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De-escalating the Conflict in Syria and Containing IS

The following paper represents the views of this analyst alone and is not the official position of his Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is written in response to numerous questions this analyst confronted while in Washington DC. It is longer than most people might want to read, but this is a little understood conflict made even more confusing by a distorted public debate.

This is a paper about hope in the war on terror. This may seem strange given the trajectory Syria and the region are in. All evidence suggests increasing violence and most observers are bereft of solutions. It is clear that the Syrian regime is staying, the Islamic State is staying (in fact that is its unofficial motto), Jabhat al Nusra is staying, the Syrian insurgency is staying, Shiite militias are staying. In fact it seems only the Syrian people are leaving. And yet there is a path that leads back out of this hell. It requires first (as all sound policy does) the embrace of a reality based analysis as a prerequisite and the recognition that time has run out for what President Obama has aptly termed fantasies. It is a warning against a purely visceral and knee-jerk response to the terror threat from the region and a call for the inclusion of a strong strategic political approach lest the results of the war on the Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra be their empowerment.

Syria’s civil war is now three and a half years old and it continues to metastasize, affecting more of the Middle East and Muslim world with no end in sight. Despite wildly ambitious predictions since 2011, it is clear the regime is not going to fall and President Bashar al Assad is not going to leave. It is equally clear that Syrian security forces will not be able to regain territory they have lost to diverse insurgent and extremist groups. While the international threat resulting from this crisis grows, the civil war also continues to destroy the lives and futures of generations of Syrians. The NGO is working on solutions that will end the war in as much of Syria as possible. Extinguishing the fires is our priority. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) has created a new set of priorities when dealing with Syria and Iraq, a growing regional conflict resembling “AfPak” but even more complex. Not only is there no longer a border between Iraq and Syria but the Lebanese, Jordanian and Israeli borders of Syria have frayed and the Sunni Shiite conflict is without borders and IS is opposed to borders entirely. This has made the NGO’s vision of de-escalation more urgent and perhaps clarified to all observers and participants what the priorities must be. But such a strategy for reducing the war was valid long before IS existed and is not based solely on the logic of counter-terrorism (CT). It requires tying a tourniquet on Syria before she bleeds to death. With its airstrikes the U.S. has increased its role in Syria and its influence over regional actors. What we are asking is that the U.S. lead the international community down a new path in Syria, abandoning the immediate goal of regime change and embracing a strategy based on ceasefires, local autonomy and gradual reform. This is not a call to rehabilitate the Assad regime. Its crimes are not disputed or defended by the author. This is also not a call to reject the original goals of the Syrian revolution such as greater freedom, dignity and justice. The civil war in Syria does not serve those goals. In fact it undermines those goals and has destroyed the revolution. But now there is something of greater urgency than the revolution and its goals and that is stopping the war.

Executive Summary

The opposition and international efforts to overthrow the Syrian regime have failed. Not only have they failed, they have led to disastrous consequences for Syria and the region (without absolving the regime for its role). It is clear that only two militaries have the ability to overthrow the Syrian regime, and neither of them is the moderate opposition. Instead it is the U.S. military, or conceivably the IS military, that can bring down the regime. Since the notion of an American invasion to overthrow the regime is as much a fantasy as the so-called moderate opposition achieving this goal, and as much a fantasy as this opposition defeating IS, and in fact as much a fantasy as anybody actually defeating IS in the short term, it is time for a realistic assessment of priorities, strategies and tactics. The premise of this paper is that the regime of Bashar al Assad is not falling. This might be because of a lack of international will, the failure of the opposition, the strength of the regime’s allies and weakness of the opposition’s allies, or for other reasons, but what matters is that he is not leaving.

There are elements within the regime who have begun to grasp that a counterinsurgency requires tempting the insurgents back to the government side and uniting against the greater threat IS poses. The success such a strategy achieved in Iraq in 2007 can be replicated in parts of Syria if there is greater international involvement and signals to encourage the less hawkish and more pragmatic elements of the regime. Likewise the insurgents must be given a signal that they will not be abandoned but that they must reduce their ambition and practice local politics. The conflict economy and outside assistance to all warring factions means they are incentivized to continue to fight. Some commanders worry that if there is a ceasefire then countries will abandon them and they will lose the salaries for their fighters.

It should not be taken for granted that Sunni “moderates” will support Obama’s war on IS. The Saudi and American cooperation to marginalize Islamist groups pushed many of their rank and file to join IS. Belonging to the American and Saudi backed Military Operation Centers (MOC) in Turkey and Jordan means being against the Islamists, belonging to the anti-Islamist camp and thus it is increasing polarization. Some countries vow they want regime change and at the same time do their best to weaken the only groups capable of hurting the regime, the Islamist groups and instead they support groups the Turks call “horse thieves,” warlords, criminals, thugs, mafias, Dostums and Ismail Khans of Syria who at best control a few hills in one province. The MOCs do not breed loyalty and money is not enough of a motive, especially when IS pays more, and there are issues of ideological sympathy, and IS inspires so much fear. This lack of a moderate opposition applies more at the level of fighters than commanders. While many of the MOC-backed groups are thugs, some also have a strong sense of how to play politics between the international community and their own fighters. They understand that they have to answer to a constituency that they cannot change, but that they also have to deal with external powers. In this sense, they can be called the “pragmatic” opposition instead of a moderate opposition and pragmatism can be a moderating force.

The opposition is too weak to fight the regime and IS at the same time. No successful war on IS can work without de-escalating the war with the regime. While an alliance may not be possible at least there should be a truce. This should come with a roadmap that accepts the weakness of the opposition and thinks in terms of empowering it in the areas it holds rather than bringing down the regime. This means not only empowering it militarily (so it can confront IS), but also politically. The opposition needs time to mature, and it needs an incubator. The only possible incubator is at the level of local politics where it can build its experience. This is part of the war on IS, allowing the opposition to rebuild and normalize daily life. Such a roadmap should offer the promise of internationally monitored local elections and a process of decentralization.

The U.S. thinks it needs a Sunni umbrella to gain support for such a move but it has been looking in the wrong place for that support. U.S. calculations are based on a coalition building approach and it is a coalition with hard line countries so it will not appear like the U.S. is against Sunnis. As a result the U.S. is intent on getting countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. on its side so it can preserve what it sees as its alliance with Sunnis.

The U.S. has internalized claims about its decline and does not understand its position of strength. All parties in the region are in fact looking to the U.S. to save them but the U.S. is afraid of alienating the coalition it is trying to build. Washington mistakenly thinks that the Sunni support must come from what it now calls “Sunni states,” like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Despite the ambitions of the al Saud, there is no leadership of the Sunni Arab world. In fact there is a crisis of leadership, because Sunnis traditionally looked to the state and their own leaders, but one by one those have fallen, whether Nasser, or Hariri, or Saddam. It is dangerous to promote the Saudis as leaders of the Sunni world given the culture they propagate. Promoting a sectarian fundamentalist state as the leader of Arab Sunnis is hardly a cure for IS which only takes it a bit further to its logical conclusions. Even promoting the idea of “Sunni” states, as has been done for the last ten years, is in part to blame for the increased sectarian tensions in the region.

Besides, Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis are not holding their breath waiting to hear what Gulf monarchs will say. As much as they might aspire to have that role, the Gulf monarchies are not leaders of the Arab world or Sunni world. Indeed there are no such leaders. Iraqi and especially Syrian Sunnis will instead look closer to home. If the U.S. wants a Sunni fig-leaf for its war on IS it must turn to conservative and moderate Islamists and clerics (such as those in the Syrian Islamic Council), prominent representatives of Sunni business interests, and leading families from cities and rural notables. Additionally, there are prominent clerics who are based in the Gulf (some Syrian some Gulf Arabs) who possess great influence over the pro-opposition masses. They should be appealed to directly. This analyst or his NGO can assist with such contacts. Americans might content themselves with statements of support coming from the Syrian Opposition Coalition, but it is an entity that exists more in fantasy than reality and as a body has no influence over the “street” or the insurgency.

While JN is viewed as al Qaeda by the U.S., the Syrian opposition that view them as partners on the front lines who may be radicals but they are home grown radicals that can

easily be de-radicalized and absorbed by mainstream Islamists if support is offered. The opposition also views them as Salafi jihadis who are focused on jihad but not politics and are therefore not a threat in the hypothetical post-Assad Syria (although by the end of 2014 and thus after this report was written JN’s relations with some locals in Idlib and in Daraa deteriorated somewhat). Thus the U.S. attacks on the so called “Khorasan group” (the existence of which both Syrians and experts on Syria are skeptical of) might have been viewed as necessary from a security point of view but politically it complicated

things for the U.S

arms and an attack on the revolution. They were seen not as part of the war on IS but part of the war on Sunnis (you are hitting one of the only forces that is effective against the

regime). The strikes ignited Sunni rage leading to protests and condemnations of the U.S. surprise decision to strike this unexpected target.

The U.S. strikes on JN were perceived as strikes against brothers in

This will complicate the U.S. attempt to build its Sunni umbrella. If the U.S. had hoped for Syrian boots on the ground in conjunction with its own airstrikes, these ground forces have to come from a Sunni insurgency dominated by Islamists. These Islamists criticized the U.S. strikes not only as an expression of Sunni rage but also to negotiate from a better position.

The U.S. strikes did not only lead to Sunni rage being expressed by angry mobs. They also limit the U.S. ability to manage political alliances. For instance, Faylaq al-Sham, an insurgent group of opportunistic Islamists blending Sunni chauvinism and the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood had hoped to be American partners but they were so afraid that they might be on the target list that their field commanders were withdrawn from Syria to avoid strikes. Groups like Ahrar al Sham who were also opposed to IS also worry that they are on the target list. The unclear American targeting policy has antagonized its potential local partners in opposition held territories.

Meanwhile actual American partners are also frustrated. While the MOC backed groups were informed of and cooperated with the strikes on IS, they were not told of the strikes against JN and perceived these strikes as a knife in their back, leading to anger, mistrust and confusion among America’s closest local allies. Now they are seen as traitors by other groups and even by their own rank and file. Even before the American strikes, MOC backed groups already were resentful of the paternalistic or even neo-colonial way they felt they were treated by the Americans they were dealing who were constantly being replaced, making relationships impossible, and who imposed targets upon them, and did not consult with them or inform them of what the strategy was. The JN move to expel MOC backed groups from Idlib can also be seen in part as a consequence of the American strikes. JN feared the MOC backed groups were “Sahwat,” or Iraq Awakening style groups that would turn on the “mujahedeen,” and so JN struck preemptively in a move that appears to have had local support among the population of Idlib.

There are no actual moderate insurgents either ideologically or in terms of their actions. Most of the significant fighting forces are Islamists with sectarian agendas, all have

committed war crimes, virtually no minorities remain in opposition held areas and dissent is dangerous. The recent “redirection” towards moderation by the leadership of the main Islamic forces put them at odd with the jihadist culture of their rank and file. This places the U.S. in a quandary, either it allies with non-ideological mercenary forces or it forms a real political alliance with a broader Sunni umbrella. Looking to empower Sunni “moderates” will force the U.S. to rely on mercenaries like defected officers or pro-U.S. warlords with good public relations campaigns like Jamal Maarouf, pro-Saudi Salafi warlords such as Tawfiq Chehabeddine of Nuredin Zenki. This gives the U.S. a few thousand fighters in the north who can at best hold on to what they already have. But if the U.S. wanted a force that could actually push IS back a bit then it would need to integrate the mainstream Islamists into a political alliance because they will not join without a clear political and military package deal.

Erstwhile American official Fred Hof wrote recently, “the president's strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter- terrorism.” The ongoing war must be addressed and reduced if not ended. The underlying political grievances must be addressed. IS is so entrenched in urban areas throughout northern and eastern Syria (as well as Iraq) that it will not be easily or hastily dislodged. Hof also writes that “The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places.” This is one reason why it is so urgent to stabilize these areas. Hof’s point is important and often overlooked in the current debate in Washington where Republicans blame President Obama for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely and hence causing the rise of IS while Democrats blame President Bush for installing Nuri al Maliki in Iraq and causing the rise of IS. In truth, while IS took advantage of grievances caused by abuses and failures in both the Maliki and Assad regimes, its recent rise is a result of the decision to encourage and support an insurgency in Syria which created zones of state failure or state absence and especially the Turkish decision to erase the border with Syria and tolerate the influx of thousands of jihadists into Syria. Added to this was a clear decision by Gulf countries to promote a Sunni sectarian insurgency in Iraq and Syria.

Importantly, while pro-opposition Sunnis like to avoid all responsibility and instead concoct conspiracy theories about Iran and the Syrian regime creating IS, it must be recalled that beginning in 2012 when the first foreign fighters began entering Syria’s north via Turkey, it was mainstream Syrians who enthusiastically brought them in and welcomed them, and reassured observers that these foreign fighters (who would become JN, IS and other extremist groups) were harmless and cooperative. Of course the regime bombing of opposition held areas in order to prevent normalization and its ambiguous relationship with Salafi-jihadists and its calculated focus on bombing mainstream insurgents while it ignored jihadist targets allowed JN and IS to grow. Until late 2013 mainstream Syrians including American backed politicians and Free Syrian Army commanders defended JN, IS and the foreign fighters and condemned those who criticized them. And it is Syrians today who continue to facilitate the entry of more foreign fighters and who make up the rank and file of JN and IS. If these groups are to be confronted the solution can only be to end the war between the regime and the mainstream insurgents as soon as possible.

Trying to sell a strategy for solving the messy Syrian civil war will not find much interest in Washington. But including Syria as an essential element in an anti-IS strategy will resonate in Washington. Throughout the region the one thing everybody agrees on is the need to fight IS. This opportunity must be leveraged to address the Syrian civil war that caused the rise of IS. Syria is a charnel house for IS sending fighters in to Iraq and IS has safe havens in Syria. There is a risk that Syria will be seen in Washington only as the support zone for IS in Iraq, but focusing solely on Iraq can actually worsen the situation, pushing IS towards Damascus and allowing it to swallow more and more of the mainstream insurgency. If the American goal is to weaken or eventually destroy IS then as long as the mainstream insurgents and the regime fight each other IS will be the only beneficiary. A key goal must be to swivel the regime and insurgent gun barrels away from each other and aim them both at IS. The guns must be pointed towards IS by having the regime and opposition reach a truce or modus vivendi. Such a solution postpones or sacrifices issues such as justice and regime change and prioritizes stability and an end to the war, and thus it is not attractive. But it is more attractive than continued war. This approach of containing IS will possibly also gradually transform the organization. Once it is no longer expanding and is forced to focus on governing it may evolve into a slightly more pragmatic organization or quasi-state that can be dealt with.

The NGO’s vision results from an expertise unique among foreign organizations. Members of our team have been working throughout Syria since the beginning of the uprising, and alone among foreign organizations we continue to work in government and opposition held parts of Syria. Our team has spent much of 2014 on the ground visiting Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus, Hama, Homs and greater Damascus. Our team has met with insurgent commanders of the mainstream and Islamist groups and regime army, security and paramilitary commanders as well as the civilian supporters of all these factions. They have met with local opposition councils and local Syrian government officials. We can reach JN leaders, foreign fighters, defected officers, secular opposition intellectuals, Shiite militiamen, Alawite security men and the most senior regime officials. And we can reach the relevant officials from regional and international governments involved in the Syria conflict.

Our team has visited most locations involved in reconciliations and in fact helped facilitate them and other ceasefire agreements between the regime and insurgency as in old Homs. Our team has visited areas that are effectively “post revolution” to see how the regime treats Sunni populations who are not actively involved in the insurgency and it has visited locations where regime forces are cooperating with reconciled insurgents to jointly confront IS and Jabhat al Nusra (JN, the seemingly forgotten al Qaeda franchise in Syria). We have found just enough positive change to build upon, such as the regime’s recognition of military and civilian leaders produced by the insurgency as local leaders in areas that engage in reconciliation, and its acceptance of their role as a local security force. We have tried to extract the basic common denominators between most Syrians that can be used to reduce the conflict and reach an agreement that satisfies all but the most extreme or corrupt factions. We have also solicited the views of relevant non-Syrian actors like Hamas, Hizballah, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, national security and

intelligence officials from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and individuals close to decision makers in the Qatari and Saudi monarchies.

The reason the U.S. government is sometimes ineffective in these situations is that it may lack the knowledge and capabilities to operate in them, and maybe it is wrong to expect that it should or would. Instead the U.S. government sometimes finds itself condemned to do endlessly what it knows how to do. As a result this paper may seem quixotic in the context of a government managing multiple crises domestically and internationally in a highly charged political environment when the questions can only be: who should do what under what authority with what resources, how do we package and frame it, and, most important, how do we schedule the various events and actions required so that they are advantageous to the boss? But nevertheless the author hopes that he can help mitigate some harm and perhaps even do a bit of good with the knowledge and experience he has acquired.

