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In Syria, An Act Of Reconciliation Stirs Fierce Debate

After 20 months of violence in Syria, acts of reconciliation are scarce.

When one took place earlier this month in the town of Tel Kalakh, near the border with Lebanon, it touched off a fierce debate.

The man at the center is Ahmad Munir Muhammed, the governor of Homs, who has long been known as a loyalist of embattled President Bashar Assad.

However, Muhammed made an official visit to Tel Kalakh, where the majority of neighborhoods are controlled by the rebels.

With the rebels guaranteeing his safety, the governor drove into Tel Kalakh in early November to see a city where revolutionary flags flutter from most mosques. He was reportedly shocked by the devastation from army bombardments and paramilitary attacks on this border town.

His visit was approved by the rebel commander of Tel Kalakh, Abdul Rathman Wallo. The men were even photographed together.

Tangible benefits followed. The Syrian Red Crescent delivered humanitarian aid to the besieged civilians. More than a dozen Syrian soldiers who had defected, men wanted by the Syrian regime and some of them seriously wounded, were allowed to slip across the border to Lebanon for medical treatment.

Media Reports Ignite A Debate

Syrian state TV covered the event and reported the governor's promise to resume "all public services to guarantee the return of the families affected by terrorism." State television also declared this reconciliation a victory over "terrorists" who tried "to sabotage and make [Tel Kalakh] a lifeless city."

The Syrian regime refers to all armed groups as "terrorists." But no amount of propaganda could erase the image of the governor holding cordial talks with the "terrorists."

The details of the event were also recounted in As-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper, which described the events as a "surprising scene." The governor was quoted as saying he was "putting an end to Syrian bloodshed" and would take similar steps in all the towns under his authority.

So how was the visit viewed elsewhere in the country? The competing narratives began as soon as the visit became public.

The governor "shook hands with murderers," screamed the pro-government media, accusing him of nothing less than embracing al-Qaida in Syria. He "surrendered" Tel Kalakh, according to those who consider any recognition of the Sunni rebels an existential danger to Assad's rule and to the surrounding Alawite villages. The reaction shows the difficulty of any negotiated settlement to end the crisis.

But this unusual meeting also appears to be recognition of reality.

"Life must go on. They are pressed by the reality on the ground," says a former Syrian government official who spoke on condition on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the meeting.

The rebels of Tel Kalakh took up arms after peaceful protesters were targeted by the security police and the army, the former official said.

In May 2011, at least 40 civilians were killed when police opened fire and soldiers blasted the town with tank-mounted machine guns. Hundreds more were arrested.

Within days, almost half the Sunni Muslim population had fled over the river frontier into Lebanon. The Syrian regime stepped up the retribution with relentless bombardments, but the village did not change its mind. It continued to support the rebels.

The rebels maintain a strong presence in Tel Kalakh, though the damage is massive.

"It is also a sign that the rebels can't achieve their aims by military means," said the former government official.

The Syrian army retains control of every major city in the country. The rebels have taken rural areas in the north along the Turkish border, some pockets in the east near the Iraqi frontier, as well as the villages in the Golan Heights close to Israel. But the Syrian air force can bomb at will.

Tel Kalakh, along the Lebanese frontier, was one of the first Sunni populations to challenge the Assad government. The families, now refugees living in wretched conditions in Lebanon, are facing a second hard winter. The rebels are under increasing pressure from relatives who want to come home, explained the former government official.

Across Syria, the war grinds on. The refugee population grows ever larger. Any sign of concession, however small, is met with overwhelming resistance from loyalists who have become increasingly rigid in supporting the regime.

Some rebel commanders also condemned the reconciliation in Tel Kalakh. Rebels won concessions by welcoming the governor and eased some suffering in Tel Kalakh — but the shooting resumed within days.

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