For over two years, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been implementing a policy of siege and starvation in areas of Syria where it encountered harsh resistance by armed opposition forces. But the main victim of this policy has been the unarmed civilian population. While it weakens the opposition forces, this strategy is also aimed at exhausting the civilian support and causing it to reject these opposition forces, which the regime can leverage to pressure the opposition into signing local ceasefire agreements. The regime calls these agreements, which are de facto surrender by the opposition forces, "national reconciliations" or "local reconciliations." Assad himself said in December 2015 that the reconciliations are obtained when the armed opposition members "hand over their weapons and return to their normal lives, and the government pardons them." One notable example of this strategy is the January 2014 ceasefire between the regime and opposition forces across large parts of the Old City of Homs that were heavily besieged by the regime. According to reports by opposition elements, the regime regularly violates these agreements, bombing and besieging areas where it had agreed to maintain a ceasefire, whenever it needs to and in accordance with its progress on the ground.
In addition to vanquishing opposition forces, which frees up its own forces for other fronts, these "reconciliations" also enable the regime to establish its claim that it is fighting local armed elements - and that it is not facing a widespread popular uprising with national political demands. Thus, it avoids the need to negotiate with the political opposition, as doing so could harm its status and even lead to its ouster.
In recent months, UN representatives in Syria have played a role in negotiating such ceasefires between the regime, on the one hand, and representatives of the local population and of the opposition forces, on the other, in several areas where there has been severe fighting. This has happened, for example, in the city of Al-Zabadani in the Rif Dimashq governorate in northwestern Syria, where regime and Hizbullah forces were fighting Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, and in the Al-Wa'er neighborhood in the Old City of Homs, also the site of fighting against Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra along with dozens of other opposition factions. Under these agreements, the sides agreed that the regime would lift the siege, and that in return the armed fighters would either leave the area for the Idlib governorate, which is under opposition control, or hand over their weapons. In both cases, UN representatives attended the talks and negotiations that led to the agreements.
In the town of Qudsaya in Rif Dimashq, a similar regime-opposition agreement was attained; in this case, the opposition consisted primarily of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Under this agreement, armed fighters and civilians who wished to could leave for Idlib, in return for the regime's lifting of its five-month siege. While UN representatives were not present during the negotiations that led to the agreement, they did oversee the opposition forces' departure.
As noted, the new element in the agreements reached in Al-Zabadani, Al-Wa'er, and Qudsaya is UN representatives' presence in both the negotiation and implementation phases. These representatives explained that the agreements allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to local populations after months during which this was not possible due to siege by the regime and its allies, or by opposition elements.
Moreover, the UN representatives, led by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, praised these agreements, pinning their hopes on them and portraying them as a model for arriving at a complete ceasefire across Syria, as stated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 - even as they disregarded the fact that they had been achieved following months of heavy siege and the starvation of the local populace. The UN's involvement in such agreements and its attitude towards them - especially in light of the fact that they came at the same time as international efforts were stepped up to resolve the Syria crisis and to implement UNSCR 2254 - could be perceived by the Syrian regime as implicit consent to the siege and starvation strategy that it is using to defeat the opposition, and as acceptance of these "national reconciliations" as a way to instill calm.
Indeed, early signs of such UN acceptance of the regime's methods of vanquishing the opposition were clear in the "Aleppo First" initiative presented by de Mistura to the Security Council in October 2014. The initiative involved a freeze on fighting in defined areas, and the transfer of humanitarian aid to them. The first aim was to address the devastating humanitarian conditions and to allow both sides to turn their weapons on the Islamic State (ISIS), which was depicted by de Mistura as an enemy to both the regime and the opposition. Its long-term goal was to gradually build trust between the sides, leading to political negotiations. The city of Aleppo was selected as the first area where these measures were to be implemented, both because of its dire humanitarian situation and because ISIS was advancing on it. In talks with the regime to implement the initiative, de Mistura accepted many of its preconditions, including restricting the initiative to the neighborhoods where the regime had encountered large-scale resistance, and stopping airstrikes but continuing with ground operations. While the initiative was ultimately not implemented due to additional regime demands and due to opposition objections, it did reflect a change in the UN's approach to the crisis - that is, prioritizing fighting ISIS and rejecting opposition demands to be allowed to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime. De Mistura's outline for resolving the Syria crisis is along the same lines as the regime's - that is, local ceasefires for forces on the ground.