Air Strikes Unlikely to be Effective

While a combination of airstrikes, the occasional special forces raid and what operations indigenous forces in Iraq and Syria can muster may weaken IS as an organization, it must be recalled that the Israeli military has failed to significantly degrade Hamas after many years of airstrikes with far less strict rules of engagement than the US military could ever use. Moreover a decade of US airstrikes and infantry operations in Afghanistan have failed to significantly degrade the Taliban. Unlike the Taliban, IS is also firmly entrenched in urban areas like al Bab, Minbij, Jarablus, Raqqa, Mosul. The US military is more concerned about the risks of collateral damage than the Syrian military. This will limit its ability to target IS in urban areas lest pro-IS and sectarian Sunni media equate the US airstrikes with those of Assad or Maliki. In such a propaganda war IS would receive greater sympathy and the risk of revenge attacks in the West or on Western targets would increase. The U.S. has two choices, either a soft touch in order to protect civilians and minimize collateral damage and sympathy for victims of U.S. strikes, or a hard touch that greatly degrades IS but leads to more solidarity with IS. This sympathy has a strategic impact. The social base of its “moderate” allies will move towards radicalism making the position of its allies impossible. Then the U.S. might lose allies and be forced to rely only on mercenaries that are weak, unpopular and not motivated. This sympathy can also increase the flow of desertions towards IS among from mainstream insurgent and Islamist groups thereby weakening U.S. allies. All this leads to a lack of local “boots on the ground” and then IS is not rolled back or it leads to mission creep in which the U.S. is dragged into the conflict, putting it at odds with its former allies on the ground.

IS concentrations in urban areas will be difficult to target, but there are also IS targets on the front lines with the mainstream insurgency in the Aleppo countryside and IS military infrastructure outside of urban areas. These may be easier to target. IS frontlines with Syrian regime forces or with loyalist communities will likely not be targeted by the US for political reasons. The US can continue to “plink” individual IS vehicles for many years to come. US control of the skies means that IS will no longer be able to launch large assaults or convoys either for offensive or defensive purposes but they can use

commercial vehicles traveling individually to provide sufficient supplies for all but major operations. Their supplies can easily be hidden in the daily logistics traffic necessary for the urban area. IS progress against Kurdish forces in late September show that it can remain effective. Predictions of defeating al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other insurgencies were made in the past, but even when the entire panoply of unrivalled assets the civilian, military and intelligence agencies of the U.S. government and after many years in Iraq or Afghanistan (not to mention elsewhere in the war on terror), there has been no defeat. In addition, as Israel has learned in its repeated assaults on Gaza and Lebanon, it is possible to military degrade one’s enemy and strengthen them politically and morally, allowing one’s enemy to declare victory. For now it seems IS has bogged down the combined forces of the U.S. led alliance, as well as the regional armies and militias that fight it. While it has gotten them to focus on a few places, like Kobane, it makes progress elsewhere, like eastern Homs and eastern Hama, or western Baghdad.

Should the US succeed in killing IS caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi it is unlikely the organization would be weakened. Unlike with Abu Musab al Zarqawi or Osama Bin Ladin, there is no cult around the personality of Baghdadi. Instead the cult is around IS as a movement, organization and idea. Moreover we know so little about IS’ actual structure that it is not clear who is in charge. All that we really know about IS is from its own propaganda or from testimony of low ranking fighters. Both Syrian and Turkish intelligence believe that former Iraqi Baathis and army officers play a leadership role in the organization.

It is important to reduce expectations of what can be achieved against IS especially in the absence of ground troops. The US has long had contingency plans for strikes against the Syrian regime and its military forces, the rapid rise of IS means the US lacks reliable intelligence on it, let alone assets on the ground to assist with targeting. It should also be recalled that the precursor to IS was a result of the last US intervention in Iraq, and that as is often the case with such interventions in internal conflicts (see Libya), there will likely be unintended consequences. This is not an argument in favor of ground troops. The introduction of ground troops would produce violent local antibodies just as it did in 2003, and it would cost American lives and treasure. But since the IS threat to the US homeland has been greatly exaggerated to the point of hysteria in American public discourse there is no urgency for such ground troops anyway. IS as an organization was focused on building its territory between Iraq and Syria. It appears unlikely it was going to take Erbil and there was never a chance of Baghdad falling to it. Unlike al Qaeda central, IS did not prioritize the far enemy, but wanted to fight the near enemy, the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, “corrupt” Sunni regimes they viewed as “hypocrites,” the Shiites and Alawites and infidels they believed were oppressing Sunnis. Naturally the lone wolf threat from IS returnees to the West must be confronted with vigilance by intelligence and law enforcement, and perhaps even more dangerous, the threat from IS sympathizers who never left, but stayed at home, but going to war against IS has only increased that risk as well as the risk of sympathizers already in the West carrying out their own revenge attacks.

The notion of IS expansion to the borders of some version of the historic caliphate is a fantasy and does not represent a possible outcome that regional actors must guard against. In Iraq IS can only expand until it hits the natural ethnic and sectarian barriers formed by the majority Kurdish and majority Shiite parts of the country. It cannot even take all of Iraq’s majority Sunni areas, as we see in Ramadi and the Baghdad belts. It requires a minimum of concessions from the Baghdad government to Iraq’s Sunnis to prevent these areas from succumbing to IS.

IS has limited potential for expansion in Iraq even in the absence of a significant US military intervention but Syria offers greener pastures with vast Sunni areas it can seize, as well as vulnerable minority villages it can cleanse. This will especially be the case should IS be weakened in Iraq and its fighters pushed back into Syria. Even today, IS has only one internal front remaining with the regime in Der Ezzor airport and IS is already pushing west in northern Aleppo, threatening to take towns held by the insurgency and Aleppo city as well. Further to the south IS is attacking government held towns and villages in the eastern Hama and eastern Homs countryside. It is often townsmen who must defend themselves without much support from an overstretched Syrian military. IS also has a presence in the Qalamun area by the Lebanese border, in greater Damascus, it has sleeper cells in Idlib and is widely believed to have undeclared support in the south of the country. Moreover, there are numerous insurgent formations as well as individual fighters who sympathize with IS or would join it simply because it is the new sheriff in town should it push further west. As is always the case in insurgencies and civil wars, most of the population accepts whoever establishes control over their areas, whether it is the state or an extremist group, and reaches accommodations with them.

There is a civil war raging between IS and the other insurgent groups and their leadership is constantly suffering from assassinations. For example in September alone the secret war between JN and IS continued, while the entire leadership of Ahrar al Sham was wiped out and two mainstream insurgent commanders were assassinated in northern Latakia. Both IS and the regime attempted to kill Jamal Maaruf who commands the Syrian Revolutionary Front, and an important insurgent commander was killed by a rival in Daraa. There are near daily assassination attempts, the last successful one as of the time of this writing was of the security commander for the American backed Hazm group. “It is the season of assassinations,” one Syrian explained. Opposition-held areas are becoming too dangerous for mainstream commanders to stay in, and they choose Turkey or Jordan instead. This is weakening their effectiveness and further eroding insurgent command and control structures. This paper was written before Jamal Maaruf’s SRF and the Hazm Movement were expelled from Idlib by a coalition of JN, Ahrar al Sham and others, delivering a major blow to U.S. policy, embarrassing the CIA, and depriving the U.S. of key proxies, specifically it's two key "moderate" tools on the ground. Later another partner of the U.S., Nuredin Zenki would also move out of the moderate category.

While focusing on Iraq is tempting because it is easier and the US has clear and relatively reliable local allies, an IS push to the west is a grave threat to the region, with most immediate implications for Jordan, where there is already widespread sympathy for the

organization, and in Lebanon as well. There is a false hope that Sunni Arab tribesmen in Iraq and Syria can rise up against IS. This is a dangerous misreading of the Awakening phenomenon that began in Iraq’s Anbar in 2006 and spread to Baghdad and other areas in 2007 and 2008. At the time Iraqi Sunni insurgents were facing the Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militias, the U.S. military, and al Qaeda, a former ally that had become onerous. They chose to ally with the U.S. to protect themselves from Shiites and to expel the internal al Qaeda threat. While money also served to encourage them it was largely a strategic choice. But they would have been massacred by al Qaeda in Iraq were it not for the U.S. armor and infantry that was alongside them. In 2005 when there was a similar rebellion against al Qaeda in Iraq’s al Qaim and US Marines did not intervene, the anti-al Qaeda tribesmen were wiped out.

Just as the U.S., its Saudi allies, and Syrian proxies like Ahmad al Jarba have a tribal strategy, so too does IS. And IS’ strategy offers strong incentives for cooperation. IS has already made examples of rebellious tribes in Der Ezzor (the Sh’eitat) and elsewhere, making it less likely others will have the temerity to rise up against it. Arab tribes in the past 100 years were transformed into an inept institution without sovereignty and simply an extension of the state. IS is a modern entity that mixes tribalism with modern organization. It shrewdly uses tribes, and knows how to recruit tribesmen and assimilate them into a competent organization centered around a doctrine, just as Wahhabism did before.

Some Western officials have expressed the hope that Sunnis under IS rule will rise up against it (just as there has also been a faith based hope that Alawites will turn against Bashar al Assad) but this takes for granted that IS will alienate them. IS has been shrewd in avoiding such mistakes, and this idea takes for granted that anyone would be crazy enough to dare to rebel against IS in the first place. It is possible that U.S. strikes will create solidarity with the local authorities, in this case IS, as is often the case when a foreign power conducts airstrikes. That appears to be the initial response of many in Syria to the strikes.

Anti-IS media in the Arab world and the West portray the organization as a purely evil and oppressive phenomenon. And because IS is in fact almost a cartoonish villain we are often prepared to believe any accusation of atrocities leveled against it. Death tolls from IS both in its offensives and then under its governance have actually been quite low. The truth is that intimidation is only one element of IS control. IS now controls territory with millions of inhabitants. It rules them and offers them services. IS and the local population accommodate each other, compromise with each other, become integrated. In towns it controls there is often a genuine sense of relief. IS provides basic law and order after two or three years of chaos. It applies the same code of justice consistently and predictably. And rooted in Islam as this code is, it finds fertile ground in the conservative Sunni countryside. While President Obama has attempted to sever the apparent connection between IS and Islam, and many Muslims make the same argument, IS in fact has been successful in justifying its extreme, brutal, approach on the basis of legitimate Islamic jurisprudence and history. What makes IS attractive to many is the feeling that it is implementing the “real” or the “original” Islam. Where other Islamists disagree with IS is

over the timing of their declaration of the caliphate and IS’s methods of achieving it, but not the principle of the caliphate itself. The many Sharia courts established by other insurgents in Syria in 2012 and 2013 operated on the same principles that IS adopted but they argued that it was premature to impose “hudud” or corporal punishments and executions until a proper Islamic leader had been installed. IS purports to be that leader. Such arguments may not seduce educated Muslims, or local clergy, but they are appealing to much of the masses.

For IS governance simply means implementing Sharia, touting IS essentially as a glorified hierarchy of courts. But service provision is also high on its priorities. The war for the hearts and minds is fought with bread, not with “hudud.” The Sharia judge is very influential in IS hierarchy. While Islam does not provide a blueprint for a state, it provides rules and calls for them to be implemented. IS does that, allowing for the order and security that local businessmen like- an Islamist utopia meeting the repression and brutality of North Korea. The initial bloodshed that occurs when IS takes an area and establishes a monopoly on power. Then violence quickly subsides and IS subsequently play a very limited role in residents’ lives. IS can also be viewed as a product of a growing Sunni culture of victimization promoted throughout the region especially with Gulf media support since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As a result, its muscular message of Sunni empowerment finds fertile ground throughout the Middle East. IS’ popularity must be grasped if the nature of the threat is to be properly understood. It is not merely engaged in senseless violence, it offers something attractive to many Sunni communities. This is a crucial point and one consistently missing in U.S. public statements about IS. Yazidis, Kurds and Christians may flee IS offensives (or sometimes of local Sunni tribesmen who join along to settle local disputes or take advantage of opportunities to prey upon the weak) but local Sunni Arabs do not flee IS rule.

IS is very popular and is the perfect vehicle for those who feel that Sunnis are uniquely persecuted, with that sense of persecution being intimately linked to barrel bombardment (though not exclusively of course). The longer bombardment continues the more IS will be strengthened in the long term (even if in the short term it will be hard for them to advance further into Aleppo and Idlib). Ending regime attacks on insurgent held areas is a key weapon in defeating IS by removing the fuel it needs to continue burning. This means dealing with the regime so it can agree to such ceasefires.

The phenomenon of Sunni rage is here to stay. The more intensified sectarianism will be part of the terrain and US intervention will also be viewed through this prism. When all the other options are failures IS may gain support. If it is not IS it may be a similar expression of anger at perceived humiliation. For many Sunnis living in the fictional world created by media such as al Jazeera in which there is a war against Sunnis there is little reason to support the American backed groups in Syria or Iraq. IS embarrassed other Islamists with its success in Iraq and Syria. Unlike other insurgent or Islamist groups, IS would never welcome cooperation with America, Israel or Saudi Arabia. While the so- called moderate insurgents and the opposition complain that America is not helping them, exhibiting a sense of entitlement, resenting Obama as if he was their president and owed them help, IS rejects such groveling. IS is proud, telling Sunnis they don’t have to be

humiliated anymore. In this way it resembles Lebanon’s Hizballah just as it does in its intent to establish hegemony over its community through a unifying totalitarian project. Other Sunni Islamists will falter in front of IS, its growth need not be fueled by love or popularity but from obedience and loyalty that comes out of identifying with the strong and winning side. In any confrontation with rival Islamists, IS is likely to win and attract the radical Islamist mass. IS embodies the formula for a successful Islamist military organization like Hizballah, the Taliban, the Houthis, where military action is taken very seriously, everything serves military action. Politics and the military are linked to a religious hierarchy and you are serving God not just following orders. Centralized rule is created so there is no dissent and homogeneity is maintained. IS withdrawals from Idlib and elsewhere in early 2014 show that it is smart and it will not let its men die for nothing. In terms of the balance of power IS should lose because everybody is against it, but it has autonomous elements of strength, a project that people believe in, and superior fighting tactics. IS cannot be reduced to ideology, whether Salafi or Wahabi, as some have tried. Blaming Islam, or blaming Salafi Islam, is as misleading as pretending IS is un-Islamic. IS’ ideology cannot be fought, nor can there be a war against “extremism.” IS has not issued a code or developed any theories, it is the result of complex local, regional and international dynamics, such as dictatorships, American wars, sectarian incitement from Gulf states and non state actors, socio-economic problems, and most recently the stateless zones created by the Syrian insurgency. IS cannot be defeated.

The declaration of a caliphate inherently attacked the legitimacy of other Islamist movements as well as the Saudi monarchy. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) lost physically and materially and also betrayed its principles, cooperating with America and Israel in the hopes of obtaining power. The MB lost its platform to build something in the future. IS maintains a principled position, it did not sell out. Leading MB cleric and godfather Yusuf al Qaradawi felt threatened by the caliphate declaration and issued a statement saying it was invalid. But if you are a 20 year old in Egypt with MB sympathies you might see that the MB has lost its battles, it used politics and democracy to gain power and it was in turn broken down, humiliated and its leaders jailed for life. Young MB supporters might look with resentment at Qaradawi who lives in a luxurious villa in the safety of Doha, far from the struggle, divorcing and marrying for the third time. On the other hand the new caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a 40 year old man, sturdy, mounting the pulpit in July despite a recent injury, speaking eloquent Arabic after occupying a large territory in defiance of Assad and Maliki and attacking the Saudi royal family who are responsible for the crackdown on MB, while the religious guide of the MB in Egypt is old and decrepit and in jail. IS discourse claimed Arab regimes were corrupt and beyond redemption and democracy was useless. Young supporters of the MB have learned this the hard way. Qaradawi questioned the religious legitimacy of the caliphate and warned that it was a threat to Sunnis (he was not worried about non- Sunnis), but his real concern was the MB losing power or popularity. Qaradawi and other Sunni leaders know the sentiment on the Sunni Arab street. If they are vying for who will defend Sunnis more then they cannot win against IS. According to one member of the Saudi establishment, IS is a grave threat “because its Sunni. It's instilling fear, it has limitless recruits.” He explained that it threatens the legitimacy of the al Saud because “IS is ruling like the Saudis with same basis” and it has a support base in the Gulf. He

added that there is no solution for IS and eventually the Saudis themselves will have to go to war with it.

