Russian-brokered ceasefire begins in south Damascus despite calls for ‘direct negotiation’ with Syrian government

AMMAN: A group of rebel factions in the regime-surrounded suburbs of south Damascus announced a ceasefire with Russian guarantees on Thursday, rejecting calls by local civilian and military leaders to directly negotiate with the Syrian government. 

The ceasefire over rebel-held south Damascus was announced in Cairo by Muhammad Aloush, political leader of Jaish al-Islam, one of three factions that signed the agreement. The ceasefire comes under “Egyptian sponsorship and a Russian guarantee,” Egyptian state media outlet MENA reported.

“We have reached an initial agreement for [south Damascus] to enter into the ceasefire and de-escalation system,” Aloush said at a press conference Thursday morning, referring to Russian-negotiated de-escalation zones implemented in rebel-held areas across Syria since May of this year.  

The south Damascus ceasefire agreement took effect at noon Thursday. It calls for border crossings to remain open and for aid to reach the enclave, according to MENA. Further details of the agreement, such as the duration and exact areas it covers, remain unclear.

Thursday’s ceasefire announcement follows a recent call by the Political Committee of South Damascus, a group of local civilian and rebel faction leaders from the area, for direct negotiations with the Syrian government to “take priority over any other solution from any other party,” such as the Russians.

“This is for the sake of safeguarding the area and its residents,” the committee’s statement reads, “and for the unity of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The Political Committee of South Damascus represents residents in ongoing truce talks with the regime, which first began in 2014, but have failed to produce a meaningful cessation of hostilities.

Fears of forced displacement

Local opponents of direct talks with the regime say they fear mass displacement as an outcome, citing previous one-sided reconciliation deals elsewhere in Syria that resulted in an exodus of residents.

“Civilians fear that residents… will be forcibly displaced, as was the case in Madaya and Zabadani,” says Mohammad Abu Teem, a civilian from the south Damascus town of Yalda, which is part of Thursday’s ceasefire.

Muhammad Aloush, political leader of Jaish al-Islam, at ceasefire talks in Cairo on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Al-Wafd.

Madaya and Zabadani are two of the four towns that were the focus of a prominent agreement reached between the Syrian regime and rebels in March known as the “Four Towns Agreement.” That deal led to large population transfers out of two encircled pro-Assad towns in the rebel-held north and two rebel-held towns outside of Damascus, west of the pocket comprising Thursday’s ceasefire agreement.

The Four Towns Agreement was met with protests in the southern Damascus town of Babila, where, in April, an estimated 4,000 residents fled the streets calling for an end to “forced displacement” and demanding that their region “not be lumped together with the Four Towns Agreement,” Syria Direct reported at the time.

‘No fire to cease’

A handful of south Damascus residents who spoke to Syria Direct on Thursday said they were surprised to hear of the new ceasefire.

“We residents of south Damascus have heard nothing of the ceasefire,” said Ahmad al-Hassan, a citizen journalist in the south Damascus town of Beit Sahm.

Mahmoud Mansour, a residents of the nearby town of Yalda, agreed.

“We’re the last ones to know [what’s happening],” he told Syria Direct. “Everything is happening, and we’re like a chess piece.”

Residents were similarly surprised by the nature of the agreement—a ceasefire—in an area that has witnessed relative calm.

“There’s no fire to cease,” al-Hassan said. 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.