President Obama also recently voiced support for this paradigm, but neglected to mention the circumstances under which it was used or its actual implications. At a press conference during the December 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, he said: "What can happen is if the political process that John Kerry has so meticulously stitched together - in concert with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia - if that works in Vienna, then it's possible, given the existing accord that the parties have already agreed to, that we start seeing at least pockets of ceasefires in and around Syria. That may mean then that certain opposition groups no longer find themselves subject to either Syrian or Russian bombing; they are then in a conversation about politics. And slowly, we then are able to get everybody's attention diverted to where it needs to be, and that is going after ISIL in a systematic way."
The Assad regime views UN involvement in these agreements, which were arrived at in accordance with the model that it set forth, as legitimizing its path to resolve the Syria crisis. On the other hand, various opposition elements have been extremely critical of the UN involvement, stating that the organization is now a party to the siege, starvation, and crimes committed by Assad against the Syrian people.
This paper will discuss the agreements arrived at in Al-Zabadani and the Al-Wa'er neighborhood in Homs with the participation of UN representatives, and the criticism they sparked among the Syrian opposition.
The Al-Zabadani/Al-Fu'ah/Kefraya Agreement
On September 29, 2015, a local ceasefire was signed in Istanbul, with Turkish sponsorship and UN oversight, between the opposition and the regime; the latter was represented by Iran. The ceasefire followed months of intense fighting in and around the city of Al-Zabadani between regime and Hizbullah forces, who heavily besieged the city, and opposition forces led by the Islamic Ahrar Al-Sham movement, which is part of the Jaysh Al-Fatah coalition led by Jabhat Al-Nusra. The agreement tied Al-Zabadani and its surroundings, where Assad and Hizbullah had the upper hand, to the villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kefraya, both Shi'ite enclaves of regime loyalists in the Idlib governorate that were besieged by opposition forces led by Jaysh Al-Fatah.
The main sections of the agreement's first phase included a 48-hour complete ceasefire with an option to extend it; allowing all opposition fighters to leave Al-Zabadani for Idlib with only their small arms, and any civilians who so desire to leave as well; destroying all opposition heavy weaponry in the city; allowing 10,000 women, children, and men below and above fighting age to leave the Shi'ite villages; allowing safe passage for the wounded from both sides; ceasing all offensive action, including the denial of humanitarian passage to the Shi'ite villages and denial of entry into the towns of Madaya, Baqin, and Serghaya, which are adjacent to Al-Zabadani; and establishing a committee of representatives from the UN, Iran, and the armed groups to oversee the implementation of the agreement and deal with any emerging problems (the UN and Iranian representatives would stay in Damascus). In the second phase of the agreements, a six-month ceasefire (hudna) is to be declared, and hundreds of prisoners released.
The agreement explicitly stated that the first phase would "be implemented with the sponsorship, oversight, and presence of the UN" and that the second phase "could take place under UN supervision." According to other reports, the agreement also includes the delivery of humanitarian aid to the areas it covers.
Despite the above, in actuality both sides violated the ceasefire many times, and only a few sections of the agreement were implemented, and with much delay. Only on December 27, 2015, three months after the agreement was signed, did some 130 opposition fighters, most of them wounded, leave Al-Zabadani with their families, along with some 300 families and wounded from Al-Fu'ah and Kefraya. It is not clear how many opposition fighters remain in Al-Zabadani. In the four months between the signing of the agreement and the end of the year, humanitarian aid was brought in to the besieged areas only once.
Madaya: Ongoing Siege Despite UN-Sponsored Ceasefire
One of the regime's blatant violations of this ceasefire is the ongoing siege of the town of Madaya, near Al-Zabadani. According to opposition reports, the siege was stepped up after the agreement was signed, and the regime and Hizbullah forces surrounding the village mined its entrances so that food could not be brought in. These reports stated that the town's 40,000 residents, some of them refugees from Al-Zabadani, are suffering from severe shortages of food and medical supplies, and are surviving on weeds and tree bark, and are even killing and eating cats. Although under the agreement the regime undertook to lift the siege and allow aid convoys to enter the town, by December only one aid convoy had been allowed to enter. Residents even reported that there had been some deaths from starvation.