The attempted Arab revolutions took place without revolutionaries, only with reformers. Only the jihadists have been revolutionaries. In Syria the rank and file of the revolutionaries have become radicalized and salafized in last two or three years of their struggle. One Islamist cleric tied to insurgents recently complained that decision making is now in the hands of the rank and file who are more radical than their leaders. This presents a challenge to leaders trying to appear “moderate” to appease the West. As a result mainstream insurgent groups are hemorrhaging young men into the IS camp. Groups like Tawhid in Aleppo report that up to thirty percent of their fighters have defected to IS. A moderate leadership does not mean a moderate rank and file and they have an attractive alternative available (IS) that can be perceived as “authentic.” Moreover, the term “moderate” should mean something more than just willing to cooperate with the U.S., or “not al Qaeda.” Jamal Maaruf’s SRF and Hazm were moderate only in the sense that they were mercenaries. “By supporting Jamal Maaruf and Hazm you supported the conflict,” said one former leading Homs activist who had to flee from both the regime and extremists, “you supported the bad guys. When you support the bad guys you support the conflict. You did not support the resolution of the conflict, they were corrupt warlords.” He added that U.S. support only empowered these warlords.

“The revolutionaries consider IS Islamic,” worried one moderate Islamist leader who is fighting IS, “even if they are too extreme. There is no murder in IS areas because of their punishment, while in areas of the revolutionaries there is kidnapping and killing. People started looking at IS as a stable area, we can send our children to school in its areas. In IS areas you can go all the way to Mosul without being harassed. They just check your identity card to see if you are wanted by IS.” Another Islamist insurgent commander worried that many mainstream Islamist insurgent groups were thinking of swearing allegiance to IS in order to have a united front against the regime. He added that men were even defecting from JN to IS because JN did not impose Sharia or fight corruption. “Civilians in IS areas are content,” he said. IS distributed financial grants to newly weds, he said, and when they confiscated cigarettes they compensated shop owners to avoid a backlash. Some alleged moderate insurgents will join IS because as they say they would ally with the devil to get rid of the regime and many are angry that the American response only came after a powerful Sunni force arose in Iraq and not when the Syrian regime was killing Sunnis.

IS is an expression of Sunni chauvinism and its ideas and actions are producing a dangerous backlash. Sunnis in Iraq are a weak minority, that cannot be changed but Iraqi Sunnis refused to accept the new reality. Sunni political rhetoric in Iraq and the region is neither nationalistic nor humanistic. It would be in their interest not to be sectarian and to have nationalistic parties. They need the money and they could play a political role, becoming the force that decides who wins in the Iraqi parliament. Instead there is a strong sectarian discourse against Shiites and other sects, leading to the impression that it is not about Maliki or Bashar but a radical Sunni project that will not be satisfied until Sunni Islamists are in power. In Syria this view is even more divorced from reality because

unlike in Iraq in Syria Sunnis are in power, they are the majority of senior regime and government officials and they are not marginalized economically, in fact they dominate the economy. As a result of their embrace of IS and like minded movements, sectarian Sunnis have made sure that no secular movement can emerge in region. The Sunni world has produced a lethal campaign against Shiites that has seen them being targeted in Iraq’s markets, mosques and streets every day for ten years, as well as in Pakistan and elsewhere. And prominent Sunni voices only condemn these groups when they threaten other Sunnis. In Lebanon and Iraq Shiites now believe that only Hizballah and other Shiite militias can protect them (rather than national armies). And increasingly Christians, Druze and other minorities also view Hizballah as the only guarantee against IS. In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq we see the same trend of a weak state and villagers coming to depend on their own militias. In Lebanon, Christian, Druze and other villagers in the south and east have asked Hizballah to train and equip their local self defense militias to protect their them from IS, and this includes people who are nominally politically opposed to Hizballah. Hizballah is now larger than ever and in addition to its traditional role against Israel it is playing a homeland security function against an internal terror threat, it is playing a train and equip role, and it is playing an embedded advisor role in Syria and Iraq. It will be harder than ever to convince Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis to move away from sectarian movements. The rise of IS and like minded movements has also provoked a strong Shiite backlash that is anti-Sunni. It has also made true the formerly false notion of a Shiite crescent. Now Shiites and Alawites are an increasingly united bloc from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Iran and even Yemen, in reaction to a Sunni sectarian threat that appears genocidal to them. This axis is powerful and well organized. Shiite militias are uniting and many are increasingly anti-Sunni and transnational, a Shiite al Qaeda in the Middle East. Ultimately this experiment in Sunni sectarianism will fail, and the likely victory of this Shiite axis will produce a dangerous backlash. A huge defeat of Sunni sectarians, one that is overwhelming and humiliating and complete means it will be hard to heal the rift between communities.

In Lebanon, where there is practically no state, wealthy Sunni elites have done little for their population, keeping them in a position of servitude so they need their elites, rather than creating employment, remembering them only when it is time to pay them 100 dollars each to demonstrate or go vote. As a result the Sunni north in Lebanon has become poor and marginalized like the Shiite south was in the 1970s and 1980s. The same has been the case in Iraq, where Sunni businessmen left and Sunni areas were underdeveloped in part because Sunni leaders chose to boycott or rebel against the post 2003 new order. These poor Sunni areas will remain a reservoir for IS for years with a humiliated population that will be easy to buy. In contrast sectarian Shiite movements in the region encourage their constituencies to feel strong and proud, and support their self- improvement, unlike Sunni leaders who act like feudal lords. IS will remain popular as long as the theme of Sunni oppression resonates and as long as news channels show images of Sunnis suffering. Thus the priority must be to freeze the conflict as a first step in a broader population centric counterinsurgency campaign and conflict resolution process that contains IS, and reduces violence where possible. This of course requires a viable and acceptable central government, which is a challenge in both Syria and Iraq.

While supporting the mainstream insurgency can hold off IS in northern Aleppo where it confronts the insurgency only, no amount of training and equipping of the so called moderate opposition will halt IS in Hama, Homs, or greater Damascus. Nor can the mainstream insurgency muster enough forces to ever roll back IS in eastern Syria. The mainstream insurgency is not a very mobile force, instead it is more and more local in its focus. To be fair, the insurgency has become slightly less local in recent months because of the threat of IS. The MOC-backed fighters in Idleb and Western rural Aleppo had to start fighting on the Marea front (although there remain disputes between them), far from their traditional territory. They were reluctant to do so and came very late but it is one of the only instance of genuine and successful cooperation between different ‘mainstream’ factions. It seems the Islamic Front (IF) and JN have little to no role on that front but it may just be the exception to the rule. The Revolutionary Command Council phenomenon, though useless, still shows that localized groups can muster up some thinking that goes beyond local issues when pressed. It is hardly inspiring and certainly insufficient but worth bearing in mind.

Ultimately, only jihadist groups like Ahrar al Sham, JN or IS have had much success operating nationwide. There is no opposition ground force that can clear hold and build in conjunction with US airstrikes so who will fill the vacuum if IS is forced to evacuate populated areas? Quite possibly JN, which is hardly an attractive alternative. Two years of Western backed efforts to support opposition self-governance structures and local councils ended largely in failure, infighting and the creation of warlords and rival mafias. There is little reason to expect more success in the future unless these local councils are reconnected to the central government in Damascus. Of course the risk would be that if they are connected with Damascus then hardcore insurgents would reject them or even threaten them.

There is little interest in Washington for greater involvement in Syria. Most Americans only discovered IS in September. But the Islamic State was declared in Iraq 2006, according to leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2008, and it was responsible for a constant barrage of terror attacks in Iraq that almost became routine. Even then it attempted attacks outside of Iraq, including in Jordan and against Israel’s south and north. In the summer of 2011 it would send men into Syria to launch JN, activating a network for salafi jihadists who were present throughout the country. It would kill many thousands of people in Iraq and Syria before it captured American attention. The gruesome and tragic beheading of two American journalists and the direct taunting of president Obama produced a visceral reaction in the U.S. public, media and political class, and an urge for vengeance. Obama suddenly came under pressure to create a “strategy” to “defeat” IS, an impossible task. Until now Obama has successfully resisted calls from Republicans and interventionist Democrats to become embroiled in Syria. And yet the mixed messages his administration gave the Syrian people, calling for Assad to go, offering minimal support for the insurgency and promising greater support also contributed to the calculations of all parties, specifically an opposition that foolishly gambled on an eventual American intervention to rescue them and topple the Syrian regime. But now that the US is adopting an anti-IS strategy, it cannot afford to ignore Syria.

There has been no public debate on Syria in Washington apart from the debate on whether the US should have armed the Syrian opposition. Nobody has calling for a realistic assessment of the situation. But the entire US strategy to the extent it has been articulated cannot work and these incremental half measures cause civilian suffering to no strategic end and give IS more space to operate. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s argument that it is Assad or al Qaeda, simplistic as it was, is becoming truer with each passing day, leaving only an unrepentant regime or extremists worse than the regime. What we are calling for is not embracing the regime, just admitting that regime change failed and led to adverse consequences and drawing the logical conclusions from this realization.

Strikes on IS (and JN) positions have already begun and it is clear that there will be an increase in aid to the so called moderate opposition (to defend themselves against attacks, it is claimed). If the US provides weapons for free without conditions or guidance it will be giving up whatever potential leverage it can have over the insurgency or anti-IS forces. In the absence of a holistic strategy with the US merely dropping some bombs on IS in Syria, there is a risk of provoking the Sunni victimization rhetoric and sectarian sympathy with IS. In addition to the growing radicalization of the rank and file mainstream insurgents, there is a parallel trend of a growing nihilism among opposition, with calls to just let IS win and sweep everything away and then eventually somehow miraculously be replaced by the opposition perhaps with international help. Already many groups associated with the so called moderates or mainstream insurgency have condemned the strikes, including Hazm, Nuredeen Zenki, the Syrian Islamic Council, the Muslim Brothers, Suqur al Sham, and others, and there have even been demonstrations of solidarity with IS in several villages in Idlib, and in Homs and elsewhere in Syria. It seems that one possible consequence of the American strikes on IS is to increase its legitimacy and popularity. This was entirely predictable and will continue, unless supporters of the opposition or insurgency can see tangible benefits. These are communities under siege or being bombarded (and of course there are insurgents based among them). At least if siege was relaxed, if life became normalized, if bombs stopped falling on their communities, they could feel like the American strikes were not another chapter in the war against Sunnis but a tactic pursued in parallel with a strategy to improve conditions for Sunni opposition communities. Getting the regime to agree to ceasefires at a time when the U.S. is bombing JN and IS would reduce the Sunni victimization propaganda and hence reduce the increased solidarity with JN and IS that we now see in Syria and the region. IS as product of conflict rather than merely a certain culture or religion. This is why it appeared in Iraq and Syria. It appears also in the context of large scale violence carried out with impunity, whether in Iraq, or Syria, and Muslims can also observe it in broadcasts from Gaza. IS can be seen as a symptom of these and other afflictions in the Middl East. The main cause is state failure and violence. One cannot go to war against a symptom. Reducing violence and destruction would help reduce the appeal of IS.

Immediate Concerns

The first problem in Syria is the war. The war is causing death, destruction, displacement, poverty, corruption, sectarianism. The war has unleashed regime militias that previously did not exist. The war has led to tens of thousands of men, many innocent of any anti- regime activity, to be imprisoned and tortured, sometimes to death. The war has caused the failed state zones which IS and JN are filling alongside organized crime and even hashish and poppy cultivators. And the war has caused the failure of the opposition’s modest attempts at self-governance and service provision. While the Syrian state was not the most attractive one even before the 2011 uprising, it also was not the worst regime in the region. It has strong systems of education, health care and social welfare and compared to most Arab governments it was socially progressive and secular (state schools teach the theory of evolution in biology class, for example- something anathema

in most of the region). It had a solid infrastructure and a relatively effective civil service. Hence our emphasis on preserving the state and preventing its disintegration. Saying the Syrian state was relatively effective before the uprising is not a defense of the regime, it’s

a call to prevent further state collapse, with all its terrible consequences.

While the most obvious consequences of the war are the loss of life and the refugees, the war is also destroying much of the country’s essential infrastructure, electricity, water, communication, roads, hospitals, schools, agriculture, industry and the human capital that ran all these services and institutions. Now many towns that used to have electricity 24 hours a day do not have any, and fuel is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Villages that used to have constant water must now purchase it at expensive rates from water trucks. Agriculture becomes impossible, health care declines and more people die, young people have to abandon their dreams of education and sustain themselves and their families, or join an armed faction out of self-defense or for the meager salary it provides. And it is ALL sides in the Syrian civil war that are taking part in this destruction, random and deliberate, the regime and the insurgency.

The war is also causing a social decay. Prostitution, theft, drug dealing, organized crime, are all rampant in a society that was known for its social order and stability. While corruption was a problem in Syria and throughout the Middle East before 2011, it has grown to unprecedented levels because it is not just power that corrupts, it is war that corrupts, specifically counterinsurgency, which provides all sides with numerous opportunities for corruption and both sides in such a conflict come to resemble each other more and more. The war has led the regime to rely on paramilitary militias, undisciplined, thieving, looting, abusive and corrupt. It has greatly increased the role of security and the army in people’s lives. It has led to the arrests of tens of thousands of Syrians, overflowing prisons, making it impossible to sift the innocent from those

actually wanted for anti-regime activity, leading to massive industrial scale torture and to

a corrupt prison system where money can release prisoners, creating an incentive to arrest

people for money. It has led to the establishment of checkpoints and roadblocks all over the country. Each provides an opportunity for corruption and abuse. Likewise the sanctions imposed on Syria which have contributed to the destruction of its economy, businesses, factories and quality of life, also are an impetus for greater corruption. All these factors exist on the insurgent side as well. It has been kidnapping for ransom since 2011. It has engaged in wholesale looting. Its areas are full of checkpoints which extort

from people. It has seen the emergence of numerous local warlords. And the fraying of Syria’s borders means that this corruption has spread and formed partnerships in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, as well as farther away. The Turkish border force is now thoroughly riddled with corruption, allowing foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Norway or Chechnya to cross into Syria with their families. Local Turkish officials in the governorates that border Syria have also engaged in corrupt cooperation with insurgents and foreign fighters. Lebanese Shiites who sympathize with Hizballah help smuggle wanted young men from Homs into the Beqaa valley past Syrian regime and Hizballah checkpoints, all thanks to corruption. These networks of corrupt armed men increasingly detached from the causes and creeds they fought for will remain in the region and provoke instability.

Descent Toward State Collapse

The longer the war lasts the more the Syrian state will gradually fray at the edges. Syrian state collapse is a threat whether regime “feels” pressured or not. The weaker the regime gets the more it will be propped up by Iran and the greater the likelihood of Iranian boots on the ground being introduced as well. A weaker regime also means that the militias supporting it will get stronger, more independent and more dangerous. This is a real risk as the regime’s manpower is killed off while in theory the insurgency can draw from a pool of radicalized refugees in camps. But this is not an attractive alternative to the current mess. And these gaps will be occupied by IS and JN, or other militias and organized crime. There is no alternative force able to fill this space. All experiments with opposition self-governance have failed. But the NGO does not propose abandoning these efforts or the dedicated, brave and often idealistic men and women who strove to provide for their communities. The NGO instead proposes to preserve them and reconnect them to the state. This is the return of the state without the return of the regime.

The rise of IS has caused some commentators to suggest that there is only a choice between IS and the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad, and that the U.S. should cooperate with his regime. This is a false choice and we are not proposing that there be a reconciliation between the U.S. and the Syrian regime. We know that is politically impossible for domestic and international reasons and also morally objectionable. Instead we are proposing that there be a reconciliation between Syrians. Nor are we abandoning the goal of removing Assad, but we are creating the conditions for Syrians to do it themselves peacefully and gradually over time by removing layers of regime authority and establishing precedents that cannot be undone. Throughout the Arab world it is clear that rapid “Arab Spring” style change has failed, leading to a failed state in Libya (and continued state failure in Yemen), or a resurgent and reinvigorated dictatorship in Egypt. Nor has insurgency worked, causing only greater destruction and radicalization. But the choice is not Assad or al Qaeda. It is war or less war as a first goal, and it is allowing what remains that was noble about the opposition to be destroyed or conducting a triage to save what is left of it and allow it time to grow. Our vision, of forcing the regime to concede its full authority in exchange for an increased lifespan ultimately ends the Damascus regime because it loses full control over its territory, it allows for local democracy, it allows the opposition to thrive in areas it controls and it allows the bitterly

angry loyalist community to focus their ire on the regime rather than worry about the existential threat posed by Sunni extremists. This should not be seen as helping Assad. This is about helping the Syrian people, helping villagers being attacked, helping besieged people emerge from under the rubble, helping families return to what is left of their lives and rebuild. Assad is not harmed by the war or the sanctions, but common Syrian people are.

