U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura has been working furiously to secure a local cease-fire, or “freeze zone,” in the battered Syrian city of Aleppo, and this week he reported that the Assad regime was prepared to suspend its attacks on the city. I believe I can offer some insight into what such a pledge really means. I survived a local cease-fire in Syria.
At the start of 2014, I was a hunted man. After blocking food and other critical supplies from reaching us for more than a year, Bashar al-Assad’s forces had just strong-armed my home town, Moadamiya, into signing a local cease-fire. In protest, I resigned from Moadamiya’s local council and denounced the terms of the deal live on Al-Arabiya television. This made me one of Moadamiya’s most wanted men.
Suddenly, I began to find on my doorstep notes threatening me and my extended family with death unless I turned myself in. Friends I had not spoken to in years were arrested, interrogated and tortured for information on me. The regime raided my childhood home and attempted to arrest my family in Damascus and other places. Eventually, I came to believe that my detention was inevitable. I agreed to a meeting, figuring that I was about to die.
To my surprise, however, I was given the royal treatment. The regime put me up in a five-star hotel and offered me scrumptious meals of a kind I had not experienced for 18 months. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, an aide to Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, offered me and my entire family a safe, comfortable place to live in Damascus. I was asked to do only one thing in return: Promote local cease-fires in the media.
I told Bilal that in 2011, Syria’s freedom protesters had asked for a better future for everyone, including for him, but received only bullets in reply. He conceded to me that the crackdown had been wrong and had forced Syrians to take up arms, and he told me that Assad had tried to stop the attacks, only to be overruled by his intelligence services. But when I asked about the use of sarin gas against civilians in August 2013, I clearly crossed a line. His demeanor changed, and a menacing smile crept onto his face. “We both know the who and why,” he snapped. “Don’t ask questions you know the answer to!”
This conversation convinced me that Bilal felt no contrition for all the innocent blood on his hands. I knew I could not accept his offer. As a desperate gambit for my life, however, I pretended to agree, arguing that I needed to leave Syria to fulfill my new calling. If I were to praise the cease-fires from Damascus, I pointed out, my media contacts would assume I was doing so under duress. The ruse worked. Bilal arranged for my passage to Lebanon, and from there, I made my way to the United States.
Today, I remain in regular contact with my friends in Moadamiya. Now enough time has passed to evaluate the success of this supposed cease-fire.
With the cease-fire, basic services were supposed to be restored, checkpoints removed and prisoners freed. None of this has happened. The regime continues to cut off power, gas and other basic services to Moadamiya. Some humanitarian aid is allowed to enter, but not nearly enough for the town’s residents. The regime is also pressuring civilians to return to Moadamiya, which is undermining living conditions and forcing the local council into more concessions.
My initial suspicions have all been confirmed. Most egregiously, bombardments continue and the regime has resumed arrest raids on civilians. Dozens of people have been tortured to death. The politicians and diplomats say a local cease-fire is in effect in Moadamiya, but they have abandoned us to the Assad regime’s brutal hands. De Mistura said this month that “President Assad is part of the solution,” but the regime has already shown that it is not serious about compromise and has no regrets for destroying the country. If the United Nations cannot even enforce a local cease-fire in a single town, what makes de Mistura think he can do it in Syria’s largest municipality?
In recent months, my conversations with friends back home have grown more difficult. Many are seriously considering joining the Islamic State, even though they oppose everything it stands for. They are sick of the world’s hypocrisy and double standards. The world protects Kobane but lets Aleppo burn. Starving Yazidis in Sinjar receive urgent food airdrops while starving Syrians in Moadamiya are left to die. Coalition warplanes crisscross Syria every day. Where are the airdrops of food or medical supplies for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians besieged by the Assad regime in Moadamiya and elsewhere?
Such glaring hypocrisy is bound to turn more Syrians toward the Islamic State. Correcting the hypocrisy should be a morally obvious choice. The world cannot help Syrian civilians by prodding us into negotiations with bloodthirsty murderers.
Kassem Al-Haj Eid is also known by the nom de guerre Qusai Zakarya.