It was only after local residents and opposition elements raised an outcry on social networks and in the media about the severity of the situation that the international community acted; following pressure, the regime and Hizbullah allowed aid convoys to enter the town, on condition that similar convoys would be allowed into the Shi'ite villages of Al-Fu'ah and Kefraya. Following a visit to the town, Red Cross and UN representatives confirmed the reports of dire humanitarian conditions, and also reported that there had been several starvation deaths even after the aid convoys were allowed in.
Social media campaign "Madaya Calls To You": "One of the sections of the agreement is the delivery of aid to Madaya. Where is it?" (Source: "Lift Siege from Madaya" Facebook hashtag, January 3, 2016)
Hashtag: "Madaya Dying of Starvation" (Source: Orient-news.net, January 3, 2016)
The Al-Wa'er Agreement
On December 1, 2015, after some two years of siege and heavy shelling by the Syrian army, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the regime and dignitaries from the Al-Wa'er neighborhood in the Old City of Homs along with representatives of the armed opposition factions in the neighborhood. One opposition body reported that the fighters belonged to several factions, including Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra.
UN representatives were present during the negotiations for this agreement also - Khawla Mattar, the head of de Mistura's Damascus office, and UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator Yacoub Al-Hillo.
Al-Wa'er, nicknamed "the capital of the revolution," was the last bastion of the opposition in the Old City. The other neighborhoods there had been handed over to the regime in "reconciliation agreements" signed in May 2014 after fierce battles and after the humanitarian situation had deteriorated due to the regime's siege and starvation strategy. Agreements had also been signed concerning Al-Wa'er, but both sides had violated them.
There are conflicting reports regarding the details of the December 1 agreement. The regime maintains that after it comes into force, "Al-Wa'er will be completely safe and stable, and will have no weapons other than those of the state, and all state institutions will resume operation, including regime and security elements, and these elements will be responsible for maintaining security."
However, the opposition forces that signed the agreement contend that the agreement allows them to continue their control of the neighborhood. They do acknowledge that under the agreement only fighters who do not oppose the agreement will be allowed to stay, and that they will not be allowed to possess medium and heavy weapons. These weapons will be turned over to the regime, and regime security and police forces will secure and operate the public and government institutions in Al-Wa'er. They also acknowledge that the agreement stipulates that residents leaving the neighborhood must go through a regime security forces checkpoint, and that wanted men will be turned back until their status vis-├á-vis the regime is resolved.
Both sides, however, agree that in the first phase of the agreement, the siege on the neighborhood will be lifted and humanitarian aid will be allowed in, in return for the gradual exodus of armed elements opposing the agreement, with their families, for the rebel-controlled Idlib. In the second phase, entry and departure from the neighborhood will be permitted, and prisoners will be released.
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Several days after the agreement was signed, the first phase began to be implemented; some 300 fighters and 100 families left the neighborhood for Idlib, accompanied by a UN vehicle, and humanitarian aid and food were sent in.
Fighters leave Al-Wa'er accompanied by UN representatives (Source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, December 9, 2015)
In addition to the exodus of the fighters and the entry of humanitarian aid, UN representatives are set to meet with teams dealing with aid, humanitarian services, and healthcare in the neighborhood, apparently in order to observe the rehabilitation process.
UN Representatives Praise Al-Wa'er Agreement - Although It Was Arrived At Following Siege, Starvation
Although the Al-Wa'er agreement was arrived at because of the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the regime's siege and starvation of the populace, UN representatives praised it and considered it a model for other agreements for other battlegrounds, particularly in the wake of UNSCR 2254 that calls for a complete ceasefire in Syria in January 2016. Following the signing of the Al-Wa'er agreement, Farhan Haq, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said on behalf of Staffan de Mistura: "The UN's clear goal is to reach, as soon as possible, a nationwide ceasefire. [Meanwhile] initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities and have great value... They help the perception that a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the members of the International Syria Support Group is doable and that the UN can and will do its part."