Limited Humanitarian Options to Avoid Failed State

For proponents of the responsibility to protect and those primarily concerned with the terrible human rights violations and killings in Syria, those who claim they want to save lives, there are two possible strategies. The most common one involves intensifying violence against the regime in the hope that this eventually somehow reduces violence, or there is our vision which in fact prioritizes reducing the loss of life through ceasefires and conflict resolution. The idea that the regime’s calculus will change with military pressure has until now proven false. For over two years Washington and its allies have been trying to send Bashar a message that he cannot win, but this message has not been received. For the regime winning means surviving and holding on to what they can while defeat is inconceivable. Increased “pressure” can only lead to continued disintegration of the state and the regime’s control and increased dependence on Iran and more direct Iranian intervention, something the U.S. and most of its allies in the Middle East would frown upon.

Ceasefires and a reduction of the conflict allow for an immediate improvement of the humanitarian situation and the implementation of UN resolution 2139 and implementation. Ceasefires allow the so called moderate opposition and the Syrian government to focus on counter-terrorism and countering extremist violence. This will also reduce the flow of foreign fighters and deny them safe havens in Syria. Ceasefires will allow us to move towards a political solution and a negotiated political transition. The situation on the ground is not conducive for such a negotiation now when numerous armed groups are fighting various regime or pro-regime forces and villagers are often fighting other villagers. Most importantly, ceasefires will allow the return of the moderate opposition and allow it to play a role so that it can serve as a counter balance to the regime and resume its experiment in local governance.

Contrary to what some outside analysts claim, there remains a strong Syrian state whose resilience is important to understand. It continues to control population centers in all provincial capitals but Raqqa. From there it provides normal state functions to citizens in the countryside and even in insurgent held territory, who often move into regime held areas just so that they can continue to benefit from state services (and this is why the regime bombs opposition attempts to form an alternative state- so that the population will continue to depend on it). The longer the war continues the more the Syrian state is likely to fail, leaving only the regime. This institutional collapse would create a power vacuum allowing for militias to run rampant. If insurgents and IS continue to pressure loyalist villages eventually members of the security forces will abandon their posts securing cities and return to protect their families, leading to chaos. If the state runs out of money as it

eventually might, then it will lose control of the many armed men under its command, also leading to greater chaos.

Rather than descending towards Somalia our vision allows for what may be the best case scenario at this time, the creation of many Lebanons in the non-IS territory with only limited central authority. Regionally this can have appeal to Syria’s neighbors. Damascus has lost sovereignty over its borders and is unlikely to ever regain it directly. It will have to concede control to local actors. These are precisely the actors supported by the Gulf countries, Jordan, Turkey as well as the U.S. and its western partners. Turkey and maybe Qatar will exercise huge influence over the north and parts of the east while Jordan (and therefore the Saudis) will exercise influence over the south and parts of the center. Thus closing the borders to weapons and fighters comes at the condition that the regime accept this new reality, a looser Syria with a weaker center, in which the president and security remain but their role is reduced and in which strongmen rule their little areas. Jamal Maaruf (if he survives continued assassination attempts) will be the strongman in parts of Idlib, and Abdulrazaq Tlass will be the strongman in Rastan, and so on. Iran and Russia will be content because the regime stays and Hizballah gets to keep its supply lines. Thus accepting that Bashar remains in Damascus does not mean abandoning the opposition controlled areas. On the contrary, it means strengthening them by returning only the state and not the regime. For those waving the Sunni flag, our plan spares Sunni lives, releases Sunnis from prisons, returns Sunnis to their homes, removes images of Sunni victims from the television screens and allows for the Sunni community to focus on the much graver threat that IS poses to it.

The Moderate Myth

The oft repeated myth of a moderate opposition must be disputed, unless all it means is “not al Qaeda or IS.” Former Ambassador Robert Ford has defined the moderate opposition as “fighters who are not seeking to impose an Islamic state, but rather leaving that to a popular decision after the war ends.” But they still all favor an Islamist government, they are anti-liberal, their views on women, secularism, democracy, non- Sunnis, anything for that matter are deeply conservative and often Salafi and they engage in grave human rights violations and war crimes. There is in fact a moderate opposition, but the Americans would not deal with it. This moderate opposition did not beg the Americans for help and they were marginalized or ignored by the regime as well, all too content as it was to show that opposition can only mean sectarianism and terrorism. The moderate opposition is groups such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC, made up of prominent people like Hassan Abdel Azeem and Haitham Mana) Luai Hussein's building the Syrian State Current and other groups that called for regime reform and gradual change but not immediate fall and opposed the militarization and Islamization of the opposition and opposed foreign intervention. The moderates do not carry weapons. This was the fault line. Now of course it is too late and these actual moderates have no influence over the armed men and they are also pressured by the regime.

Syrians took up arms against the state or regime or its security forces or their neighbors for many reasons. For many it was a spontaneous reaction to violence by the security forces. For others it was self defense. For some it was revenge, or the opportunity for criminals to remake themselves. Even before the uprising many Syrians had weapons and would occasionally clash with each other, especially in slums or the countryside, engage in family feuds or attack the state or its security forces. Most insurgents are not carrying weapons "to defend themselves," they did it out of religious zeal or political extremism. And their strategic error in initiating an insurgency against the regime (and there were armed opposition groups conducting attacks on personnel and infrastructure as early as March 2011) helped provoke the country’s destruction, not the protection of its civilians. From the beginning, literally the first days of the uprising, there were armed attacks on state employees, security personnel, and state institutions, so the regime was also responding to a growing insurgency. Initially these armed attacks were not systematic but the narrative of six months of peaceful Ghandi demonstrations that were massacred leading to the opposition taking up arms in self defense is false. There were numerous peaceful demonstrations taking place at the same time as there was a growing insurgency. Armed Islamist groups began forming themselves in late March and early April 2011 and collaborating with local criminals to form self defense groups and insurgent cells. All sides were dirty and unattractive, but U.S. officials met sincere looking liberal "activists" and thought they represented the movement. Those liberal activists struck a Faustian bargain with Islamists and smugglers and have now come to regret it because there is little place for them in what has become of the Syrian opposition. These liberal activists have been chased out of Syria by their former allies and by the regime.

As soon as the insurgency began to dominate the movement (meaning by the summer of 2011), it was too late for the liberals whose voices were rapidly drowned out by armed sectarian Sunni Islamists. Had they even succeeded in bringing down the regime as was so often predicted it would have only led to total state collapse and failure. The Syrian opposition inside was leaderless. This may have helped it survive but it meant it could not organize, plan, strategize, think, and it was hostage to the worst trends and instincts. It was without ideology and in the context of a conservative Muslim population influenced by the same salafi trends seen throughout the region in the last ten years it was inevitable that those trends would dominate, as they have in all areas the opposition controls. Since it was leaderless there was nobody to caution against creating armed groups, attacking state institutions, killing government officials or pro-government neighbors or killing Alawites. And the regime had genuine support from half the population. There was never any way Iran and Russian would let the regime fall. Abhorrent as the regime is, it was a grave mistake for the U.S. to cut off communication with it and thus lose influence. If the moderates are to become active once again they need a ceasefire. One leading activist of the internal actual moderate opposition who works on building civil society recently complained that “we cannot do anything without a ceasefire. People in Aleppo will shoot you if you talk about a workshop or civil society. They want food water and electricity.”

One former American official recently wrote about minor gains by insurgents in Idlib. This is actually proof of how ineffective and unattractive the insurgents are. They have been fighting the regime in Idlib at least since June 2011 and yet insurgents still do not control the provincial capital or several other towns, and there are still regime bases in Idlib. And this is despite Idlib’s proximity to the Turkish border and the fact that insurgent groups in Idlib have been lavished with aid for over two years and their border was wide open to foreign fighters and jihadists for a long time. Importantly the recent seizure of most of Idlib by JN and affiliated extremist groups, and the expulsion of the SRF and Hazm, the two main American affiliated groups is important. The American affiliated groups were expelled from their villages and heartlands where they should have been at their most powerful. If they could not stand up to JN in their own hometowns how can they possibly confront IS or the regime?

Instead they have bickered amongst each other and failed to establish models of governance except for the most basic Islamic courts which is hardly something one would want to encourage. Syrian opposition and regime politics have been typical of the Arab spring in general, where politics consists in mobilizing against politics of the others but there is no political elite capable of reforming the system. This is purely negative politics, where all one’s energy is put into hindering one’s enemy’s project. Elites lack imagination or creativity in dealing with crises, even though they recognize that they cannot regain full control. But they are only thinking in terms of short term strategies and dealing with things only at the security level.

The position of the opposition continues to erode. It has failed to produce credible military or political leaders (and those it has produced are getting assassinated or marginalized) and it remains divided and fissiparous both politically and militarily. It is unable to unite to achieve meaningful gains on the ground. It is unable to provide for its people. Political factions bicker and undermine each other. Infighting is increasing between insurgent factions. Due to its divisions, the opposition has eased the progress of extremist groups. With the conflict in a stalemate, with fewer significant battles and scarcer resources, criminal and predatory groups are increasingly active in opposition areas, while opposition groups are beginning to prey on their own population and are losing focus of the original goals of their struggle. Many opposition fighters and commanders have abandoned the fight. Some have moved to Turkey or just sit at home, others turn to seizing oil wells, factories, flour mills, and others turn to more criminal activity. This vicious cycle only further weakens the opposition and creates more opportunities for extremists. Fewer resources, more criminality, more demobilization of insurgents, all this creates the ideal space conducive for radicalism because extremist groups fight criminals and capitalize on failure of local governance structures. And it turns the population against the opposition, even leading some to prefer the regime to the opposition. It also opens the door for the regime to make progress or even to become attractive.

The same former American official described insurgent advances in northern Hama. Insurgents (American backed ones cooperating closely with JN) have for two years been attacking neutral Sunni towns as well as Alawite and Christian towns in Hama. And

lately there has been an increase in attacks against Alawite, Christian, Ismaili and neutral Sunni towns in the western Hama region of al Ghab, in northern Hama areas closer to Idlib and in eastern Hama. Many thousands of Christians have now fled the Christian town of Mharda in Hama after insurgents attacked it. And since minor opposition advances in Hama were celebrated it appears the regime has in turn been making gains. These too should not be celebrated. It all means only more death and destruction.

Likewise Alawite and Shiite towns in eastern and south eastern Homs have been under increased attacks and neighborhoods that are majority loyalist in Homs city continue to be attacked by rocket fire and car bombs. Some of these towns in Hama have been destroyed by the so called moderate opposition, their population cleansed after civilians were murdered, and others are hit every day with rockets and mortars or are besieged. Insurgent gains against neutral or pro-government civilians should not be encouraged or celebrated and its only further proof that there is no such thing as a moderate armed opposition. None of this is meant to absolve the regime of its crimes, but these are well known and not subject to dispute.

The former American official stated that “The regime reportedly even had to re-route

Damascus city buses.” This is because the regime is protecting civilians in Damascus from insurgent attacks (yes, the same regime killing civilians in other places). For at least

a year there have been daily mortar and rocket attacks against Damascene civilians by insurgents in east or south Damascus. How is the fact that the so called moderate opposition is targeting civilians (in majority Sunni areas and including opposition sympathizers) something to celebrate? Why should civilians in buses in Damascus be

threatened? (and they are majority Sunni civilians so its an especially nihilistic policy for

a sectarian opposition) And why should such an opposition be called moderate or

encouraged? This official seemed to think highly of Zahran Alloush, one of the least popular and most extreme insurgent commanders among the opposition. Allush is a Wahabi extremist, very sectarian, as is made clear in his fiery speeches that sound like any al Qaeda speech, and Allush wants to establish an Islamic state too, what he calls the Umayad state. He is opposed to IS because they are the competition. Allush is also suspected to be behind the kidnapping of three liberal opposition activists including the

celebrated Razan Zeituneh and his men have been executing people in public just like IS.

The former official mentioned the insurgents making small (and insignificant) gains in Aleppo. They have also cut the water supply to the government held side of Aleppo where there are hundreds of thousands of needy civilians and they are shelling civilians in the government held side of Aleppo. How is insurgent progress against Aleppo a good thing? And who is it good for? Not for civilians. In 2012 the insurgency in Aleppo invaded Aleppo city from the countryside and brought hell to the city (along with the regime's predictable and brutal response of course). It must be stressed that it is largely the regime engaged in the collective punishment and brutal bombardment, but the insurgents too fire shells and explosive gas canisters at government held parts of Aleppo, killing civilians regularly.

The former official mentioned Alawite anger at the regime's forces getting massacred lately. What he did not mention is that many of those beheaded soldiers were Sunnis. He referred as he often does to the fact that the opposition has “failed to figure out how to reach out to greater portions of the regime base, especially the Alawite community, which forms the core of the regime's support.” And he implies that it is only the “Islamic State gains” that have “increased the Alawites' fears of extermination.” But the so called moderate opposition has been targeting Alawite civilians and Alawite areas for a couple of years now, kidnapping and killing them and hitting their areas with mortars and issuing threats against them. Its not about the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition as a whole is deeply sectarian. It is a fantasy to think that loyalists, whether Alawite or Sunni can switch their allegiance to the opposition just because they are angry at the regime for its incompetence, neglect, or corruption. In 2011 the grievances expressed in many demonstrations about a hope for something better, had broad support, but for Alawites, minorities and the majority of Sunnis who prefer the state over chaos, there is nothing attractive about the opposition which is seen as nihilistic and sectarian, threatening the existence of the nation and its population. Likewise talk of a coup is not realistic and also not positive, only a right wing coup would be possible, replacing Assad with a hard liner because he is criticized as weak.

There is a deep anger about the state among loyalists and Alawites including members of the security, army and pro-regime militias. Syria has changed and it is now acceptable and common to voice a strong critique of the regime and even the president from a loyalist point of view. After their sacrifices on behalf of the state loyalists feel a sense of entitlement and they openly criticize abuses and incompetence (even if it is often a right wing critique or one based purely on dissatisfaction with regime’s inefficiency). But as long as the war continues this anger cannot be channeled and is useless. A reduction of the war will allow loyalist anger to express itself and allow loyalists to demand changes in return for their sacrifices and service to the state without worrying about the Sunni extremist threat.

The official also mentioned the May 17 communiqué by Islamists slightly more moderate than al Qaeda in which they do not explicitly call for Islamic law and say they will “not retaliate against communities that had supported the regime, and promised to respect minorities' rights.” First this communiqué was only issued because these groups faced a severe financial crisis and are courting the West. Second their actions for the last two years belie their claim. They have consistently attacked civilians and civilian targets indiscriminately, they have often singled out minorities, especially Alawites and Shiites, they have used suicide bombers and foreign fighters, and their leadership ranks are full of former jihadists including with experience in Iraq (see the new leader of Ahrar al Sham).

There is a moderate opposition. They are courageous, brave and respected. They are the civilians who organized early peaceful demonstrations and rejected armed attacks and sectarianism when those trends grew. They are the civilians who set up aid committees, medical committees, media committees, and early attempts at local governance in Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Raqqa and elsewhere. The international community was made aware of their existence in late 2011 but chose to back the external opposition, the SNC and later the

SOC, who were disconnected from the ground, more sectarian, supported an insurgency, were beholden to the Gulf monarchies and did not feel the suffering of their people, or chose to take advantage of it to further their goals. These idealistic moderates had to flee to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon or Europe because of the war. They had no place in a militarized and radicalized society where the regime bombed insurgent strongholds and insurgents attempted to impose their own control (typically Islamist) on the so-called “liberated areas.” The more time goes by the less likely the moderate opposition will return to Syria. They will receive asylum in the West, or adjust to their new lives as refugees in Turkey, Jordan or further afield. Ceasefires will allow these moderates, these allies of the West, these original civil activists who organized demonstrations and established councils, to return and confront the facts on the ground created by Islamists and warlords and to have the chance to develop leaders and governance. In fact there is even a moderate armed opposition. It is those insurgent groups who have been engaging with the regime in pursuit of ceasefires rather than those who nihilistically refuse to compromise at the expense of Syria’s continued destruction.

At every level Syria has exposed the failure of the international system. In diplomacy, humanitarian activity, conflict resolution, intervention, intelligence, covert and overt activities, the media coverage which has been a disaster full of misinformation and propaganda and serving to obfuscate more than to enlighten. We are flooded with information on Syria but none of it improves our knowledge. The public debate on Syria has been misleading and based on little information. Almost all discussion about Syria takes place in some other universe divorced from reality and the people talking have not been to Syria recently if ever and have no idea what they are talking about. And thus most opinions and policies are formulated out of thin air and not through any empirical, logical or fact based process. Numerous proposals are made by individuals claiming expertise but in fact lacking it. As good an example as any is a recent article by Kenneth Pollack in which he simplified the conflict as an “intercommunal civil war. ” This is only partially true. It may be intercommunal in the countryside, but the Syrian state (and not only the Syrian regime) is fighting an insurgency. Most of the regime is Sunni, most of its supporters are Sunnis, many if not most of its soldiers are Sunni. The regime may be brutal, authoritarian, corrupt and whatever else it is described as, but it should not be seen as representing a sect. Assad rules Syria, not the Alawites.

