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Once a rebel stronghold, the town of Tal Kalakh on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon changed sides at the week-end and is now controlled by the Syrian army. The switch in allegiance is the latest advance by government forces into areas where they have had little or no authority since the start of the revolt in Syria two years ago.
The government is triumphant at the surrender of 39 local leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army with their weapons, which were ceremoniously stacked against the outside wall of the town’s military headquarters. The exact terms of the deal are mysterious, but there is no doubt that the regular Syrian army now holds all parts of Tal Kalakh, which had a pre-war population of 55,000 and is an important smuggling route for arms and ammunition from Lebanon a couple of miles to the south. Syrian army commanders claimed the reason the rebels had given up in the town so easily was because of their defeat in the battle for the similarly strategically important town of Qusayr, 20 miles away, earlier in June.
The Syrian opposition denied that the town had fallen, saying that there was still fighting going on there. In a three-hour visit, I saw no sign of it. Soldiers and civilians looked relaxed and there were no indications of recent destruction, though there are plenty of buildings damaged by shellfire or pockmarked with bullet holes from fighting in 2011 or 2012. The pro-rebel Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite television channel claimed smoke was rising from the town. I did not see or smell any.
The rebels’ strenuous denial that they had lost an important town without a fight may show a certain desperation on their part. Ahmed Munir, the governor of Homs province, which includes Tal Kalakh, pointed out in an interview that the Syrian army had moved into the town just as 11 major powers, including the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, meeting in Qatar, had promised the rebels more weapons and equipment.
A local FSA commander, who said his name was Khalid al-Eid, explained that he had gone over to the government side along with 20 men he led because of general disillusionment with the uprising. A paunchy man in his early thirties with a black beard and a red baseball cap, he appeared self-confident and almost truculent as he talked about his life as an FSA leader.
He said that before the uprising, he “used to work as a policeman during the day-time and in the family perfume shop in the evening”. He seemed assured he would be able to return to his old routine.
Listening to him impassively were Syrian army officers and some civilians, including Khalid al-Eid’s father, who expelled his son from the family home when he joined the FSA. The deal that brought the army back into Tal Kalakh appears to have been brokered by leading citizens of the town who did not want it to become a battleground again. The devastating destruction at Qusayr when it was stormed over two weeks by the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah gave a sense of urgency to the final negotiations.
Tal Kalakh may be peaceful now but it has seen much fighting in the recent past. There is an elaborate military checkpoint at the entrance to the town just off the Homs-Tartus main road where documents are checked. The atmosphere in the military headquarters housed in an administrative building of a large grain silo was relaxed, as if nobody expected to do more fighting. The buildings immediately in front of the army’s positions had been wrecked by cannon fire and looked as if they had been abandoned. Armed rebellion had started early in Tal Khalak in May 2011, probably because its position on the Lebanese border made it easy to smuggle in weapons.
The cache of weapons on show by the army – a few mortar bombs, rockets and explosives – were not very impressive. There was also a truck of furniture looted from the local hospital by the rebels on show, but the aging white-painted beds and chairs looked unsaleable.
Beyond a zone of outright destruction in front of Syrian army’s front line there was an area which looked as if shops and houses had been abandoned a long time ago. A government guide who tried to explain why there was nobody on the streets said “it is because it is siesta time and they are all in bed”. But this did not explain the absence of cars or clothes drying on lines in backyards.
The shutters of shops were rusty in places and there was grass growing in cracks in the pavement. Most local inhabitants are likely to have become refugees in Lebanon over a year ago.
Even here there were some government loyalists. Umm Said al-Masri, a woman surrounded by her family, was reopening a vegetable shop. “God bless the army,” she said, confirming that it had reasserted control three days earlier. Her children chanted slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and there were new-looking posters of him on the walls. Deeper into the town more people appeared on the streets and most of the small shops were open, selling everything from fruit to shoes.
Close to the border there are Christian Maronite villages along the steep sides of the hills, houses often having small statues of the Virgin Mary in blue and white robes facing the road. The land falls away quickly to the al-Kabir river at the bottom of a deep wooded valley, which is the frontier between Syria and Lebanon. In this area a donkey specially trained to carry smuggled goods and cross the border without human assistance is said to be worth more than a car.
Everybody seemed to accept that the Syrian army is back for good. The soldiers in checkpoints were not wearing helmets and often not carrying their weapons, as if they did not expect anybody to attack them. Khalid al-Eid said there had been 300-400 FSA in Tal Kalakh before the army’s return but they must have melted back into the local population under an unofficial amnesty or have gone to Lebanon. Soldiers or guerrillas who have switched sides are often an unreliable source of information about their former colleagues because they denigrate them in a bid to impress their new masters. But Khalid al-Eid did say that his men were “paid $1,300 a month and we got an extra $1,000 if we carried out an operation”. He described how he would make Youtube films – “sometimes they show us firing when there was nothing to shoot at” – which would later be shown on al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite television.
What were the exact terms of the deal that replaced the FSA with the Syrian army? Peace did not break out all of a sudden and it had been preceded by a series of local ceasefires and negotiations arranged by leading local townspeople. Monsignor Michel Naaman, a Syriac Catholic priest in Homs, who has often taken part in mediating such agreements said that “older people in the town had seen much of it damaged and did not want it destroyed”.
He adds that there are many other such deals and agreements in the making. For instance in Homs many people have moved to the al-Waar district for safety, its population rising from 150,00 to 700,000. The Old City, which once had 400,000 people in it is almost empty aside from rebel fighters. He says that ceasefires or agreements for rebels to put down their weapons in return for an amnesty are much easier to arrange when all the rebels are Syrians. “When there are foreign Salafi or Jihadi fighters present, as there are in the Old City, an agreement is almost impossible.”
The Governor Ammed Munir believes “one should try to make a deal in each case without a special military operation”. He says that the Old City of Homs is particularly difficult to deal with because “you can’t have an agreement with so many gangs and in case, there are many tunnels into and out of the Old City”. Overall, there is little fighting in Homs province because of the government success at Qusayr and because these local ceasefires are holding. An injection of more arms and money, which may be the result of last weekend’s Doha meeting of the 11 Friends of Syria could bring a new surge in violence but would not produce a decisive result in the civil war.
The Tal Kalakh peace deal is important because no serious negotiations on who holds power in Syria can take place given the present level of violence in the country as a whole. The only way to bring the political temperature down is by local ceasefires and peace deals. The government is gaining ground this year as the rebels did in 2011 but nobody is going to win on the battlefield.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.