Fighting subsided in a rebel-held Syrian town on Wednesday after a fragile ceasefire 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 armoured 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 ceasefire or five days of fighting that preceded it.
Tight Syrian media restrictions make it hard to verify events in the ground.
The ceasefire, 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 ceasefire during battles in the central town of Rastan in July fell apart and an armoured 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 30km north-west of Damascus. Arab monitors witnessed one demonstration there this week during a pause in the fighting, according to residents and YouTube footage.
“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 spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for loosely organised 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 ceasefire agreement was reached on Tuesday between town leaders and Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law.
Under the deal, rebels would withdraw from the streets and troops, dominated by the Fourth Armoured 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 ceasefire 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. — Reuters