Pollack proposed “building a new Syrian opposition army capable of defeating both President Bashar al-Assad and the more militant Islamists.” Today the mainstream insurgency is the least powerful actor in Syria. JN and IS dominate the opposition held areas and are spreading. In Idlib JN is growing and imposing itself, as it is in Daraa and Quneitra, parts of the Hama and Homs countryside. Raqqa and Derezzor are IS zones. IS is also moving from eastern Aleppo to western Aleppo. The situation is rapidly becoming more clear, a regime controlled Syria and a JN/IS controlled Syria. While there are tens of thousands of men with arms in insurgent held areas most of them are not fighting the regime or IS. They just don’t want to anymore. They do fight when foreign forces invade their area, where they are making money, especially if that area is easily defended geographically (i.e. Jabal al-Zawiya). One must look at how few non JN/IS insurgents are actually engaged at the frontlines. It is less than ten thousand, and most of those are too

Islamist and sectarian to join this American mercenary force. Even if the manpower to join such an army existed, it would take such a long time to create it (and none of Syria’s neighbors would accept to host this army) that it would be irrelevant by the time it was complete. In six months you will only have JN/IS areas and regime areas. Also, this new Syrian force that has been proposed would lack an esprit de corps, being a mercenary army and not a national one. There would be a lack of morale, corruption would abound, and it would be deeply sectarian given that the only unifying ideology the insurgency has found so far is a Sunni Islamist one. The hasty collapse of the Iraqi Army should be a lesson. The national army is the current Syrian one, which is mixed sect and ha a majority of Sunni soldiers. The United States, while very capable, does not have any successful models it can point to that did not end in death squads and collapse. Regime change was a misbegotten and ill-conceived political objective which is less and less in the U.S. interest even if it could be achieved. Regime reform culminating in regime change is the only way to procede.

Moderates Weaker than both Regime and Islamists

The notion that the weakest of the factions in the Syrian civil war, the mainstream insurgency, can defeat the two stronger factions, the Syrian state (and its army, security and paramilitary militias) AND the radical Islamist factions is also a fantasy. This is militarily impossible and also at this point not even desirable. It means state collapse. First there is no group able to replace even the quasi-state created by the radical Islamists let alone the actual Syrian state which is so thoroughly imbricated with the Syrian regime. The Syrian army is the only faction that has a conventional structure and doctrine, though even it cannot defeat the extremists. The ragtag and Islamist (whether moderate or extremist) insurgents cannot join such an army, there is a reason why they did not belong to it in the first place. Unless it’s the army of JN and IS. And there is no pool from which to recruit such an army at this point. It is also a fantasy to think as Pollack wrote that there can any time soon occur the “emergence of a new Syrian state:

one that is peaceful, pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.” The U.S. has no success producing such solutions and it certainly could not build them from the sectarian, Islamist, conservative, and anti-democratic insurgency which remains on the ground. It is not because of American faults that this is not possible. The U.S. can bring a massive amount of resources and know-how, but there are no successful models of an outside Western actor creating such a national force, and it is not possible for an outside actor to do so. The last few years have made people in the Middle East more sectarian and regional than ever before. The international community (and the Syrian regime) neglected the moderate opposition in favor of the extremists that it encouraged. Now there is no pro-democratic, non-sectarian opposition left that the U.S. can support. Only Islamists remain. Syrian Sunnis were already very conservative and sectarianism mattered, but the last three years have greatly increased the influence of salafi Islam and sectarian discourse, not to mention anti-democratic tendencies. The U.S. is not capable of creating new Syrians from scratch.

The Iraqi and Afghan soldiers were a failure, not trustworthy, not loyal to their state or government in many cases, loyal to narrow identities. And in Syria to the extent that

anybody embodies national values it is the current Syrian army which is non-sectarian and non-ethnic (albeit implicated in terrible crimes of war) while the Syrian opposition and hence anybody who would join a new American backed “army” would be sectarian Sunni. There is also no time left. Within a year if a new policy focusing on reconciliation and ending the war rather than escalating is not implemented there will be no space left for hypothetical new opposition armies. The few remaining mainstream insurgent strongholds will be overrun by JN and IS and the Syrian state will continue its slow disintegration. There is also little success in vetting. In Syria American backed so called moderate insurgents cooperate closely with JN, attack loyalist civilians and their villages and target Syrian infrastructure such as power stations. Vetting did not prove to be a stunning success in Iraq and Afghanistan and in recent decades the U.S. has absolutely no record of success in this matter. This is not necessarily because of any failings on the part of Americans, but because it is not possible to do this. The advisers would have to magically all be fluent in Syrian dialect Arabic, familiar with local cultural dynamics, stay long enough to develop this nuanced knowledge, and somehow be able to win the confidence of their Syrian men. A large number of potential recruits do not exist. One might find a few thousand eager for a salary but most will not fight when the time comes because they don’t want to die. Moreover insurgent commanders are very concerned that their units have been infiltrated by spies from both the regime and IS, and they no longer trust their own men.

Neither Jordan nor Turkey are interested in hosting such an army. Both countries are increasingly wary of the Syrian opposition, are coming to recognize that Assad is staying, are getting fed up with the Syrians they already have and are not interested in providing such an obvious pretext for retaliation by the Syrian regime.

Western intervention in the Muslim world has so far only helped create corrupt dysfunctional governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank’s Palestinian authority, Egypt, Libya and so on. Intervention unleashes unpredictable forces and disrupts societies irreparably. This is not so much because of failure of the American military and other government agencies, who bring all the skills and resources necessary, but more a function of the inability to remake security forces in the Middle East in the American image outside the greater political and cultural contexts. And the Syrian insurgents or opposition have become thoroughly corrupt, sectarian, criminal, loyal to narrow self interest or to foreign sponsors and could not help establish a better form of governance.

Pollack adduced the American supported Croatian military that helped change the balance of power in the Yugoslav wars. But Pollack provided a misleading and distorted account of the Croatian MPRI trained military victory in 1995. Operation Storm was not against the Serbian army. There was no Serbian army, there was a Yugoslav army which was not involved in this battle. The Croatian army instead fought against Serbian Croats in the Krajna region and against Bosnian Serbs. So they were fighting local Serbian militias, not “Serbia’s forces” as he falsely claimed. Moreover Croatian forces were probably the most brutal and corrupt of all the forces in the civil war and the 1995 Croatian operation (Operation Storm) which he referred to involved the expulsion of 250,000 Serbs, so while it helped change the war, it was at a near genocidal cost. There is

no comparison between the ethnic Serb militias the Croatians fought and the Syrian army which is far more capable and is backed and will continue to be backed to a growing extent by Iran, Russia and Hizballah. Pollack also stressed that it is commitment from Washington that matters most, but years of commitment did not lead to impressive results in Iraq or Afghanistan. As in Bosnia, in Iraq a massive bloodletting already took place before the U.S. helped turned the conflict around and U.S. backed forces were more effective in carrying out that bloodletting thanks to the assistance and training and support they received.

U.S., British and Afghan forces were not able to defeat the Taliban even in Helmand province after years. IS is more dangerous and determined now than when the U.S. fought them in Iraq prior to its withdrawal, and even the U.S. military could not finish them off, and Iraqi security forces lack the enablers the U.S. pulled out. As we see today in Iraq, the limited success of the 2007 Surge was also a result of massive ethnic cleansing committed by Shiite militias and their partners in the Iraqi security forces, several years of massacres, Iraqi Shiites getting fed up with their own self defense militias and their abuses, Iraqi Sunnis getting fed up with al Qaeda and other Sunni self defense militias and most importantly Iraqi Sunnis confronting their potential extermination. Moreover to the extent that the Surge reduced violence through the so called Awakening groups of former insurgents turned enemies of al Qaeda it was because the U.S. military was right there on the ground beside them, using more force than it had the previous few years and protecting Awakening leaders like Sheikh Abu Risha with a tank in front of his house (though he was still assassinated).

The most likely future scenario barring any outside intervention or change in policy will be the rebels getting swallowed up by JN and IS, more infrastructure destroyed, more civilians killed and displaced, more dreams and hopes shattered, more radicalization, more corruption, the Syrian state slowly collapsing and greater Iranian and Russian intervention to prop it up. The alternative is recognizing that the regime will remain but in a shrunken form, and encouraging the insurgency to accept that and make peace with the regime.

According to Pollack: “In Syria, the Sunni majority is in revolt; in Iraq, the Sunni minority is.” This is an inaccurate simplification. Even in Iraq it is only parts of the Sunni population, not the majority of Iraqi Sunnis. More importantly, in Syria, large parts but not even most of the Sunni majority are in revolt. Many if not most Sunnis are loyalists or neutral, like most other Syrians.

The Syrian Regime

The NGO and specifically this analyst have conducted extensive and multiple field trips to areas that are involved in reconciliation deals or ceasefire agreements as well as stable cities that are majority Sunni or have accepted a large number of internally displaced Sunnis. Moreover the NGO has played a role in several of these agreements. This paper goes in depth to explain the point of view of the regime and its allies. This is not an attempt to justify or defend them let alone embrace their point of view, but given that the

regime and its allies are a dominant actor in the conflict, and one that is not very well understood, any attempt to solve this conflict must include an understanding of their world view, vision and motives. This does not mean one is taking their position or defending it, merely understanding it as any mediator must do.

It is important to study cities like Latakia, Tartus, Tel Kalakh and Hama to gain a glimpse of what might be expected in a post-conflict Syria with the regime in place. Hama was among the first cities to see demonstrations as was expected given its legacy from the 1980s. Unlike other cities, its demonstrations were also largely peaceful until early June

2011 when a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators approached the central city square,

overwhelming a panicked and outnumbered security force who opened fire with live ammunition. Armed attacks began and for one month the regime effectively withdrew

from the city. The regime retook the city in a relatively light military operation in August

2011 and since then there have been almost no security incidents and instead the city has

absorbed tens of thousands (and local activists claim hundreds of thousands) of internally displaced people (IDPs) from more restive Sunni areas like Rastan or the Hama countryside. There is a relatively light security presence with checkpoints on the main roads but not inside neighborhoods and life is normal and bustling during the day, with businesses, markets, schools and government offices all functioning while at night there is a quiet tension and little activity outside of neighborhoods. There has been a gradual increase in night-time activity however and as of 2014 people moved around even at midnight (a contrast from previous years when by evening it was a ghost town). In meetings with senior regime security officials in charge of Hama it was clear they did not view the city as a threat and they did not bare hostility to the city and its people and they felt secure enough to drive unprotected throughout its neighborhoods. Suspected activists are still arrested as is the case in much of Syria, often with little or no evidence or due process, and the endemic human rights abuses that increased post 2011 of course continue to exist in Hama as they do elsewhere, though these mainly affect young men.

Latakia and Tartus, the two main coastal cities that have become associated with the Alawite sect and the staunchest regime supporters always had a Sunni population. But the civil war has caused a massive flight to these two most stable of Syria’s cities. There are now over one million Sunni IDPs in the coastal cities. Most come from Aleppo but there are also many from Homs, Raqqa and Idlib. While middle and upper class Sunni IDPs have rented apartments and moved their businesses, many of the IDPs are rural and impoverished. They are cared for by the Ministry of Social Affairs, provided with housing, food, medical treatment, education and employment assistance. A large number of these IDPs are female headed households, the men remaining in the frontlines of Aleppo and Idlib to fight the regime as insurgents. While this is well known and they admit it, the women and children continue to receive assistance from the state. This is met with some grumbling by poor Alawites whose relatives are on the other side of those frontlines, but Latakia and Tartus remain quiet cities without overt sectarian tensions. This is especially important because these provinces are full of hard core Alawites and the families of regime “martyrs” who died fighting the insurgency and yet there are no revenge attacks against Sunnis because of the strength of the state and its security forces and also the respect given to IDPs who chose to flee to regime strongholds rather than

Turkey. This analyst also conducted extensive visits to Latakia city’s many Sunni neighborhoods that were the site of great unrest until September 2011. Today all these neighborhoods are free from harassment and there are no checkpoints or other restrictions and in fact the only sign that these are Sunni neighborhoods rather than Alawite or Christian ones are the headscarves worn by women, the prevalence of mosques and the remnants of anti-regime graffiti from 2011 on the walls, now sprayed over with black paint. This massive flight of hundreds of thousands of Sunni families to areas considered Alawite (and perhaps therefore enemy territory) is unusual in a civil war. Bosnian Muslims did not flee to Bosnian Serb areas, nor did Tutsis seek shelter among Hutus, and more recently, Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites usually fled away from each other. This is proof both that the communal element of the Syrian civil war is only a part of the story, and that the state and the relative stability it provides remains attractive to most people. Tel Kalakh, a majority Sunni city on the border with Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled is surrounded by Alawite villages. It should have been the location of major instability and sectarian strife but after tensions in 2012 the regime managed to pacify it largely by incentivizing local Sunni families with tempting economic deals and access to smuggling privileges. Obviously in such “post revolutionary” areas authoritarianism remains as does the fascist and corrupt nature of the system.

These are important examples because one question this analyst was frequently confronted with in Washington was what guarantees were there that the regime would not wait until an area was quiet to go back and massacre everybody. This is a misunderstanding of the regime’s use of violence and brutality and the nature of the regime. Syria’s regime is often described as an Alawite regime oppressing a Sunni majority. The conflict is reduced to a people against a dictator. In fact while Bashar al Assad is Alawite (with a Sunni wife), most of the regime including commanders of security agencies and the army and most ministers are Sunni, and most of the businessmen possessing the majority of the country’s wealth and power are also Sunni. It is more accurate to view it as a staunchly secular regime ruling a sectarian population with an Alawite praetorian guard. This is not to absolve the regime of any of its crimes, but there are motives other than sectarianism for committing mass murder, torture and collective punishment.

According to one senior Alawite official, “The regime is not sectarian but has a sectarian sensitivity. It knows there is a majority that is Sunni and there were Sunnis who questioned the regime on sectarian grounds since under Assad it is the first time a non- Sunni ruled country. So the regime searched for the most secular people to protect it, who were Alawites. Only some sects are guards against sectarianism, like Alawites, Christians, Druze and some Sunnis families because they know a sectarian regime will take over if this one falls. You know somebody from a Muslim Brotherhood family might be influenced by his family on sensitive issues so just put him in police or the army, not in sensitive positions. If you grow up in an Islamic house even if you are secular then the prospect of the country becoming Islamic is not so frightening to you, but for somebody who grew up secular it’s a real threat. His whole life will change, his daughter will not be able to go to university etc. Alawites are the trusted fertile soil to produce men to protect the secular shape of state.” None of this is to take away from the endemic corruption or

authoritarianism or the thuggish brutality with which the regime suppressed the uprising, but this was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism.

The following analysis from a close ally of the Syrian regime very familiar with its leadership and structure is worth quoting in full: “Nobody rules Syria. It’s a system. The regime is not like Western governments, it’s a part of the people. If Bashar falls everything falls. Its centralized. All things are in his person, not in his position. Bashar does not wear a military uniform because he needs to have a civilian interface with the people. He cannot reform in the middle of struggle and chaos. Iran has influence but not as a manipulator, the decision is still with Bashar. There is still a regime. Hafez al Assad ruled, not Alawites. Now Bashar rules. Its not a collective leadership. All power is in the hands of Bashar. If there had been no attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s the regime would be more Sunni. Then the 2003 Iraq war and collapse affected Syria. Sunnis became more Sunni and Alawites became more Alawite, so the regime became more defensive. This society is sectarian. If you want to rule this society you cannot be sectarian like what you are fighting because you will fight yourself. More sectarianism equals more chaos, less sectarianism equals public order. The priority is public order. Alawites are the guards of the ambition of this society to develop, the same ambition that led them to go study in the Soviet Union and model their system on Eastern European countries.”


The Syrian regime is desperate for a restoration of stability- on terms that favor its interests of course. The regime was not massacring people in 2010. It did not use barrel bombs and Scud missiles from the beginning of the uprising. Rather there was an escalation of force as the uprising became more violent and the regime began to lose control. The regime has used excessive force and collective punishment against areas with an active insurgency or areas perceived to be safe havens for the insurgency. For example the regime did not begin shelling Aleppo city until insurgents from the countryside invaded the city. Then it gradually escalated force until it was using ballistic missiles and barrel bombs on densely populated urban areas controlled by insurgents, killing many innocent civilians. This is not a defense of the regime but it is an accusation against the insurgents and proves that they do not protect civilians and in fact the insurgency increased civilian casualties. Once an area has been pacified or has accepted the regime’s authority or if a population is not actively anti-regime then it is left alone, as is the case with the displaced Sunni population from opposition areas that has fled to regime strongholds in Latakia, Tartus, and elsewhere, as well as formerly restive cities like Hama or neighborhoods in Damascus like Midan or areas that have engaged in reconciliations in greater Damascus and elsewhere.