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien said that he hoped to see more local ceasefires like the Al-Wa'er ceasefire - a statement that the regime might interpret as acceptance of its siege and starvation policy. Several days later, O'Brien clarified that humanitarian aid should not be conditional upon such agreements.
UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator Al-Hillo also praised the agreement: "This is an historic day in Homs - a clearly Syrian-Syrian day, because the agreement was reached among the Syrians themselves." Downplaying the UN's role in it, he said: "The UN is on the ground as an element to reassure, and to build trust between the sides, and not as a party to the agreement."
Syrian Regime: The Ceasefire Mandated By UNSCR 2254 Will Be Achieved Via Local Reconciliation Agreements
Naturally, the Syrian regime welcomed the UN's involvement in the recent agreements, and saw it as a legitimization of the path it was taking in order to resolve the Syrian crisis. At the same time, the regime is seeking, successfully, to limit UN involvement to logistical aspects only, in order to show that these agreements are intra-Syrian and do not include foreign intervention. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem stressed, at a meeting with O'Brien, that it is crucial for relevant UN bodies to undertake to act in the capacity of their humanitarian and aid-providing roles - that is, that they should not interfere in the political aspects of the of the situations. The governor of Homs, Talal Al-Barazi, also underlined that "there is no international participation in the content of the Al-Wa'er neighborhood agreement, which was achieved via Syrian-Syrian dialogue several months ago." He continued: "The role of the UN and the Arab Syrian Red Crescent is only to participate in the logistical operations and in the evacuation [of fighters and citizens]."
Al-Thawra columnist Ahmad 'Orabi Ba'aj wrote about the Syrian regime's view of these agreements and of the ceasefire mandated by UNSCR 2254: "The achievements of the Syrian Arab army forced the terrorist organizations to retreat, and have resulted in local reconciliations... that prepare the ground for the removal of weapons and the return of those areas to the lap of the state. This is the most precise translation of the term 'ceasefire' that recently appeared in Security Council resolutions. There can be no ceasefire with the presence of terrorist or armed organizations that do not hand their weapons over to the legitimate regime anywhere in the world - and the same goes for Syria as well..."
Syrian Opposition Elements: The UN Is Party To Assad's Starvation Crimes, And Isn't Trying To Stop Them
Conversely, elements in the Syrian opposition harshly criticized the UN's involvement in these agreements - particularly in light of its inability to bring about an end to the Syria war which has been raging for nearly five years, or even to pressure the regime to stop using barrel bombs and its strategy of siege and starvation.
One of the opposition's main arguments is that the UN is legitimizing the regime's siege and starvation strategy, and is thus violating UNSCR 2139 that calls on all parties in Syria to allow the transfer of humanitarian aid.
Ali Hamidi, of the oppositionist website Orient-News, wrote: "In both cases [i.e., the agreements in Al-Wa'er and Qudsaya] the UN was present and was a direct partner, as well as [being involved through the mediation of] Special Envoy de Mistura. This is unprecedented in the history of this organization, which is overseeing the regime's crimes in Syria instead of attempting to put a stop to them. In fact, [the UN] is cooperating to a large extent with the regime in subduing the areas... which increases the possibility that the Assad regime will continue to use siege scenarios in other areas so as to reach agreements and ceasefires with the UN's consent and sponsorship..."
The Saraya Al-Ghurabaa organization, which operates under the auspices of the FSA in Al-Wa'er and which opposed the ceasefire agreement, stated that the UN, by being party to the agreements, had violated Security Council resolutions. It said in a statement following the Al-Wa'er agreement: "The humanitarian bodies, especially those belonging to the UN, are not neutral. They should have transferred aid to the neighborhood without turning to the regime, in accordance with UNSCR 2139 and 2165."
