On Sunday, residents of Moadamiya, a town that lies just outside the Syrian capital, received a draconian ultimatum from Hassan Gandour, a former resident of Moadamiya and the regime’s chief negotiator for the town. The town endured fourteen months of siege, with baby infants starving and residents eating weeds to survive, before succumbing to a “local ceasefire” in December 2013. Moadamiya was among the first towns to sign a local ceasefire, but local residents are still starving to death because Assad has reimposed the siege to increase his demands.
This brings us to Gandour’s ultimatum, which has prompted locals to call him “Hasan Gouraud” in reference to French colonial general Henri Gouraud, who issued a similar ultimatum to Syrian nationalists in 1920. Because Moadamiya was among the first to sign a local ceasefire, Gandour’s ultimatum reveals Assad’s endgame for local ceasefires across the country.
The ultimatum demands that Moadamiya be “evacuated of all inhabitants, including civilian residents.” It warns that unless a farcical “ceasefire initiative” circulated by Gandour is enacted within fifteen days, “anyone within the town takes his life into his own hands.” Finally, it levels a chilling threat at Syrian opposition members: “This war is not yet over. By God, I swear over the anguished cries of our women, children, and fellow residents that we will take revenge.”
Multiple foreign policy analysts have supported “local ceasefires” by claiming that they could reduce conflict, restore humanitarian aid, and promote broader reconciliation. Now we see the truth: Moadamiya’s “local ceasefire” has culminated in a renewed siege and regime vows that the “war is not yet over.” Only this time, residents are less able to defend themselves after ceding weapons in the previous ceasefire.
Some analysts argue that “local ceasefires” promote civil society. The terms of Gandour’s “ceasefire initiative” should put this notion to rest. In addition to demanding that rebel fighters surrender, the initiative dictates that all media channels and civil society groups dissolve, including the local council. It requires “unimpeded access” to Moadamiya for “all state organs,” meaning a return to pre-Revolution totalitarianism. Gandour’s initiative also requires Moadamiya to sever all ties with the neighboring town of Daraya, which would tighten Assad’s siege on Daraya and create a self-perpetuating spiral of starvation.
The experience of Moadamiya shows a general pattern: Assad uses “local ceasefires” as diplomatic companions to his military sieges. He surrounds a town, starves its residents, then offers a “local ceasefire” in exchange for food. After residents surrender weapons or other strategic advantages, Assad resumes the siege and locals are less able to defend themselves.