x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

For 22 days Deir Ezzor had freedom before the army pushed back

Damascus did not have time for local leaders' peace offer.

A picture released by the Local Coordination Committees of Syria shows protesters in Deir Ezzor in June.
A picture released by the Local Coordination Committees of Syria shows protesters in Deir Ezzor in June.

DAMASCUS // Before tanks began a 10-day assault during Ramadan, parts of Deir Ezzor city had been all but declared liberated by protesters.

A central area had been named "Freedom Square" and tens of thousands of demonstrators would rally there every night, listening to speakers, organising committees and, calling for the downfall of President Bashar Al Assad.

Civil disobedience had brought much of the city to a standstill.

"For 22 days we had some real freedom. The security were in charge of the buildings they were sitting inside and a few roads here and there, but there were areas they couldn't go anymore, places where they couldn't come and make their arrests. We had a free space," an activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

The military assault was widely anticipated.

By mid-July, Deir Ezzor, together with Hama, was at the forefront of Syria's uprising.

That month an oil pipeline was blown up in the province and, a few days later, Syria's Al Watan newspaper was reporting that in response to a "plea for help" from "terrorised" residents, the military was preparing to intervene against "armed gangs" in Deir Ezzor city.

Government offices and security forces had been attacked, state media said, and weapons were being trafficked into Deir Ezzor from Iraq.

On July 31, military operations began on the outskirts of the city and surrounding villages. So too did violent resistance. A colonel and two soldiers were killed and activists said petrol bombs were thrown at armoured personnel carriers.

But tanks had still not entered Deir Ezzor's urban centre, and tribal leaders, respected community figures and local government officials were working hard on a plan to prevent more violence.

According to a leading provincial tribal figure involved in the initiative, a deal was reached in which civil disobedience would end and security forces would resume ordinary patrols, in exchange for all political prisoners being freed and for peaceful opposition rallies being permitted. The army would not then need to enter the city.

Grassroots activists supported the deal, as did tribal councils and leading government and security officials in Deir Ezzor, according to those involved in drafting it. About 1,500 people signed up to guarantee the terms would be respected and copies of the agreement were faxed to the federal government in Damascus, activists said.

However key provincial security officials said they had received no instructions to recognise the deal and, with the tanks poised to roll in, a respected community figure was dispatched from Deir Ezzor on Friday, August 5 as an envoy to Damascus, in an attempt to get the initiative personally approved by President Bashar Al Assad.

A road closure near Homs - the army was also carrying out operations in that area, as well as a major assault in Hama - meant the envoy was unable to pass through, losing a day before he could reach the capital 450 kilometres away.

He arrived in Damascus on Saturday and was told his request for a meeting with top-ranking officials would be given a response the following morning, once offices had opened for business at 9am.

That never happened however because, at 2am on the Sunday, the tanks moved into Deir Ezzor city. The military assault had begun and the locally agreed peace initiative had collapsed. Activists said at least 42 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the attack.

Less than two weeks later officials announced the operation to quash "terrorists" a success.

 

psands@thenational.ae