Syrian Oppositionist: "Dracula's Grandson" De Mistura Sucks The Blood Of Syrians, Delights At Their Corpses
Following the reports of the severe starvation in Madaya resulting from the ongoing siege, that was in direct violation of the Al-Zabadani/Al-Fu'ah/Kefraya agreement, oppositionist writer Iyad 'Issa penned a personal attack on UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, calling him "Dracula's grandson and rightful heir" and accusing him of accepting bribes from the Syrian regime. He wrote: "The more appropriate name [for de Mistura], which is more fitting of this situation, is Dracula, after Count Dracula, the famous original model for vampires. It is no coincidence that both have the title of Count... [De Mistura] was born to an Italian father and has dual Italian and Swedish citizenship, but he is more likely Dracula's grandson and rightful heir...
"The 'grandfather' Dracula was a respected killer. According to legend, throughout his life he sucked the blood of only 40,000 people. However, his grandson de Mistura sees the attempt to eradicate a similar number in the starvation-struck Madaya as a mere appetizer to the 500,000 victims of the Syrian 'roasted meat banquet' that has been raging for five years with UN sponsorship. Since we [first] had the honor of becoming acquainted with de Mistura, the special envoy for the great murderers club falsely known as the Security Council, in July 2014, who served as... mediator in the 'starve or submit' reconciliations, he has been more like a hyena than a vampire, since vampires prefer warm blood rather than feasting on carrion or delighting in corpses, as de Mistura did in Homs's Al-Wa'er neighborhood and in Qudsaya before that, and as he is currently doing in Madaya, Al-Zabadani, Darayya, Al-Ma'adamiyeh, Duma, Al-Qabun, and dozens of occupied Syrian cities, towns, and villages. [He does this] in return for a public monthly salary [from the UN] and a hidden salary [from the Assad regime]..."
UN Enabling The Regime To Enact A Policy Of Expulsion And Uprooting
Opposition elements are also claiming that the UN is enabling the Syrian regime and its allies to forcibly relocate local Sunni populations with the aim of creating contiguous Shi'ite territory, by helping expel residents from areas covered by local ceasefires.
Thus, for example, after the signing of the Al-Wa'er agreement, and concurrent with the implementation of the second phase of humanitarian aid transfer, several dozen residents protested against what they called "the organized expulsion being carried out by the Assad regime with UN backing."
Al-Wa'er residents protesting: "Revolutionaries are our people. [It is] Al-Assad regime who is killer. United Nations [does] what...?!" (Source: Orient-news.net, December 12, 2015)
Dr. Riad Na'asan Agha, spokesman for the opposition's Syrian Supreme Commission for Negotiations, said that the UN's actions in favor of these ceasefire agreements and its participation in them are dangerous and overstep the UN's mandate. This, he said, is because they include removing the original residents of the areas where the agreements are signed, leading to demographic shifts that are based on ethnicity.
'Amar Shahda, writing in the oppositionist website Orient-News, argued that the UN was an accomplice in the expulsion and uprooting of Syrian civilians from their homes: "Recently there has been a clear increase in the local 'reconciliations and arrangements' in several Syrian governorates, the most difficult and painful of which [involved] the forceful uprooting of residents from their areas via agreements for organized expulsion, all of which are godfathered by the UN. In this way, the UN violated one of the main articles of its human rights declaration. Videos documenting the forceful removal of residents of the Al-Wa'er neighborhood, which, under siege, was the last bastion of the revolution in its capital of Homs, showed devastating sights of forceful uprooting of people from their areas, under an agreement organized by the UN... Homs was emptied [of its original residents] under the auspices of the UN...
"All the agreements for expelling the original residents from their areas, under the slogan of 'arrangements, ceasefires, and reconciliations,' went through UN channels. The international organization is knowingly and deliberately violating one of the main articles in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights... which states that every person has the right to travel and choose his place of residence within the borders of his country. The only result of the UN's efforts after some five years of war against the Syrian people was the uprooting and expulsion of residents from [various] areas in Syria... while this organization and its various branches... failed to stop the daily killing and the bombardment with barrel bombs and missiles... and to end the policy of siege and starvation implemented by Assad's forces and the Shi'ite militias in Homs and the Rif Dimashq [governorate]...
"This time, the UN took these steps with clear Russian backing and with a green light from America, especially after Barack Obama's recent announcement of support for 'regional solutions'..."
* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1069, Syria Regime's Tactic Against Opponents: 'Surrender Or Starve', February 13, 2014.
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