The first “reconciliations,” as the regime described them, began in late 2013 but they were not the first examples of negotiations between the regime and internal opposition. Indeed from the outbreak of the uprising there were constant negotiations between regime representatives and local leaders or leaders of the nascent uprising as the regime clumsily

struggled to placate a restive population. Senior officials like Asef Shawqat or Buthaina Shaaban or Hossam Suqqar were scurrying around Syria meeting local leaders to reach agreements with them. Initially there would be agreements about where demonstrations could take place, or when, with both sides agreeing that demonstrators would avoid police or security stations, or refrain from rioting and attacking state institutions in exchange for security leaving them alone, or certain slogans would not be chanted specifically ones cursing Bashar al Assad or his father Hafez, or prisoners would be released (some of whom would later lead jihadist groups), or smuggling privileges would be extended, in exchange for pacifying a neighborhood or town. Often these agreements would hold for a few weeks or a few months until hardliners on one side or the other chose to provoke the other side or break the deal. There were also always constant negotiations between Syrians over exchanges of prisoners, kidnapped persons and corpses. In places like Homs community leaders from both sides repeatedly tried to reach agreements to control their young men and postpone the civil war that eventually erupted. And there were also often temporary ceasefires negotiated by both sides and corrupt business deals reached between opposing combatants. Unofficial non-aggression pacts were also reached between various villages and the regime as well as for about one year in Homs’ al Waer district. There have also been ceasefires and temporary agreements arranged between insurgents in Idlib and the governor in order to exchange prisoners or gain access to bread or electricity (which insurgents control).

The reconciliation deals resembled in a crude and ad hoc fashion the relatively successful experiments that took place in Baghdad neighborhoods like Amriya and Dora in 2007 and 2008. The first agreement which received attention took place in the destroyed and besieged Moadamiya area and it was struck with the army’s 4 th division. Gradually conditions in Moadamiya improved with shops opening and tens of thousands of civilians returning. Subsequent agreements took place in the neighborhoods of Barzeh, Babila, Yalda, Beit Saham, Qadam, Asali, west Harasta, Qabun, Kisweh Mqailibeh, Aqraba, Qudseya, Madaya and Zabadani. Yarmuk camp appears to have also reached an agreement and there are talks with other neighborhoods.

Most of these agreements, and the most successful ones, were struck with the involvement of Fadi Saqr, commander of the National Defense Forces (NDF) in greater Damascus. While in other provinces the NDF is notorious for being an out of control predatory militia resembling Arkan’s Tigers, in Damascus under Saqr it has been the most progressive in striking sustainable agreements with insurgents. What is revolutionary about these agreements is that insurgents and local leaders produced by the revolution once demonized as terrorists are recognized by the regime for the first time as partners and allowed to exercise authority at a local level. And thus they are not merely surrenders. Civilians return in the tens of thousands to what remains of their neighborhoods, services are restored, schools are refurbished and insurgents are allowed to play a local security function. Some prisoners are released but not all the ones locals had asked for. Siege conditions and checkpoints are only gradually removed, but eventually the quality of life for civilians improves greatly. The government’s challenge is that it lacks any resources so it can only offer an end to bloodshed and the return of basic services. Since the regime lacks resources to tempt people to its side it is trying to

relax zoning laws, car import laws and other restrictions that people were upset about or cost them money. Almost all the agreements have proved sustainable, as has an agreement between the army and locals in the city of Sanamein, in Daraa, and the town of Madaya on the Lebanese border. A similar agreement in the town of Zabadani fell apart after hardliner insurgents entered the town and provoked the regime. It is important to stress that these deals not be viewed as surrenders. In places where the regime could achieve a total military victory, as in Quseir in Homs, it did. The opposition can these agreements as forcing the regime to concede partial authority to them and to acknowledge their existence and legitimacy. These cracks in the regime’s former authority can be expanded so more concessions can be obtained. But this requires international involvement so that a third party, whether the United Nations or a European country for example, acts as an advocate on behalf of the local population and their representatives. This will help empower the local opposition and help tilt the balance of power a bit more in their favor, and make them feel protected and rewarded for their decision to negotiate ceasefires while making sure that in addition to humanitarian support and development they also benefited politically by having their councils recognized.

It was the displaced residents of Barzeh who pushed insurgents to sue for peace with the regime and expel JN. Once insurgents and civilians in other neighborhoods saw the Barzeh model they asked to replicate it. Gradually the terms improved and agreements became more detailed. Currently other agreements are being negotiated in greater Damascus. The NGO helped convince the regime of the importance of these deals and notify it of how some security agencies were obstructing or undermining these agreements, threatening their sustainability. President Assad eventually ordered his governors and security commanders to support reconciliations and gradually recalcitrant security chiefs became more cooperative. NDF leaders believe (and insurgent leaders themselves admit) that the insurgents lost their popular support and the population has turned against them.

In the large town of al Tell, just outside Damascus there has long been an informal agreement in which the regime and its security forces are absent from the town but state institutions function and the area is effectively self-governed with its own internal security force and as long as insurgent attacks are not launched from it then the regime does not respond. This resembles an agreement that held in Homs’ al Waer district for about one year and in both cases the presence of a very large number of IDPs from other opposition areas served to pressure insurgent groups not to provoke the regime.

Another agreement that was struck and one that the NGO also played a facilitating role was the withdrawal first of civilians then of insurgents from several besieged neighborhoods in Homs, collectively known as old Homs. In February 2014 about 1,500 civilians were withdrawn with help from the United Nations in exchange for the delivery of food and medicine to insurgents inside. At first NDF men attacked the UN team and civilians and insurgents of old Homs, but when the head of State Security came up from Damascus order was imposed. In the weeks that followed several hundred more insurgents voluntarily left the old city, handing in their rifles and taking part in an

amnesty deal (though about 100 of them were then taken in for military service it seems). At that time the NGO proposed the idea of evacuating the remaining 2,300 insurgents from old Homs to the opposition held countryside. While the regime accepted at once it took several more months, intensified fighting including a campaign of car bombs sent by insurgents targeting civilians in loyalist areas and a siege by the regime that drove them to hunger for the divided insurgents to agree. The insurgents were allowed to evacuate with their light arms in exchange for trucks of food aid being sent to two Shiite villages in Aleppo, 40 Alawite women and children hostages being released in Latakia, and some Iranian hostages also being released. This complex deal occurring in several provinces took place in May without any significant setbacks and was the result of senior security officials negotiating with insurgents as well as the Iranians acting as guarantors. It was another example of both sides negotiating in good faith and achieving success.

Importantly, there are now several examples of cooperation between reconciled insurgents and the NDF against IS and JN. In Qadam, Asali, Babila, Yalda, Beit Saham and Hajar al Aswad, reconciled insurgents have received ammunition from the NDF and medical treatment in state hospitals alongside soldiers in exchange for fighting IS and JN. This presents a model that can be repeated in other parts of the country. In fact were it not for these reconciled insurgents IS and JN would have likely penetrated the capital itself.

While the regime calls these local truces reconciliations and describes insurgents and residents as “returning to the bosom of the nation,” many insurgents use the term Hudna.

A hudna is a temporary truce not a permanent settlement. What militates against the

insurgent interpretation is the return of their families and civilians in general and the

tempting taste of peace for the first time in two or three years.

In Damascus there is a steady flow of men doing reconciliations and applying for

amnesties. NDF headquarters is the scene of a parade of insurgents looking for deals, and other senior officials such as the head of state security regularly meet with insurgents. In the Hama and Homs countrysides where IS is making inroads some tribes have approached the regime and asked to cooperate with it as local militiamen in exchange for salaries. In addition, the NDF in Quneitra has also been able to reconcile 200 insurgents

who joined them to fight JN and was able to reach reconciliation agreements with villages in Quneitra. However Quneitra is rapidly being overrun by a coalition of insurgents and JN, making this progress irrelevant.

The reconciliation negotiation process is slowly changing the regime. Gradually officers

in the security forces are seeing in the reconciliations another path to their own personal

professional success. The positive attention Fadi Saqr received from Bashar al Assad makes the pragmatists on the regime side feel more protected from accusations that they

are soft, or weak, or “selling out” by talking to the terrorists. Just as it took several years for American military officers to agree to talk to and eventually partner with Iraqi insurgents they had previously called terrorists, so too will it take even more time for the Syrian regime to get used to talking to its opponents, but this leads to important changes

in the cultures of institutions both military and security.

One senior regime advisor to Assad explained that the reconciliations are slowly changing the regime itself. “Every agreement you make changes the politics, even if its with one man, a tribe, smugglers, ten men who call themselves a brigade, you have created a new political force. You made an agreement with somebody who has weapons. The more the regime does it it is changing, learning how to talk. Until a few months ago Military Intelligence did not have anybody who knows anything except how to arrest. Old Military Intelligence guys like Suheil Ramadan (of the Palestine branch) were removed for new people, this is policy change. Changing policy requires changing the nature first. I am changing my nature from hostile to more pragmatic, putting new people who know how to talk and accept the opposition as a partner and will accept to rule with opposition in the future, unlike somebody who just knows how to fight.” On the ground this is visible when one observes the initial tension at the first meetings between opposing parties and how they gradually become partners. Soon security officers and regime representatives are personally invested in the agreements and in defending their partners on the opposition side. None of this is meant to romanticize the regime or its security forces. Extrajudicial killing, torture, disappearances and the abuses associated with the regime continue unabated. But one must grasp at whatever straws one can find to retain hope that there can be a better path, and whatever cracks in the system can be found must be expanded and taken advantage of so the system can be forced to improve.

The Syrian dream has been destroyed and the regime will have trouble generating revenue to get insurgents back on board. Given all the killing and torturing it has committed it will have at least as much trouble generating the good will or trust to get insurgents on board as well. While at the leadership level the president and some of his advisors have begun to get the “big idea” (reconciliations) right, they have not succeeded in communicating it effectively so the new plan gets down to the squad leader on the ground, and they lack sufficient oversight to successfully oversee the implementation and remove officers who obstruct. The regime has not figured out how to convince insurgents and the opposition to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, or what it can offer reconciled insurgent and opposition leaders in terms of a seat at the table, or revenue, or how it can protect them. The regime is not efficient. It is burdened by corruption, lack of coordination and a class of security officers and politicians who undermine the few good ideas that occasionally come up and the few sincere men it has who are looking for solutions. Local opposition leaders who once had access to outside financing to provide aid and relief to their constituency have been cut off from the opposition Coalition and other pro-revolution financing as soon as they reached agreements with the regime, making it even more necessary for support from the United Nations or NGOs.

One indication of how important the reconciliation deals are the many assassinations at attempted assassinations that have taken place in 2014 against local opposition leaders engaged in reconciliations. These include assassinations and attempts using pistols, rifles, IEDs (including under a mosque pulpit) and VBIEDs and they very much resemble al Qaeda’s campaign against leaders of Iraq’s Awakening organizations and Sons of Iraq. Public threats against anyone attempting reconciliations or pursuing amnesty offers have also been made by insurgent groups in Daraa and northern Homs province.

This analyst’s NGO has been working on a more ambitious project based on a paper produced by various representatives of the internal opposition and involving significant reform and a larger ceasefire agreement across the nation (in areas not controlled by IS), time is running out for such a deal and it will require greater international involvement. This vision calls for a common front against IS, including the regime, non-extremist opposition and relevant international forces to be followed by a progressive and ‘just’ Syrian political settlement, supported by key backers of different sides, the region, and internationally. Reconstruction, resettlement and resumed government services would take place in some areas. The process would dramatically reform Syrian state itself through the peace process, decentralization and reform. Important previous conditions (e.g. the removal of the regime, including Assad) would be tackled indirectly, encouraging the regime to implement the agreed peace process, but effectively breaking the dominance of the regime by decentralization and reform. In its essence and its details, the process may allow many ‘unbridgeable divides’ to be crossed. For the opposition, it will be possible to say that the struggle has produced significant reform, not surrender. For the regime, it gets to remain and the war against it subsides, but at the price of substantial reform shaped by independent institutions. For previous supporters of the armed opposition (the Gulf, the West), it will offer an important face-saving and constructive formula in both confronting IS and in reforming the regime, but without having to either give away key demands (Assad’s regime is effectively weakened and will be substantially reformed), or allowing IS to develop without effective resistance and alternatives. For Russia and Iran, the regime has not been externally-changed, and the costs of supporting it will go down. For most ordinary citizens, some aspects of the war will cease and the focus will be on the new developments.

This analyst believes that unsatisfactory as they are, the local solutions that have taken place may be the best and only model for de-escalating the conflict. This is because there are simply too many insurgent groups with too many interests and agendas, local and international, to be able to reach a global agreement, and there are too many divergent attitudes among insurgents. Moreover even the regime has trouble maintaining command and control over its forces. It is most likely that local commanders from both sides will gradually negotiate such truces and they will spread like inkblots. Local solutions cannot work everywhere because of both sides, but at least they can help reduce conflict and social collapse, and maybe serve as model to attract others. What is at stake is nothing less than reversing societal breakdown, all while in the midst of ongoing war. Much more complex than inkblots spreading on paper, the hold and build phases requires an understanding of the patronage networks of all factions, the role and purpose of violence and knowing who is powerful on the ground in areas full of activity, intrigue, and politics. The complexity is compounded when the opposition and armed opposition groups are viewed as corrupt, unaccountable or predatory.

Syria’s opposition leaders outside face the prospect of becoming like Iraq’s Harith al Dhari or Tariq al Hashemi, perhaps never to return home while millions of their people languish as refugees, former engineers working in shawarma restaurants, former teachers working as laborers. The countries that have been supporting the armed resistance to the

regime have an obligation to alleviate the humanitarian and social consequences of that resistance as well. Those countries encouraged the Syrian people to rise up and then supported the armed opposition. They must not abandon the opposition at this phase. At the same time to continue to support a failed policy that has only led to death, destruction and millions of refugees is not wise.

The opposition inside Syria is completely dependent on its foreign sponsors’ interests. Influential leaders of the armed groups complain that they are losing control and that decision-making is in the hands of external powers. They feel manipulated by foreign agendas. Added to this frustration of the military leaders, the “blue collar workers” and foot soldiers of the opposition and insurgency, who have been struggling daily since 2011, are becoming exhausted and hopeless. They are desperate for a solution that would allow a return to normalcy and stability, even if that solution means abandoning their original cause, which many have long forgotten anyway. Most opposition councils have failed or struggle, overwhelmed by the size of the challenges, the high demand and the lack of resources. And for this one can also throw massive blame on the Western backers (and especially America) who made promises and did not deliver or failed to deliver effectively, betraying those who were depending on them. Thus many and maybe most fighters have long since stopped fighting to expand territory and remain in their own areas. The best that they can hope for is a triage in which what is left of their original “revolution” is saved before they lose even more.

The mechanism this analyst proposes is to have the UN cooperate with his NGO to work on de-escalation plan that formalizes and universalizes local deals but with better terms so they get more autonomy and humanitarian assistance. The NGO is necessary because of its unique contacts, its relationship and trust with combatants and leaders on all sides on the ground and crucially its flexibility both in where it can go and who it can talk to, which all other organizations, including the UN, lack. The United Nations is the only entity that has credibility among both sides in Syria, or whose credibility can at least be restored. Especially under its current resident coordinator in Syria, Yacoub el Hillo, the UN has won trust from the regime and insurgents by proving that it will take great risks to stick to its commitments and establish important precedents in facilitating agreements and protecting civilians.

The Syrian maelstrom has become so complex that the approach must be orchestrated internationally. For this the United Nations is best suited. Allowing the UN’s special envoy to take the lead removes direct responsibility from any one country, while all countries can then claim they are merely supporting UN efforts at peace. The UN is also a convenient scapegoat in the event that things go wrong, allowing politicians to escape direct blame, which is unfortunately an important consideration.

Questions of trust are often raised. The international community and the opposition are right not to trust the regime, just as the regime fears that a ceasefire will only allow the insurgency to regroup and resume its war. This is added reason for an international role and international observers. There is a new United Nations envoy and new UN staff working on Syria and looking for a vision. There are glimpses of a tempting solution in


the ceasefires and reconciliation agreements the regime has reached with insurgents and local opposition leaders, crude versions of the U.S. “surge” in Iraq. If these deals can be slightly ameliorated they will spread like inkblots and with an international role the terms can favor the opposition. We have confirmed with senior regime officials that they can envision such agreements applying to entire provinces like Idlib and Daraa, not just to neighborhoods and villages. Some parts of Syria (and Iraq) will remain in IS hands for many years to come, just as Pakistan, Nigeria, Mexico and other states with strong centers often have clearly defined out of control zones. But in the part of Syria that remains outside of IS or JN control there is a thirst for life and for normalcy.

