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Local Genevas: Arms for Food?

(Image: Ibrahim Malla. ICRC bringing aid to Bloudan, 50 km northwest of Damascus.)

While the world’s eyes were focused on Geneva II, other negotiations were underway in Damascus Suburbs (Rif Dimashq Governorate). These negotiations did not tackle the big-picture aims of Geneva’s agenda, but instead offered practical, on-the-ground negotiating —sometimes in Syria’s most tense military fronts – concerning immediate needs and humanitarian aid.  This blog discusses these negotiations, sometimes termed “local Genevas,” in an effort to call attention to some of their limitations—particularly in regard to transitional justice.

Since mid-2012, Syrian government forces have enforced a tight military siege on the towns in Damascus Suburb. This siege has cut off food, drinking water, and shut down electricity for long periods at a time. Simultaneously, areas under siege have been subject to bombing by heavy artillery, resulting in the widespread destruction of buildings and property.

In some areas, these extreme circumstances have resulted in negotiations that focus on the entrance of UN missions to provide food relief, and, in the case of Barzeh, the release of some detainees. In return for access to food, armed opposition have handed over heavy weaponry or, as a first step, raised the flag of the Syrian government in the area in which the negotiations are taking place. There are many such negotiations taking place independently in different areas, and participants vary.  Government negotiators include representatives from the military, from intelligence, and from the Ministry of National Reconciliation. The local negotiators are comprised of civilians, local notables, and leaders of local armed opposition.  1 SJAC coordinator for Damascus Suburbs reports, however, that “the negotiation processes are adopting a specific format: arms for food.”

The SJAC coordinator adds that concerned citizens of these regions are in support of the negotiations. Citizens are particularly motivated by the pressure of blockades and food scarcity. With the exception of Babila, the towns engaging in negotiations are represented by local armed opposition – which has a vested interest in their localities –as opposed to more nationally-focused groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic Front. In areas where local armed groups are representative in the negotiations, the civilian population has appeared more supportive and negotiations have moved forward with more success. On the contrary, residents in towns controlled by non-local armed groups did not support these groups’ engagement in negotiations. Babila, for example, witnessed an anti-Assad protest during negotiations between al-Nusra and the Syrian government.

There is a drawback, however: these local-level negotiating processes do not involve any discussion of accountability or reconciliation. They do not touch upon issues of compensation, such as for damaged or destroyed property. Also omitted are discussions of issues like return of refugees and IDPs who left due to military operations, in response to blockades, or to escape arrest or killing.  Many also question those involved in these local negotiations: are they themselves perpetrators of crimes in these areas?

It may be too early to judge these local Genevas—they are in their infancy—but it is important to note their limited nature. Ultimately, any fair path to justice and stability cannot ignore the perpetrators or the damages they have inflicted upon life and property. The policy of siege and starvation of civilians for over a year and a half could be considered a war crime, and it will be necessary to confront such issues in the future.

This speaks to another shortcoming of these “local Genevas,” namely their limited potential for longevity. These negotiation processes have not led to any type of long-term peace agreement in these localities, and they are not designed to feed into the larger political negotiations at Geneva II.  These agreements are, in fact, shaky and very interim—they could collapse when confronted with any challenge.  Lessons learned from past conflicts may serve useful; they may help us understand whether a collapse of such local agreements could in fact lead to reprisals and increased violence.

Despite the challenges, these negotiations have managed (at least temporarily) to establish boundaries separating the territories of government forces from the domain of the local armed opposition. These boundaries are generally enforced at the entrances to cities and towns, and can facilitate access to aid and food relief.

Today, many civilians and entire residential areas remain under siege, and these local agreements can offer short term solutions to hunger, siege, and food scarcity.  Without addressing the Syria-wide negotiations or transitional justice issues, however, there are distinct limitations to these local Genevas.  In their current design, they are only “stop-gap” measures to address the humanitarian crisis, not to be confused with a holistic peace agreement that will be needed to end the conflict.  Although these local agreements are fragile and temporary, they do serve to alleviate people from immediate suffering. Nonetheless, such processes should be mindful of transitional justice goals—the need for accountability and reconciliation should not be overlooked in the rush to negotiate.

Notes:

  1. Local armed opposition” refers to groups of citizens who have taken up arms within their towns, with the goal of preventing outside military forces from entering. This is distinct from groups such as the Free Syrian Army or Jebhat al-Nusra.