Holiday cease-fire imperfect, but slows Syria violence

 

McClatchy Newspapers

A United Nations cease-fire that went into effect Friday morning in Syria was breached almost immediately, but people across the country reported less violence than usual.

The cease-fire agreement was to remain in effect through Monday in observance of the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. But clashes were reported in a number of neighborhoods in Damascus between rebels and government troops, along with shelling and air attacks by government forces.

Fighting and airstrikes also were reported in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, though residents said the clashes had abated considerably from what they had experienced in previous days. Nonetheless, anti-government activists reported more than 50 rebel and civilian casualties across the country by early evening.

“There is no traffic in the streets, and most people are staying inside their homes,” said Abu Majed, who lives in the southern part of Aleppo.

He said there were small clashes in the Saif al Dowla and Salah al Deen neighborhoods, which are strategically located on the city’s southwest side, where the highway that connects Aleppo to Damascus enters the city.

Reports also told of battles between Kurdish militiamen allied with the government and rebels in Ashrafiyeh, a largely Kurdish neighborhood in the center of Aleppo. In order to keep Syria’s Kurdish minority from fully joining the rebellion against him, Syrian President Bashar Assad essentially ceded Kurdish majority areas of the country to Kurdish militiamen of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria, known by its Kurdish initials as the PYD. They favor autonomy for Syria’s Kurdish northeast.

Rebels claimed to have taken over Ashrafiyeh and other parts of Aleppo Thursday as government troops withdrew. According to anti-government activists in Aleppo, the fighting began after demonstrators in Ashrafiyeh called for the rebels to leave the area. Both militias then engaged in tit-for-tat kidnappings of each other’s followers.

Many of Syria’s Kurds are highly suspicious of the rebels and their ties to the Turkish government, which has provided logistical and material support for some rebel groups. Turkey has the largest Kurdish minority in the region, and it has fought a nearly 30-year war to prevent the Kurds from achieving independence.

The PYD is closely allied with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which leads the Turkish Kurdish independence movement.

The rebels and PYD until now have been largely tolerant of one another. The Kurds are also highly suspicious of the Syrian government, which until earlier this year had engaged in widespread repression of its Kurdish minority.

Residents of some neighborhoods in Damascus used the relative calm to demonstrate following the noon prayer for the first time in more than a month. But by the end of the day, the cease-fire appeared to have totally broken down in some parts of the city.

More than 35,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against the government began in March 2011. Mediation attempts have so far failed, though a U.N.-brokered truce monitored by unarmed U.N. observers in April did succeed in reducing violence, particularly from the government side, for a few weeks before the fighting began again in earnest.

The holiday was bittersweet for the more than 1 million people who have been displaced inside and outside the country, and the U.N. said it was hoping a cease-fire might allow the delivery of emergency supplies to internal refugees, who previously had been unable to receive them.

It rained on Friday in the Damascus area for the third day in a row, a sign of the onset of winter. Residents reported that heating oil already had doubled in price to about 50 cents per liter, and they said they expected shortages and further price increases. The official exchange rate, set by the Syrian government, is now 70 Syrian pounds to the dollar, though the black market rates are generally about 5 pounds higher than the official rate. Damascus residents said the rate had gone as high as 82 or 83 pounds in the last week.

In Qalat Al Mudiq, in western Syria, rebels handed out sheep and other gifts to residents to mark the holiday. Some groups of rebels in Qalat Al Mudiq were also paid for the first time, according to an anti-government activist there.

Fighting was also reported in Homs, the country’s third largest city, but less intense that it has been.

“Compared to other days,” said Abu Rami, a rebel spokesman in Homs, “it’s very calm.”

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com;Twitter: @davidjenders

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