Our “steps” project is based on a network of leaders inside. Our process started with a thought experiment looking at who could order the armed men to stop shooting. The answer was insurgent commanders, financiers, influential religious leaders and individuals with respected revolutionary credentials because of their early activity, time in prison or family history. We gathered many of them together and then had continuous meetings with a core group as well as with numerous individuals from these categories inside Syria. We also included representatives of civil society so that their views were included and it was not a military dominated perspective. While the regime still remains relatively coherent, there is no opposition leadership. Even those who claim that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is the sole representative of the Syrian people know that this is baseless and it represents only itself. But what the NGO has tried to do is identify both local leaders who do have genuine authority and more importantly we have tried to identify the ideas that people will follow and support in the absence of a leader. Syrians alone cannot reach an agreement and both sides look to outside powers and specifically the United States of America for guidance. The greater the international role the greater the concessions that can be expected from the regime and the greater the adherence to agreements that can be expected of it.

In a recent meeting with this analyst, NDF chief Fadi Saqr explained his philosophy. “We are here,” he placed his left hand out to his side, “and IS is here,” he said, placing his right hand out to his other side, “Sunnis are here in between, whoever coopts them will win. The NDF was a bridge between citizen and state, between the insurgent and the state.” By September of 2014 about 150 reconciled insurgents had died fighting IS and JN with Saqr’s help. Saqr had successfully pushed back against reluctant or hostile elements of Syria’s Military Intelligence who were undermining his efforts.

“If civilians return to these areas they will be a second power competing with the insurgents,” he said, explaining why he counted on them to prevent a renewed conflict, “the returning civilian, his sister wants to marry, his daughter wants to go to university.” One of Saqr’s deputies explained that insurgents had greatly lowered their demands. “He wanted freedom and the downfall of the regime,” he said, describing the opposition attitude, “now what is he asking for? Don’t humiliate me.” A senior advisor to Bashar al Assad explained that “these agreements happened because there was a fight, there was no map, we will use these agreements as a model, but if America came from outside and says reconciliation is a good solution, it will be better supported.”


When confronted privately senior regime officials admit that they face a stalemate. The regime cannot transform tactical victories on the ground into political victories that are stable. It is struggling to return people to the state and society. It knows it cannot take back the whole country or turn back the clock. It no longer has the false hope that victory on the ground here or there can make a strategic difference, so now like the opposition it is putting all its hopes on the international community and on outside solutions. But until now Western engagement has been very shallow. The West has lacked strong leadership to acknowledge that the regime is staying and must be dealt with. And the West has hesitated to support the insurgency and make it an effective anti-regime force. All sides have lacked imagination or vision for real solutions. For over three years this analyst has been asking regime officials David Petraeus’ famous question from Iraq, “tell me how this ends,” and they have never been able to provide an answer. The opposition’s only answer was an eventual increase in international assistance which never came. The regime’s mentality can be summed up as: “What we have now is disaster but anything else we imagine is even worse.” The regime is not only lacking imagination. It is also lacking the courage to find solutions. It is not a question of concessions, it is a question of the political courage to save Syria.

This analyst has met repeatedly with one of Syria’s most powerful security chiefs to understand his position on local solutions. His views and those of one of his colleagues are worth quoting at length because so little is actually known about the regime’s vision for a way out. “The only solution is local reconciliations,” he said, “the first step for a national solution is cutting off financing and closing the borders. The state must be returned to all of Syria, and there must be respect for the rights and dignity of all including the insurgents, in exchange for them respecting the state and its institutions. There must be respect for the rights and dignity of all and the state must be imposed on all of Syria. If there is no mutual trust there cannot be an agreement. Nobody will be forced people to put a picture of the president in their house before. The State is not security, it is police, courts, agriculture, government institutions, education, electricity. The state does not mean security agencies. Security is an exceptional situation. We are a state with wide institutions. We have local councils and local courts.”

While he did not trust opposition councils that received foreign funding and he thought they consisted of armed men who had forced themselves on the people he conceded that council members could be involved in reconciliation. Those members who were involved in reconciliations and were therefore been recognized by the regime could be involved in local administration. “We have to have local democratic elections after its stable,” he explained. When asked if the regime could work with mainstream insurgent groups against JN and IS, he said “we can adopt them if they fight JN and IS and we will even pay their salaries.”

He agreed that electing local governors was a good goal to aspire to but worried that elected governors would not help constituencies who did not vote for them. He lamented that the 2011 Law 107 that would have decentralized Syria was not properly implemented. “We can develop local rule so local councils can take their proper role.”

The country had a decentralization law approved early in the uprising, called law 107. The president backed it but the Baath party and security agencies undermined it.

“The first condition is accepting the sovereignty of the state. The state is the authority for everybody and the state must have sovereignty on all of Syria and the armed men will be part of this sovereignty. The armed men will get an amnesty, people can be armed. They have to accept police but maybe their men can be the police. He envisioned a deal whereby the regime would not raid opposition held areas but would ask reconciled insurgents to make arrests. “Negotiations can take a long time but they have to accept the basic condition of the authority of the state,” he said, “agreements can include issues like civilian concerns and returning the students expelled from university for demonstrating. We should make an empowered permanent monitoring committee as part of the agreement. In every committee there will be security and one of the armed groups.”

“I am ready for a reconciliation with Daraa or Idlib at a provincial level but under the conditions I mentioned. Then there will be an agreement on amnesty, weapons, prisoners, water, electricity.” He agreed to have international monitors for elections and possibly on frontlines if they were also present on borders. “A ceasefire for the sake of negotiations is possible,” he said, “I accept it. When we sign an agreement the first condition is a ceasefire. During negotiations there will be a ceasefire but the condition is nothing coming in through the borders. It is not necessary to have public negotiations, they don’t have to publicly announce anything, it can be secret, we will agree on the secrecy of the negotiations.”

He agreed that the regime’s reconciliation efforts were hindered by a lack of resources. “The slowness of the reconciliations is because there is no money,” he said, “all we can offer is life and peace. If there was financing we would have solved the problems. I laugh at those outside talking about democracy when there is no security, how can he be free when he is hungry? Or when he is sitting at home afraid? First you need security then sustenance.”

When told that U.S. officials worried that if there is a ceasefire the regime would massacre the opposition he said “we want a solution to save them, not to massacre them.” When asked what the solution was for IS’ caliphate he said: “It’s a long solution. A solution of ideas, military operations wont finish it.” He complained that one of the challenges in places like eastern Ghota and Homs’ al Waer was the plethora of armed groups. “There are too many groups,” he said, “you don’t know who to negotiate with.”

This analyst also met repeatedly with a senior security and strategic advisor to the Syrian president. When asked what would happen if there were no U.S. airstrikes, the answer was: “There will be two zones, black and green, IS and the regime. Ground operations should be conducted by the government in coordination with airstrikes. Iraqi Sunni leaders came to Syria and said we can help you in the Syrian border areas and you help us in Baghdad. They say they can eliminate IS. They can dry up the environment where there is IS because IS does not have a social base. There are young Iraqi Baathi officers who were fired in 2003. Those are very angry, very young, they have no future and its

revenge. They are Islamist but not IS. They say the Americans are trying to reach the Sunni community that is behind IS. They asked that we help them get rights from the Iraqi government and they want to make sure Iran wont interfere. They used to rule Iraq and now they are looking for jobs and they look at Shiites like peasants who don’t know how to fight and are stupid. The Syrian government can be an intermediary but not now. The Syrian government had soft power. In a struggle inside the country the regime could not use soft power. By getting closer to Iran and Russia you lose your soft power. Now the regime cannot think wisely about how to use soft power. They are paranoid about Russian and Iranians. The Syrian government cannot sleep in same bed as the Iranians. It’s a different mentality. Alawites are usually worried about any fundamentalist, but they can be friends. The Iranian regime and Iranian state are so different, when you speak to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard they are your allies. When you deal with the state they want to use you as card for dealing with the West. The Syrian regime feels like Americans are pushing them to fall under Iranian control. If you have a potential relationship with the Americans you have more power in relationship with Iranians and there will be more balanced foreign policy like it used to be. The regime can shut down Hizballah in Syria in a minute.”

He explained that the Syrian regime did not trust American intentions because it sees American backed groups such as the Syrian Revolutionary Front cooperating with JN in the north and the south and even giving JN tactical command over operations. Resources focused on fighting insurgents take away from the fight against IS and JN. The IS situation in Iraq changed attitudes. Now it’s a bigger war and there is less interest in politics. Most security force leaders think there is a bigger war, they think it could come to Damascus, they fear people from Islamist insurgent groups will defect to IS. IS entered Syria with tanks not rifles, with weapons captured from Iraq. They worry about IS coming to Damascus. The rise of IS is a threat, it is the establishment of an entity next to you gathering all fighters from world. And what about JN? If you hit IS then JN will take over and it will end up strengthening JN. And there are small groups who say they are FSA but cooperate with IS. The Americans look at armed groups as moderates we should support and radicals we should hit. But there is also Ahrar al Sham and JN and there is a deal between IS and JN. We don’t see the difference between Islamist groups and IS. Only the state can defeat IS. Bring the Syrian people back to the state before they forget what the state is. Its only been a few years in Syria without a state, soon they will forget the state and only know chaos.”

An important point he made addressed the claims that the regime focuses on mainstream insurgents like the FSA and leaves IS alone. In truth the regime has focused on insurgents because they are directly threatening Damascus, Aleppo and other population centers as well as military bases. For Assad the mainstream insurgents his forces confront all over the country are as much a threat to the state than IS if not more. “Both sides are killing our soldiers and anybody working for the government,” he said, “both sides are insurgents, so what’s the difference? And one of them you (the Americans) keep torturing me for his sake even though he is shooting at me. If its only IS remaining in opposition areas how can you have supply routes for humanitarian aid? And you wont complain if I bomb them. I am barrel bombing Raqqa every day and nobody says anything now

(because IS is in control there). IS will be an excuse for the next Bush to come and invade the area, and we will lose society to IS and IS will make Sunni societies feel there is a new nation called the Sunni nation. So in the end the government wants to stop IS from taking opposition areas. But the condition to the West is no insurgency anymore but we preserve the rights and interests of your allies if they rejoin the state under a plan we put together. Or you will have a very bad scenario where IS gets more money and becomes more powerful.”

“Reconciliation areas are pilot projects and not the perfect model. Look at the areas where we preserved the state and combine it with areas that have done reconciliations and you can see we can reach a situation where the opposition the Americans care about can be part of the state. We already take care of their families. We are not the regime of the 1980s where we arrested all their families. Look at the people who reconciled with state in reconciled areas on one side and on other side the families of insurgents who sought shelter in government held areas. We can have the whole country under reconciliation and at the local level it will end at local election, which will lead to parliamentary elections. After almost four years of destruction and loss people need to see they got something. Law 107 is something good to start from but it should be changed a little bit and they should be part of changing it so its no longer the regime law but it’s the outcome of a negotiation. It’s the start of democracy, they can elect their leaders locally then in parliament and the Americans can feel like their people got something. When we have a partner like the U.S. we will change. Why change if you don’t have a partner? Why give anything if the border stays open and the flow continues and nobody appreciates what you do? Borders should be under the observation of international monitors. We don’t need airstrikes to save the government we need the border sealed. We need an end to the FSA as a threat not end to the FSA as an entity. The first slogan we should agree on is preserving the state. They must stop being insurgents. Look at the former insurgents fighting on our side in Quneitra and Damascus and they are treated in government hospitals. That’s a model for Idlib and elsewhere. Did the state massacre everybody in Qadam after they reconciled? Or in Hama?”

“The reconcilables for the Americans in Iraq were the ones who accepted the state, so accept the state. Ceasefires are not a solution but when you have a ceasefire for a couple of months people can talk, think about making money, building a new house, keeping their children alive. The opposition warlords should be supported, maybe they want to run a municipality, or run for government. When you have a plan agreed upon with the Americans it can happen, if the end results suit everyone.”

The model the Syrian regime may hope to repeat is its deal on disposing of its chemical weapons in which it became a partner with the international community. The regime also cooperated on the international tribunal investigating the 2005 killing of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al Hariri. So too does the regime hope to partner with the international community in the war on terror.

“After doing an international deal and ending the war, and a long process of decentralization,” he explained, “the one who will try to provoke will not be supported by

anybody, there will be a long process of building the country and ending the war, there will be a larger UN mission going around and inspecting, and the opposition will be part of the government. The Syrian opposition coalition people (as individuals) can play a role in local government, they would be allowed to enter the country and play a role in such a holistic deal. The FSA can become local police, can join army.”

“The defectors and those wanted for military draft are a huge number. They can rejoin the army in their areas for one year and then go back home, they would be part of a new local defense body. We can give more authority to municipality than governor and the governor will be like the leader of the council. In Homs you have 80 municipalities and they will be really elected with more authority and there will be a local police, a municipal police, and the government will have federal police that cannot arrest without approval of local police. The reconciliation committees can become a transitional governing body. When they become our partners we will support them. If a foreign country like America comes from outside and says reconciliation is a good solution, it will be better supported by the regime. The Government will ask for international monitors on the border with Jordan and Turkey and if there is there then we accept any deal for inside.”

He worried about the rise of sectarian and religious parties. “There is no way to have an Islamist party in Syria,” he said, “in Syria if we legitimize establishing an Islamist party then we will have to do it for an Alawite party, and a Christian party. But there can be Islamists in a secular party like the Turkish AKP.”

The most common refrain voiced by regime officials is that the solution is to close the Turkish border and stop the flow of money and weapons to Syria. Of course it is true that outside support made the internal problems much bigger, but even if it was possible to seal the now porous borders it cannot solve the original domestic problems, and the regime needs to understand that changes from outside will not come for free and that it will have to take certain actions so the international community can be motivated to help it. While the Syrian conflict is in part an international conflict and can only be solved in part by an international deal, an international deal is not a domestic deal and will not allow the regime to impose itself on all of Syria. Even if they close the Turkish border and stop the flow of weapons and money, the problem between the regime and its people, and between the Syrian people and themselves, will not be over. No solution can be a solution in Syria if it is not a domestic solution with the half of the Syrian population that has been fighting the regime or its supporters since 2011.

The regime has struggled to solve the problem of what it calls the Hadina Shaabiya, or social base (how the regime refers to the social sea in which the guerillas swim in). Until the NDF started making deals with insurgents in late 2013 the solution to the social base challenge has been to pressure the population through collective punishment and indiscriminate attacks, gradually destroying whole villages, neighborhoods or cities. And in parts of the country it remains the approach. As a result, for both sides, victory equals defeat because it is destruction. For both sides, the more they win the more they lose because they more they destroy in order to achieve their victory. Even when territory is

regained the population is rarely regained. This was the case with the city of Quseir. Likewise this is what happens when the opposition takes Alawite or Christian villages. So victory means ghost towns. It is a classic counterinsurgency mistake which only works when one is truly genocidal or in the case of the Russians in Chechnya, one entirely destroys their population centers or in the case of the British in Malaya, one entirely transfers their population and puts them in camps.

In July Bashar al Assad ordered the removal of some of the checkpoints and roadblocks that had made life miserable for residents of Damascus. “The goal was to normalize life so people feel the state is there and situation is getting better,” explained one of Assad’s close advisors, “we have to show people that the state is the state and everybody is the same. We want to impose the state and minimize the regime. We want support to go to the state and to weaken the regime. The regime cannot go back to how it was. The regime was a ghost before the uprising. It was weaker than what people thought, and state was stronger. The regime will leave the state alone if you guarantee it control of military and security to reassure minorities. If there are guarantees like closing borders and war on us is stopped and it’s a complete settlement then regime will offer guarantees and let all prison and detention facility. Reconciliations wont lead to political change until the government has a partner.”

Addressing Concerns

This analyst took the most frequently asked questions he heard in Washington DC and answered what he could from his own knowledge and convictions while also confronting senior security and strategic advisors to President Bashar al Assad with them, to understand the views of the President and his inner circle.

It is argued that many insurgents will not accede to a ceasefire so long as Bashar sits in the presidential palace in Damascus. This is certainly true for some groups but most are exhausted and seek an end with minimum dignity so they can tell their constituents they accomplished something. Moreover most insurgents are partially or totally dependent on outside support which means they can be controlled and leashed if their access to ammunition and fuel is curtailed. If tomorrow there were no more barrel bombs or rockets or tank shells landing on their villages and towns most insurgents would be loathe to reignite the conflict and earn the ire of a population eager to return to their homes. We are gambling that for most Syrians peace is more attractive than war.

