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Damascus ceasefires bring respite but no end to conflict

People walk as others ride on a bicycle along a street in Arbeen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, March 9, 2014. Picture taken Mar
People walk as others ride on a bicycle along a street in Arbeen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, March 9, 2014. Picture taken Mar

(The identity of the reporter has been withheld for security reasons)

BARZEH, Syria (Reuters) - Overwhelmed by hunger and outgunned by their enemy, Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed a ceasefire with President Bashar al-Assad's forces besieging them.

It was one of several similar deals struck around Damascus, allowing a semblance of normality to return to some districts and the government to proclaim a homegrown reconciliation process with local fighters - though not foreign jihadis.

But in Barzeh the truce agreed in January tastes like defeat for fighters who once hoped to overrun the capital, topple Assad and win a conflict which enters its fourth year this month.

The army siege of Barzeh, part of a nationwide campaign against opposition strongholds which some officials refer to as "starvation until submission", wore down rebel resistance.

"They knew exactly when to approach us with a ceasefire agreement," said Abu Yahya, a rebel spokesman.

"We got tired. We didn't have enough men toward the end. The guys were exhausted pulling 24-hour guard duty, in addition to fighting," he told a Reuters reporter visiting Barzeh last week. "We were hungry, and even though we remained steadfast, in the end psychologically we were beaten."

The streets of Barzeh, around five km (three miles) north of central Damascus, have been pulverized by air raids and fighting which, at the height of the violence, left bodies lying uncollected in the open for days, residents say.

Now food and medicine, once in desperately short supply, enter relatively freely and some families who fled have returned, although many have found their homes in ruins.

Ceasefires have also been reached in the western Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya, Qudsaya to the north, and Yalda, Beit Sahm, Yarmouk and Babilla to the south.

Government officials say local fighters could be eligible for amnesty or even reintegration into Assad's forces. Their unspoken message is that Syrians will resolve their catastrophic civil war by themselves, ignoring international mediation and any demands for Assad to make concessions to his foes.

This is reinforced by signs that Assad will run for re-election this summer and by his visit this week to a refuge for displaced people outside Damascus where he told a cheering audience: "The state is for every Syrian."

FRAGILE TRUCES

The Barzeh fighters swallowed a bitter pill in accepting the truce. "Many rebels were badly wounded towards the end, when the siege got very bad and we couldn't smuggle any medical equipment or food to help them," Abu Yahya said. Around 120 fighters from an original rebel force of 700 were killed in a two-year struggle for the suburb, he added.

In many areas where truces are agreed, the army has remained on the periphery in return for symbolic steps such as replacing the rebel flag with the national flag used by Assad supporters.

The deals are fragile - in Qudsaya the army reimposed its siege - and leave much unresolved including the fate of gunmen inside rebel areas and demands for the release of detainees.

But for the government forces around Barzeh the benefits are clear. They are able to redeploy to other conflict areas and have regained access to the adjacent pro-Assad neighbourhood of Ish al-Warwar, home to military families who had been cut off from central Damascus by the fighting.

"Our leadership is a genius to come up with the ceasefire idea in Barzeh," one intelligence officer boasted in an overheard conversation with a taxi driver in Damascus. "We turned the rebels from fighters into bunnies in our hands."

In Barzeh last week, rebels were seen walking about or manning a checkpoint, generally relaxed but wary of strangers. At times they were armed, wearing rebel fatigues or civilian clothing. Some of them walked on crutches.

But many people are suspicious of the agreement because their main demand has yet to be met. "We still want our detainees who the regime hasn't released. The ceasefire is good but it needs to be fully implemented. The detainees are our children, and holding them is unjust," said a community elder known as Haji, revered by young rebels.

Asked what he expected now that Assad's government shows every sign of staying in place, he shrugged. "We fear only God. And we have faith that God has a way with tyrants," he said.

"DEATH STREET"

For one Barzeh family, the truce allowed them to return to the home they fled a year ago.

"That's what we used to call Death Street," said the mother, who asked to be identified as Rana, pointing to a main avenue. "The bodies lay there for days and no one could get to them and the dogs came down from the hills to pick at them."

She pointed out familiar faces. "This is the father of the guy who took down a very dangerous sniper before he was martyred. And this one here, his son was martyred, so he left his home and allowed rebels to stay in it," she said. "That one over there used to work as an actor before he was a rebel."

She paused in front of the ruins of a traditional Arab-style house, where a feral cat tip-toed over fallen masonry. Once, it had been her sister-in-law's home before the air raids and shelling from government batteries on hills overlooking the town. "Oh my God! Her house is gone," Rana said.

In other parts of Barzeh, signs of life have re-appeared.

A few people sat outdoors eating chicken shawarma with garlic sauce at a stand that reopened last month. The butcher next door, who also recently reopened, said now that the siege was eased he received meat, though not everything gets through.

"I call a guy and buy a head of sheep, and he takes it to the slaughterhouse then sends the meat here," he said. "But on the way there are many (government) checkpoints, and sometimes they pocket some of the meat. Today they took the tongue," he said with a chuckle, rolling his eyes.

Some people live in half-destroyed buildings, though many accept these must be knocked down eventually and rebuilt. They talk, with hope but little expectation, of reconstruction, while stocking up on provisions in case the siege is reinstated.

"WE WANT TO LIVE"

The ceasefires vary from district to district. Journalists on a government tour of Babilla last month saw what appeared to be rebel gunmen and pro-Assad forces cooperating on the streets.

But activists in Mouadamiya, which endured one of the harshest sieges before agreeing a truce, say security forces are stepping up pressure for remaining rebels there to surrender.

In Yarmouk, home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees before the uprising erupted, a deal to allow in food and aid broke down in early March when clashes reignited between al Qaeda-linked fighters and the army. Amnesty International says 128 people have died there of starvation.

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who helped broker a humanitarian deal in January to get aid into the old city of Homs and evacuate hundreds of residents, has remained silent about the local deals.

After hosting two rounds of peace talks in Switzerland which made no political progress, diplomats say Brahimi is reluctant to provide international legitimacy to deals which leave Assad's forces in full control and provide no guarantees for civilians still living in affected areas.

"You don't really believe that we're letting them get away with it, do you?" said a pro-Assad militia member, referring to rebels still inside Qudsaya.

"We know exactly who they are and for sure we're not letting them get away with what they've done. We have orders to hunt them down one by one," he said, smiling and making a slap gesture with his hands as he chatted with a neighbour.

The Qudsaya truce collapsed after an officer from an adjacent district dominated by Assad's Alawite minority went into the rebel-controlled area with his son, violating an agreement that no military should enter. Both were killed.

In response the government shut all roads into Qudsaya and, instead of demanding the killers be handed over, asked for 6 million pounds ($40,000) in blood money. The rebels consented, pressing residents and merchants to pitch in to raise the money.

"This is how the regime aims to destroy our community. They pressure and pressure until we turn on each other. Can you believe that now rebels are asking store owners for protection money?" said one resident. "We've turned into a cowboy movie."

That frustration is mixed with resignation that, after a long and costly struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule, some people just want the conflict to end.

Three years after the demands for reform erupted around Damascus and demonstrators chanted "Leave, Leave Bashar", a new refrain is heard whenever people broach the issue of ceasefires.

"We want to live," they say.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and David Stamp)

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