* Assad's forces seeking local ceasefires around capital
* Rebel, Assad supporters seem equally suspicious of truces
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Feb 18 Pictures of rebels and forces
loyal to President Bashar al-Assad laughing and shaking hands
after a local ceasefire have sparked outrage on both sides,
shocked at the outpouring of goodwill after three years of
The images came from a media trip organised by the Syrian
government to the Damascus suburb of Babila, the latest in a
series of districts to agree a truce that most opposition
critics say works in Assad's favour.
Heavy fighting continues throughout most of Syria. The
localised truces have been agreed mostly around Damascus and
have ended prolonged government sieges on those rebel-held
areas, many of which were waged for more than a year and caused
severe hunger to the point of illness and death.
"I felt like I would have a stroke, looking at those
pictures," said a local activist, called Mohammed, speaking on
Skype from the nearby rebel-held district of Jobar, which has
not yet agreed any form of ceasefire. "How can they forget how
those forces have starved our people for over a year, how they
bombed us mercilessly for months?"
Some rebels in the Damascus suburbs said the pictures were
staged, arguing the rebel gunmen were actually pro-Assad
militias dressed to look like opposition fighters. Others said
the pictures were real.
Reuters photographers were among the journalists at the
Babila media tour, but there was no way to confirm the identity
of those photographed.
Whether the scenes were genuine or faked, the photos - which
show armed combatants from both sides chatting and relaxed -
stood in stark contrast to the chilly atmosphere on display at
the second round of "Geneva 2" peace talks last week. Diplomats
failed to make any progress.
Rebels and Assad forces who agreed to the truces will now
work joint checkpoints and patrols using the name of "Local
Local ceasefires have been a goal of Assad's forces as a way
to halt the fighting around the president's seat of power, the
capital Damascus. The army sieges, which include near-daily
bombardment, have halted rebel advances and cut off supply
lines, but have been unable to dislodge the rebels.
"WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN"
Commentators on both sides were particularly incensed by an
image of a female member of the pro-Assad paramilitary group,
known as the National Defence Forces, smiling as she spoke to a
rebel fighter. Posters on both pro-rebel and pro-Assad Facebook
pages called the woman in the picture a "whore."
"Hey everyone, what is going on in this country? A soldier
is kissing a terrorist and girls from the National Defence
Forces are making eyes with the terrorists," said one post on a
pro-Assad Facebook page. "The world has been turned upside down,
the blood of our brothers and children and the honour of our
women has been forgotten."
Syria's conflict began as popular street protests against
four decades of Assad family rule but, after a violent security
crackdown, transformed into a civil war that has killed more
than 140,000 people and driven millions from their homes.
The government has commissioned "reconciliation committees"
using local dignitaries from the Damascus suburbs to offer the
truces, according to a local rebel spokesman, Bara Abdelrahman,
speaking by Skype from the opposition-held suburb of Douma.
Neighbouring Harasta is said to be the next target for the
committees, he said. Rebels detained a group of representatives
in Harasta this week, he said, after they met with civilians at
a mosque to present a truce offer without fighters present.
"They told them to get the rebels to stop attacking the main
highway and then they could get in food and medicine. And
honestly, people are exhausted here and hungry, so they started
to pressure the rebels and ask why not?" he said. "These
committees were turning people against us."
The deals in each town are broadly the same. They require
rebels to raise the government flag and get the siege lifted in
return. Most allow rebels to maintain control inside the
districts if they give up heavy weaponry.
Even those in support of local ceasefires, however, say such
truces are not a sign that local fighters on the ground actually
have a better rapport than jet-setting diplomats.
"The regime here was tired of endless strikes with no result
and the people tired of being hungry. Of course some areas were
going to accept. But the way they got these agreements was
through starvation," said one activist, who asked not to be
named. "This isn't actually a model of reconciliation, whatever
the pictures show."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)