As the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad wages an offensive with Russia's backing on rebels across the country, behind the front lines it has been consolidating its hold in Syria's west This is the part of the country sometimes called "useful Syria" home to most of its population and economic centers. The consolidation of regime control here may be a harbinger of a future, divided country — or it may create a base from which the regime can launch attacks on the rest of Syria.
The regime has systematically encircled, blockaded and bombed the remaining pockets of rebel control in the west, from the capital Damascus up through the city of Homs to the Mediterranean coast. Now the exhausted residents of these rebel enclaves – denied regular access to food and medical supplies for months or even years – are increasingly agreeing to one-sided settlements with the regime in exchange for relief and an end to the violence.
Through these truces and ceasefires, the regime is neutralizing the last pockets of rebels who could threaten its core territory. It is also strengthening its hand ahead of planned negotiations with the Syrian opposition.
"These aren't truces in the strict sense," said Muhammad Abu Kamal, a relief activist who spoke to VICE News from Damascus's besieged East Ghouta suburbs. "Rather, they're emptying out revolutionary areas whose rebels were putting some pressure on the regime."
The hungry residents of these rebel-held towns and neighborhoods have more immediate concerns than worrying over what essentially amounts to conditional surrender to a tyrant.
"Those who criticize this truce don't know the deplorable humanitarian situation the regime had put us in," said Abu Walid al-Wa'ar, an activist from Homs's rebel-held al-Wa'ar neighborhood, who uses a revolutionary alias. Rebels there agreed to a ceasefire deal in early December.
"The regime starves their people (…) then uses the civilians to pressure the fighters."
Rebels and regime forces initially fought pitched battles up and down the country's central-western corridor, including a fight for Homs that reduced much of it to rubble. But thanks in part to help from Lebanon's Hezbollah, the regime was eventually able to retake control of most of the west and to bottle up rebels in disconnected enclaves in and around Damascus and Homs.
When Bashar al-Assad said in a July 2015 speech that his regime would make a priority of defending its most strategically vital territory, this is the section of the country he meant. Because of the displacement of civilians from bombed-out rebel areas to the relative safety of ones held by the regime, this zone contains, by one 2015 estimate, between 55 and 72 percent of Syria's remaining population.
Under truces recently brokered in al-Wa'ar, the Damascus suburb Qudsiyya, and several southern Damascus neighborhoods, state authority is to be partially restored. Some civilian and rebel holdouts will be or have been bussed to areas outside regime control.
"In these besieged cities, the regime starves their people for a while, then uses the civilians to pressure the fighters," said Homs activist Suleiman Abu Yassin. Abu Yassin left Homs's besieged Old City neighborhood under a 2014 truce, only to be bussed to the northern Homs countryside, which is also blockaded.
Even in areas that have already agreed to truces, such as the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiyyah, the regime has unilaterally revised the terms and re-tightened its blockade to extract further concessions.
The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or OCHA has reportedly played a key role in facilitating and supervising these deals, and the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, recently praised the one-sided deal for al-Wa'ar as "a truly good model to build upon." This has prompted criticism from some, who argue OCHA is legitimizing illegal siege tactics and facilitating the forced displacement of residents of opposition areas.
The UN has emphasized the humanitarian importance of these deals. "These urgently needed actions are critical as they allow humanitarian actors to reach thousands of people in these hard-to-reach locations and who are in desperate need of assistance," said El Hillo in an OCHA statement on the al-Wa'ar deal.
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi told Syria's SANA news service that the al-Wa'ar deal would allow for the evacuation of "extremist militants" from the neighborhood and the return of state institutions. SANA compared the agreement to the deal for Old Homs, which permitted "the return of normal life to Old Homs."
Representatives for the Syrian government and OCHA did not respond to requests for comment.
"Now they're on the defensive in every battle"
In November, rebels nearly agreed to a ceasefire in Damascus's East Ghouta area, one of the last major rebel enclaves in the regime-held west, along with the northern Homs countryside. Even powerful Damascus-area brigade Jaish al-Islam gave its conditional support for an agreement. Locals told VICE News that the brigade was willing to risk its revolutionary credibility for a deal because, as in other besieged areas, East Ghouta's residents are tired.
"A large section [of Ghouta residents] support a ceasefire," said relief activist Abu Kamal. "The most important reason for this is the price they've had to pay because of airstrikes that have targeted markets and residential areas."
Rebels have also lost the military initiative in the face of stronger regime forces. "Ghouta's brigades are no longer on the offensive; now they're on the defensive in every battle," Abu Kamal said. "These are battles of attrition."
The only recent truce negotiated with any sort of parity was reached over two Shi'ite, pro-regime towns stranded in the rebel-held area of Idlib, and two Sunni towns held by rebels and encircled by regime forces and Hizbullah along the Lebanese border. The deal yielded a partial, local ceasefire and some population swaps, but the regime subsequently cut off food from one of the two Sunni towns, Madaya, apparently to apply pressure to rebels. The regime allowed some relief to reach the town this week, but only after more than 20 people had reportedly died of starvation.
Abdullah al-Muheisini, an influential jihadist evangelist and chief judge of Idlib's Jaish al-Fateh rebel coalition, had said that the Shi'ite towns should be "exterminated" unless the siege on the Sunni town was lifted.
The population swaps and the bussing of opposition civilians and militants to rebel-held areas seem to presage a sort of geographic sorting and soft partition of the country, which may be a prerequisite for any gradual de-escalation of Syria's war.
When observers and policymakers float the partition of Syria as a means to partially defuse the country's war, the western corridor over which the regime is now solidifying its control is the area they typically envision as a regime fallback. Some have termed it "Alawistan" – after Syria's Alawite minority, to which al-Assad belongs.
But those local agreements may also end up undercutting efforts to slow or end the war. Without an immediate threat to its core territory, the Assad regime may feel little urgency to negotiate, and could even go on a wider offensive against its rebel and jihadist enemies.
Whatever the broader implications of these truces and ceasefires, residents stranded on the wrong side of Syria's front lines can only watch their children go hungry for so long before agreeing to a deal. According to locals who spoke to VICE News, nearly every area now under siege is expected to say yes when the regime comes to propose a truce on its terms.
"If people have reached the edge of starvation, like we had," said Homs activist Abu Yassin, "I would advise them to accept."