There is reason for pessimism about this week’s conference in Geneva on the Syrian civil war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown that he cannot be dislodged through force, and the rebels insist that they have no interest in any plan that does not involve his immediate departure from office. Meanwhile, the country has been ripped apart by violence, around a third of the population has fled home, and, before the United Nations stopped counting in July, at least 100,000 people had died.
There is still a chance for some kind of normalcy, though. In recent months, local efforts to end the violence and aid the starving have led to numerous small-scale cease-fires in the Damascus suburbs of Barzeh, Moadamiya, Bibilla, Bait Sahem, and Dumayr. Peace could spread if the negotiators in Geneva create a credible plan to promote and oversee similar cease-fires across the country. Perhaps thinking along those lines, Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said last week that the regime is willing to work on “security arrangements” with the rebels in Aleppo.
So how would these cease-fires work? Although rebels with radical ideologies currently seem to dominate the scene, most Syrians have more everyday demands -- dignity and freedom. This group, which is bent on the dismissal of Assad but not on the wholesale dismantling of Syrian state institutions, has proved willing to strike deals in certain conditions. In many cases, those conditions involve starvation. One of the Assad regime’s favorite strategies during the civil war has been cutting off rebel-held areas that are close to regime strongholds from the rest of the country. Some neighborhoods, such as Moadamiya, were sealed off (even to food supplies) for more than a year, leading to an untold number of deaths. Under pressure from residents, last month rebels there accepted a cease-fire with the regime in exchange for food supplies.
Such cease-fires vary from one area to another, but they mostly involve negotiations between regime officials who have connections to