Jonathan Steele reports: Sheikh Habib sits with the smartly dressed mayor of Talkalakh and other officials of this small Syrian city, drinking coffee and eating chocolates beneath a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad.
Five minutes later, we have climbed into the sheikh’s white 4×4, crossed a railway line, been waved past an army checkpoint, driven 300 yards up a street of badly ruined shops and houses, and are shaking hands with a swarthy, bearded figure in a woolly hat and black leather jacket who emerges from behind a wall. Our new host is Abu Oday, the commander of the armed opposition in this town in the western corner of Syria, and what we are witnessing is one of the most extraordinary facets of the country’s catastrophic civil war: the birth pangs of a truce that has restored calm to one small area after almost two years of violence.
Abu Oday carries no gun, nor do any of the dozen men who stand around us curiously as plastic chairs are drawn up. By agreement they no longer show their weapons while, for its part, the Syrian army has ended the regular hail of mortar fire that terrorised this side of Talkalakh.
The architect of the change is Sheikh Habib or, to give him his full name, Mohammed Habib Fendi. Barely mentioned in Syria’s official media, he prefers to keep a low profile even though he seems a rare hero in the country’s brutal conflict. He heads a Sunni tribe in al-Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates in north-eastern Syria, and is a regular preacher at Friday prayers. But his political work began after he took part in one of many delegations of local people whom Assad started inviting to Damascus soon after the uprising began in 2011.
The aim was to discuss their grievances and see whether “reconciliation” could be used by tribal and community leaders as a way to end the mounting street protests. The policy was an implicit admission that the ruling Ba’ath party had become an empty shell, more associated with corruption and security control than with providing services, let alone justice, fairly.
As protesters moved from peaceful demonstrations to armed resistance following the government’s mass arrests in 2011 and the heavy use of force last year, reconciliation made little headway. The arrival of foreign jihadis, the Islamisation of large parts of the opposition, and the onset of sectarian clashes created new tensions and made compromise harder.
But now, as the war’s death toll mounts with no prospect of an early end, reconciliation is making a hesitant comeback. The bleakness of the nation’s outlook, indeed of the country’s very survival, makes it seem a better alternative than permanent war. [Continue reading…]