herself; “refusing truces is not in their favor either, we should examine each case according to our interests only.”

The truce is at stake (Telena Ala El Horya newspaper)

Abu Kasem Al Souri writes in edition 38 about the truce in Al-Modamieh as a “step out of context” and in which he justifies the truce; “Al-Modamieh has been under unprecedented siege for more than a year”, the thing that justifies the truce regardless of the timing.

The newspaper presented an inclusive file in edition 42 regarding truces and reconciliations, which seem to be “endangered” as presented in the file by Osama Nassar. The file addresses the case from different aspects, yet all aspects are somehow consistent with each other and agree on the fact that unless truces were built upon a national level and within a general policy adopted by the opposition, then it would only fall into the regime’s favor.

In his article, Ali Farouk considers that truces serve the regime’s interests and that many Mashaikh (plural of Sheikh: prominent Islamic leaders or clerics. Also, Arab leader, in particular the chief or head of an Arab tribe, family, or village) who claim to be elders of towns in truce, play a role in that, since their goals are the same as the regime’s. The writer enumerates the aspects of the reconciliation that serve the regime and explains that truces are mostly conducted by Mashaikh, who are controled by the regime in order to serve his goals.

According to Aws Al-Mubarak in the same edition, it is not a “revolutionary illusion” to say that nothing happened within those truces and reconciliations that deserve to rely on or be afraid of, as Syrian people clearly know their way and the regime gained nothing other than local and international publicity for more truces.

The truce occupied a large space in the last edition of “Telena Ala El Horya” newspaper (edition 66), which included different opinions, but the majority agreed that the current truce is a positive matter, wishing it to continue. The writer Nabeel Shoufan considered the truce a humiliation for the regime and a reset of the counter; “making his departure easier through a political process.”

No reconciliation even if they grant you gold (Zaiton newspaper)

Hasan Wajeeh Kaddour says, in edition 72 (June 2014) of Zaiton newspaper, the regime is the sole beneficial of reconciliations and that he does not commit to the pledges he takes on himself upon signing a truce. In edition 66, the newspaper quotes a source in the free army that negotiations are an evidence of the regime’s weakness and inefficiency of military resolution. Edition 76 included news about the reconciliation in Al-Kadam and Al-Asaaly, with a caricature by Amal Danqal carrying the statement; “No reconciliation even if they give you gold.”

After that, Zaiton newspaper no longer reported news or analysis regarding truces and reconciliations, but it gave special coverage to the last truce in the edition 126, issued right after the truce, in which it specially focused on the city of Daraya and the rumors spread around of excluding the city from the truce. The newspaper also pointed to excluding areas under the control of the State organization and Nusra in a report in which they monitored the interaction of various Syrian areas with this issue.

The truce is just the beginning of the game (Hibr newspaper)

“Hibr” newspaper is issued in Aleppo city. The city and its countryside has been excluded from any plan of truce until De Mistura presented a plan of fighting freeze in Aleppo, which explains the absence of this topic in the newspaper almost completely. De Mistura’s movements have been interpreted to be sometimes “sectarian”.

De Mistura’s plan of “freezing the fighting” recieved no respect, as we find in edition 70 a report criticizing his visit to Lady Zeynab in Damascus, considering him as biased in favor of the regime. We also read a file in the same edition about De Mistura’s initiative; “as, after attending one of the Magi celebration in Damascus, he comes out to publically announce that Bashar Al Assad is part of the solution in Syria”, the writer Mahmoud AlHajj Mostafa carries on in criticizing De Mistura; “the UN envoy De Mistura enjoys the characteristics of lengthy patience and lack of boredom, as he presents an initiative after another in an attempt to show goodwill and to reach a solution that would make all parties satisfied. But obviously, every time the Syrian regime gets cornered and the fighters in the fields show progress, De Mistura presents an initiative and insists on it, in order to loosen the restrictions on Assad’s hands, who is recognized by the UN.”

Yamen Zaidan considered the truce to be “an American decision to put out the candles and distribute the interests”, as the truce is “the beginning of the game” of a new Sykes-Picot, and “the exclusion language in the truce makes all those who agree to it, face a common enemy.”

No Solutions and no alternatives

So, we find a difference between the coverage of the local truces and reconciliations and the coverage of the last truce. While we notice an absence or lack in covering the news about local truces and reconciliations or considering it as secondary news by some, the recent truce has occupied large tracts in most of these newspapers, which especially celebrated its results of having the peaceful movement back to the field of the revolution.

The newspapers (we followed) considered the local truces more like a win for the regime. Some even specifically focused on the sectarian dimension of these truces and the demographic change the regime tries to proceed with through the truce. However, all newspapers have justified the reasons for the residents under siege to go forward with the truce, despite a unanimous agreement that these truces fall into the regime’s favor, they have also at times held the political and armed divided factions of the opposition responsible.

The news coverage does not present solutions nor alternative choices of the truce, other than the necessity of focusing on future as the regime did not commit to humanitarian aids for example, or that the regime violates the items of the truce and ceasefire; most of the times, cities and towns that sign a truce are dealt with as being out of the revolutionary conflict and calculations in the future.

The recent truce somehow reached a unanimous agreement, even though many articles questioned the truce, its goals and outcomes, however, welcoming it and the call to accept it was the dominant situation. 

A close look at the global research centers could tell that local truces were the subject of interest, as De Mistura built his plan for the truce in Syria on it. Therefore, ignoring this case and not intensely highlight it, would practically be ignoring a case that formed an important focal for the international society to build its policy on.

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