Rebel Syrian town Zabadani calmer after surprise truce

A member of the Free Syrian Army gestures during a patrol in the border town of Zabadani. (Photo: EPA)

January 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 15:22:00

Fighting subsided in a rebel-held Syrian town on Wednesday after a fragile cease-fire took hold between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and insurgents, opposition sources and residents said, but they wonder for how long.

“Everyone is waiting to see if the tanks will pull out, but there is intermittent tank fire on the edges of the town and on nearby farmland,” Abu Assad al-Khair, a retired public servant, said by phone from Zabadani, a town of 40,000 near the Lebanese border.

“It seems it is covering fire to enable them to pull out several armored vehicles and tanks that the rebels had hit or destroyed,” he added.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian authorities and state media have not mentioned the Zabadani cease-fire or five days of fighting that preceded it. 

Tight Syrian media restrictions make it hard to verify events in the ground.

The cease-fire, negotiated days before the Arab League meets to decide the fate of its monitoring mission, would be the first successful agreement in the 10-month-old revolt, if it holds.

An attempt to negotiate a cease-fire during battles in the central town of Rastan in July fell apart and an armored force regained control after 10 days of fighting rebels.

Activists said Zabadani, linked to old smuggling routes in the rugged mountains separating Syria and Lebanon, is more difficult to storm than Rastan, surrounded by flat farmland.

Anti-Assad protests have been frequent in Zabadani, a mixed Sunni Muslim and Christian town 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Damascus. Arab monitors witnessed one demonstration there this week during a pause in the fighting, according to residents and YouTube footage.

Mountainous terrain

“I think the regime agreed to the truce because they know that with the mountainous terrain, if their forces fought on they would suffer much heavier losses than the rebels despite the difference in weapons,” said Maher Ismail, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for loosely organized army defectors that says it is helping defend the town.

“Our calculation as of now is that the regime will stop firing, but it will not back away. We imagine they may just be planning a new strategy for attack,” he added.

Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader from Zabadani who fled to Jordan last month, said keeping tanks nearby was part of pressure by the authorities on residents to give up their guns.

“The regime is pushing through intermediaries for the rebels to hand in their arms, but I don't think it is going to happen,” Labwani said. 

Labwani said earlier that one person had been killed and 50 wounded in Zabadani during the attack. About 30 pro-Assad soldiers had also been killed, as had an unknown number of soldiers who had defected to the rebels, he added.

Activists from Zabadani said the cease-fire agreement was reached on Tuesday between town leaders and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law.

Under the deal, rebels would withdraw from the streets and troops, dominated by the Fourth Armored Division led by Assad's brother Maher, would pull out. A security police unit would remain the Mahata area on the edge of Zabadani, they said.

Speaking before the cease-fire took effect, a fighter in Zabadani, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said rebels would fight the army street by street if it broke into the town.

“We will fight them until death, which is better than seeing what would happen if they take over,” he said.

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