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'Reconciliation' takes hold in embattled Syria town

Syrian rebels in battle-scarred Tal Khalakh have turned in their arms and signed loyalty pledges to the government. Similar truces, though tenuous, are spreading in some areas.

March 09, 2014|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Syrian rebels, in the background, talk with Syrian government forces last month after a reconciliation agreement between the two groups in Babila, on the outskirts of Damascus.
Syrian rebels, in the background, talk with Syrian government forces last… (Associated Press )

TAL KHALAKH, Syria — For more than a year, Ghassan Eid didn't speak to his son, Khaled, who abandoned his job as a policeman and joined the armed rebels.

"I was ashamed," recalled the father, a shop owner in Tal Khalakh, long renowned as a smuggling hub with nearby Lebanon — and more recently as a cross-border terminus for arms and rebel fighters. "He was not my son anymore."

All that has changed. Khaled has renounced the uprising to oust President Bashar Assad and is studying to become a lawyer.

"I was wrong; some people deceived us," Khaled, 31, dressed in a track suit, said as he and other young men hung out on the eerily becalmed streets of Tal Khalakh, where bullet- and shell-pocked buildings attest to months of conflict. "I'm back to myself now."

He is among hundreds of ex-rebels in the Tal Khalakh area who, according to the mayor here, have joined what the Syrian government calls the "reconciliation" process.

Participants agree to turn in their arms and sign a pledge of loyalty to Assad's government. In return, officials say, they are allowed to return to civilian life or to army units if they were deserters.

Reconciliation, in varied forms, is slowly gaining momentum in some areas of Syria and has taken off lately in a number of former battleground districts outside Damascus, the capital.

Though the process is tenuous, and some truces have broken down amid mutual allegations of violations, Syrian government officials hail the developments as a home-grown alternative to stalled peace talks in Geneva, where each side has accused the other of intransigence.

To segments of the armed opposition and its international allies, however, such truces are a case of capitulation forced through bombardment, starvation, mass detentions and siege. The military has been accused of reneging on promises, detaining participants and withholding aid to some besieged districts after truce deals were hammered out.

Without question, the embryonic reconciliation process could easily falter.

"This is a very fragile situation," said Elia Samman, an aide to Ali Hayder, appointed by Assad as the national minister of reconciliation. "There is no trust between both sides. We need to build trust."

Many opposition advocates see reconciliation as a cynical strategy aimed at gaining a military advantage by neutralizing rebel fighters who, in many cases, rejoin the military or sign up for pro-government militias.

"What happened in Tal Khalakh is not a truce, it's a military occupation," said Aboud Dandachi, an exiled antigovernment activist who comes from a prominent family in the town.

"I don't blame people who have been shelled and starved for agreeing to live under a military occupation," Dandachi, 37, said in a Skype interview from Istanbul, Turkey. "But it's not some kind of template for peace in Syria."

Still, many Syrians agree that the deeply polarized country must somehow pull back from the dark abyss it has tumbled into.

As the Syrian civil war nears the three-year mark, Tal Khalak stands as a kind of microcosm of the conflict, which has evolved from peaceful protests to a military crackdown to prolonged armed clashes, and, in Tal Khalakh and elsewhere, to uneasy truces in war-ravaged, depopulated towns and cities.

"People are tired of the war," Yacoub El Hillo, the chief U.N. representative in Syria, said last month while helping to oversee a series of temporary truces in the rebel-held Old City of Homs. "People want peace again."

An unexpected outcome of the Homs cease-fires was the decision of more than 500 males between the ages of 15 and 55 to evacuate the Old City voluntarily and submit to the reconciliation procedure.

Many were aware that by doing so, they could face prison for acts of "terrorism" committed as rebel fighters. Those interviewed said they were just fed up with the battle, lack of food and other hardships.

"We couldn't stand it in there any more," said one evacuee, Bilal, 18, a gray blanket hanging over his shoulder, his baggy clothes evidence of 30 pounds lost during the almost two-year government siege. "There was no point in continuing. I'd rather take my chances and hope I can get back some kind of regular life. This is over for me."

In Tal Khalakh, just off the strategic highway connecting Homs province to the Mediterranean, the truce has held for eight months, authorities say. Military checkpoints are found at all entrances to Tal Khalakh, which had a prewar population of about 40,000; it appears more than half the residents have fled. The rebels who once held sway have either left or agreed to truce terms, residents say.

"Everything is back to normal here now," said Aksam Jazzar, 54, a barber, who nonetheless had no customers in his shop.

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