Insurgent commanders may privately accept Bashar. It is often their constituents who are the most intransigent, either because they have lost everything and so feel the need to walk away with something, or because the war has given them economic privileges that they did not have before which they want to maintain. In tangible terms, a deal that provides local autonomy and satisfies rebel communities would need to give them slightly more than what they have now – political representation in the center, some share of economic revenues, perhaps Idlib city, Ariha, Jisr al-Shughour, Western Deir Ezzor city, Sfire and many of the poor non-cosmopolitan, Sunni towns that they see as ‘naturally’ theirs (even if residents may not actually want rebels). Stopping bombardment

is a first step but for anything sustainable insurgents will have to be able to show their

constituents that they gained something more than they already had in terms of territory

and economic resources.

Given how internationalized the conflict has become, it is also likely that a signal or strong statement from Washington that it supports ceasefires would force most recalcitrant insurgents and their political backers and their regional sponsors to change their calculus. Based on this analyst’s interactions with numerous insurgents and their commanders throughout Syria for over three years and his NGO’s continued efforts to meet with insurgent commanders and those who have influence over them, it is clear that insurgents are privately willing to make huge concessions but wont publicly embrace or defend (and will publicly deny or condemn) them without strong signals from regional or

international powers so they can tell their people that they are following the will of the U.S. and thus avoid being accused on Facebook and Twitter of betraying the revolution

or selling out. When insurgents meet with American officials they will likely not admit to

such weakness because they think it goes against U.S. policy and because they think the U.S. might still offer them help and if they say the wrong thing then the other guy will get the help. There does not have to be direct U.S. involvement in ceasefires and reconciliations. That is politically impossible for domestic and international reasons but the U.S. has taken the lead on the war on IS in Iraq and Syria and the world is looking to the U.S. for leadership on Syria. Syrians have proven that they cannot solve their own problems and allowing regional actors to take the lead, or allowing smaller powers like

the U.K. and France to micromanage Syria has only led to disaster. But Washington must also be told what are the options and how they will work, and its allies and the relevant stakeholders must be brought on board.

A no-fly zone which some propose would obviously limit the regime’s ability to conduct

airstrikes and drop barrel bombs on both insurgents and civilians within such a zone. But

it would not limit its use of rockets, mortars, artillery or infantry. Most importantly it

would not end the war or address the causes of the war. In fact it would only incentivize the insurgency to push further into government held territory, thereby leading to increased attacks by the regime as well, and increased help from the regime’s foreign backers. Rather than simply trying to remove one weapons system from the equation why not push to end the war and thus the reason the regime is using such weapons systems in the first place (an insurgency that is seizing much of the state’s territory)? That being said, it is likely that the U.S. campaign will lead to a de facto no fly zone in northern areas under the guise of the war on terror. This may enable insurgents to push towards the coast and the center, leading to a bloodbath.

It is sometimes argued that only the credible threat of force will persuade the regime to be

cooperative. This analyst does not believe the regime would respond to U.S. military strikes against it the way military planners will have hoped. Strikes will make it more recalcitrant and unleash its worst elements. There is still a Syrian state which is able to exercise a significant degree of control over its collection of militias, security bodies and army units. If the state weakens or goes underground due to foreign military pressure these dogs will be unleashed upon civilian populations and each other. Iraq, Libya,

Yemen, are all reminders of the volatile consequences of meddling in local governments can be.

When asked why is it not possible for the regime to accept a deal where Assad leaves with immunity or there is a repetition of the Yemeni agreement (not that this was very successful in stabilizing Yemen), this analyst was told: “Because the people behind Bashar believe that’s its about them not about him. When the uprising turned to be hostile against minorities it brought back all the memories and grandmother’s tales about the dark history under Ottomans and Sunni oppression, they saw it happening in front of them, their women kidnapped in Homs, Alawite students kidnapped. They believe its not about the president its about them. The president is comfortable, if he had even a one percent feeling that he is the problem he would not sleep well, because those protecting him would say why are we protecting this one guy if all these problems are because of him. His people do not think its about him. Its about them, the group. It includes every Sunni who is not sectarian, who is secular, who works for the government. They think they will be humiliated, and somebody who was blue collar will rule country and destroy the heritage and history of the country. Imagine American people come and say that the previous 43 presidents you had were traitors and we should destroy the history you knew and your heroes and their families should feel shame and should erase them from history books. Well this is all their history, modern Syria, the wars people claim they won etc, its all this regime. Nobody would believe the U.S. if it said that if Bashar steps down this will end the war because it did not support any idea that leads to the end of the war. Its not logical to the Syrian people that its about the president because they are who is dying on the ground. They do not feel that America is trying to protect them as civilians or as minorities. They see no signs that the Americans are angry that somebody is hurting them. They think they are on the same ship as this regime. They did not see the Americans ever saying this is not appropriate what is happening to them. Who is the nervous system? Who is the group who feel like they are the guardians of the system? Its too late to impose such an idea, none of these kinds of ideas about Bashar and his destiny can work. At least Bashar is more legitimate than Sisi where nobody went to election and he won by 95 percent somehow. At least in Syria they really went to the elections unlike in Egypt.”

Signs of Regime Willingness to Reconcile Rebels

Bashar al Assad’s last speech after his election “victory” was viewed from the outside as belligerent and too triumphal. But within the regime there was a different view, according to one of his senior security and strategic advisors. “The loyalist view of Bashar al Assad’s last speech was positive,” he said, “they say it’s the first speech where he spoke to the refugees, the first speech discussing internal issues like reconciliations and rebuilding houses and we don’t want to see Syrians outside living in tents, the first speech addressing the people who lost in this war. It’s the first time he made a difference between dialogue and reconciliation. He said national dialogue is a necessity and reconciliation is a military solution. It’s the first time he admits that ending the military situation is the reconciliation. He said national dialogue is a new political vision discussed by Syrians at table. Reconciliation is between combatants. It’s the first time he

did not mention the West and what it is doing. He did not mention West for better or worse to avoid provoking the West. When he spoke about turkey he embarrassed Erdogan personally rather than speak about Turkey as a whole. But the most important point was that our strategy is reconciliation.”

It is sometimes asserted that some insurgents will not lay down their arms until Bashar al Assad leaves, even if the regime remains. This is indeed a concern and may be true for some groups, although most will be loathe to be the last ones carrying weapons should ceasefires spread in much of Syria and outside aid be cut off. Perversely, some in the insurgency and opposition say they have lost too much to halt now and must continue fighting no matter how much more they (or the people) lose to somehow justify the previous losses until Bashar al Assad is removed. It cannot be denied that for both sides in the conflict Bashar al Assad has acquired a symbolism greater than his stature and one that obstructs the search for peace. But since removing him by force will not happen and there is no reason to believe either Iran or Russian as the desire or ability to do so, or that there is an alternative that the regime can produce, we can at least begin working on creating the conditions for the Syrian people to peacefully determine their own fate and engage in politics rather than war.

As the Syrian war resembles more and more a proxy war, the temptation of a foreign- imposed solution is real. But an international deal that does not fully engage the parties at war will fail to reach peace as they would oppose the deal - and the parties have the means to do this. A process toward a political transition will be international, but it also has to be a Syrian-informed deal, established through consultation mechanisms with the parties at war inside the country. Neither America nor Russia, nor Saudi Arabia nor Iran, have the ability to impose anything on their local allies. Its Syrians fighting Syrians for Syrian reasons. While no party will put forward pragmatic proposals on its own, there may be just enough common ground for parties to acquiesce to an internationally proposed political roadmap. In terms of power structure, it means a progressive move towards a decentralized state with an empowered parliament and with measures to contain security agencies. As far as transition is concerned, the rationale is: Bashar al Assad stays in power for a while, but he loses total control of the political process that aims, through a reformist agenda, to integrate some of the uprising’s main goals (at least the officially stated original goals). That way the Syrian people can find their own solutions through an internationally supervised and guaranteed political and stabilization process. It is an internationally proposed and agreed settlement with tacit buy-in from local stakeholders. Both sides want international guarantees and only the U.S. can give them.

Many in the opposition inside Syria – and also some who are outside, though strongly connected to the reality on the ground – admit that continuing the struggle means condemning tens or hundreds of thousands more to death for a cause that was once noble but is now sullied. They know that even if the war ended today the country is so destroyed, its social fabric so torn, that it would take decades to overcome the trauma. Some former hard-line insurgents have become pragmatic and recognize that the sudden removal of Bashar al Assad and senior security officials would lead to more instability

and greater violence. They are also beginning to feel pressure from a population that may have sympathized with them in the idealistic and euphoric days of Arab Spring style demonstrations or the first romantic days of the Free Syrian Army but is now resentful of the opposition for the destruction it provoked and for its own abuses. They would rather opt for reducing and containing the regime’s power during a prolonged transition period. Within the regime there are pragmatic security and army officials who resent the loyalist militias, worry about the massive amount of losses in their ranks and mourn the destruction of the country. Any proposal involving regime change as a prerequisite will be rejected out of hand by the government. And there is a government, and the president, Bashar al Assad, is only one part of it. It is not a one man show.

At best opposition supporters can hope for a gradual reform process following a ceasefire in which the lines are frozen, “as is.” This “as is” solution would then allow for the progressive reconstruction of the political system from bottom up. Local agreements are admittedly not enough and this is why the NGO is also working on providing a broader political framework. This solution also allows for the creation of the safe havens the opposition has been seeking. Rather than dividing Syria it accepts that Syria is already divided and that it must be reintegrated following a ceasefire. A solution must abandon the irrational focus on Bashar al Assad and discuss the presidency as an institution and how to weaken it vis a vis the parliament and the local level. The proposal aims at achieving some of the goals and demands of the opposition, as well as providing all sides with a face-saving option, through a medium/long-term process that preserves what is left of Syria and its people and restores stability without resorting to military means.

The opposition is a weak protagonist. Given this weakness, the departure of Assad is not a realistic pre-condition for any successful negotiation. On the other hand, the opposition can reasonably aspire to the control of what it has won on the battlefield, to a share of state power, and to some protection from Security. Rather than focusing on the removal of the President, the short-term focus should be on reducing the power of that office. On the other side, the regime is not weak but seriously weakened and time is also not on its side. It will maintain its political personnel for a period, including the President, but it will lose the unchallenged control of the political process. The official political opposition is largely irrelevant: to oppose the regime is to oppose it militarily. On the ground the armed groups are in control and their concerns, as well as those of individuals or coalitions that can influence or pressure them, should be taken into account. On the other hand, some in the regime ranks seem to have come to terms with the idea of talking with some of their military opponents. At present, however, there is no mechanism to factor in the pragmatic positions of the opposition from within Syria.

The deal would be ending the war in exchange of massive decentralization. The country has effectively become decentralized anyway, with local leaders significantly empowered (whether pro opposition or loyalist), so this would only be recognizing a reality anyway. This would appeal to loyalists as well who resent governors and other officials who are centrally appointed and disconnected from the population and their needs and realities. The departure of Bashar al Assad can be an eventual element of a broader political process, but not a pre-condition. It will not be the international community that removes

him; it will be the Syrian people who find their own solutions through an internationally supervised and guaranteed political and stabilization process. The regime has a limited capacity to compromise. Security and the army are red lines for the regime and its main sponsor. Thus while they will have to be dissociated from the daily lives of people and from local administration, they cannot be dissolved in the short term. The political system will be radically altered, deconstructing authoritarianism and decentralizing power. There will be internationally monitored local elections, municipality, village, governorate, then parliament eventually, and only much later, at least five years, for the president. Such a deal does not offer the promise some want that Bashar will meet his end at the Hague like Milosevic or at the gallows like Saddam, but it saves lives, prevents further population displacement, and promotes stability and a gradual reduction of the conflict, and that’s the best one can hope for.

When asked what are the guarantees that Bashar regroup and massacre more people, the answer was that: “After doing an international deal and ending the war, and a long process of decentralization, the one who will try to provoke will not be supported by anybody, there will be long process of building country and ending the war, there will be larger UN mission going around and inspecting. And the opposition will be a part of the government. The Syrian Opposition Coalition people can play role in local government, they would be allowed to enter country and play a role in such a total deal.”

There are also no guarantees that in six months the insurgency will not ignite again. But ceasefires and talking to the enemy were once taboo and even if agreements fail there will gradually be an acceptance of the culture of de-escalation on both sides and eventually deals will hold.

It is important to add that both the regime and the opposition admit that in 2012 when there were still UN monitors in Syria there was a noticeable decline in violence when they conduced inspections and the UN was able to at least release some people from prison. Privately senior regime officials admit that if a UN Security Council Resolution.

Concerns are often raised about the many militias in Syria and what will become of them after the conflict. Senior security commanders in the regime also view them as a problem, but as a necessary evil. “The regime view is that sanctions got us here,” said the senior advisor to al Assad, “they hurt the economy so the state had to look for who had money to support militias. Sanctions made Rami Makhluf a warlord. All these warlords like Makhluf have tens of thousands of employees. Their existence became necessary for the regime because of sanctions. Rami Makhluf made himself a military power inside so nobody can make him leave. But the Alawite street also knows these guys made problems.” Likewise concerns are raised about the fate of Iranians as well as Hizballah and other Shiite militias in Syria. These foreign actors entered Syria to help defend its state, regime, or people, depending on who you ask. Their presence is not perceived by the regime or by the Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese and others as a permanent thing, nor are they wanted by the regime and its supporters. As Syria stabilizes they will likely withdraw.

There is no one Syrian people now. There are two Syrian peoples now. Or many Syrian peoples. Each has very different experiences of the three and a half years. Each side has its “shuhada” (martyrs) and the other side’s “fatayes” (an insulting way to refer to a corpse). Each has its own culture, its own view of the role of religion in society, its own heroes and songs. The gap between them is huge. There has to be a vision for slowly bringing these two Syrian people back together into one.

For the West and neighboring countries to close the border and stop the flow of money and weapons will require transition and a political deal. Imagination and courage are needed here more than in any other level. If “changes from outside will not come for free,” then what is the price? Ceasefires, a real reformist project by the State and some kind of power sharing. This can include elections monitored by a third party. Local elections can be attractive to all parties. The opposition views itself as the majority because it is sectarian and Sunnis are the majority. As a result they think they can win so elections favor them in the long run. The regime likewise believes most of the population is with it and that local elections would serve it. The ceasefire that would precede elections also favors the regime because it would be followed by the return of a population that is exhausted and does not want a return to fighting. The next level can be reconciliation and a new social contract. Here the NGO can help with pilot projects. Humanitarian aid will be the cheapest and easiest entry point to begin this project. A rolling series of ceasefires would include significant de-escelatory terms on the back end and humanitarian concessions in exchange for conflict resolution approach.

Until now it has seemed as if the regime has no project except a defensive one. People are gathering around it out of fear. But the regime does not even pretend to be leading these people towards a new post-war project. People feel disconnected from the state. They feel the state does not care for them and uses them, and this includes the sentiments of the most ardent loyalists. When the threat ends these people will be able to think about more than just their immediate survival.

Governors of provinces should be locally elected. The governor of Latakia is from Reef Dimashq and the governor of Tartus is from Salamiya. They have no connection to the people and don’t know their province and it perpetuates the feeling loyalists have of the state not being there for them, not caring about them. It should be a law that the governor has to be from the province he is ruling. And governors should be given more power. This means reducing the power of Damascus. The new Syria will have to be de- centralized, just as the new Iraq will have to be as well. More power will have to go to the provinces.

The NGO and specifically this analyst have had an ongoing dialogue with senior regime officials especially those with strategic and security portfolios to understand what their vision is, if any and to encourage them to develop a vision. The NGO has rare access to senior regime officials and security chiefs. Based on extensive conversations over long periods of time with these senior Syrian regime officials dealing with security and strategy in the regime’s inner circle our team believes the regime is willing to accept significant concessions in exchange for an end to the war and an end to the insurgency

aiming to overthrow it. This does not entail a return to the Syria of 2010 or 2011. The regime has made it clear to the NGO that it is in the market for a political solution

involving cooperation with moderate nationalist insurgents to fight IS and it is prepared to make a coalition with those such as the ones the NGO meets with regularly, and it would agree to significant reforms (though not the removal of Bashar al Assad). But this game of carrot and stick is also a game of chicken and egg, of who will make the first move when everybody wants to save face, and the regime also needs a signal from the


regime and moderate elements of the opposition that facilitate fighting IS.

For example the U.S. could say that it is in favor of local ceasefires between the

The Aleppo Pilot Project

Perhaps the most urgent place to start working on a ceasefire is Aleppo. In Aleppo all the insurgent factions, from those who can be genuinely described as secular, to IF, to JN and IS are all involved, as are the regime and its various militias. And there is a population desperate for some respite. Aleppo is most urgent because IS is approaching, threatening if not to take the city, to at least cut off the crucial supply line coming in from Turkey via Bab al Salameh.

With regards to the future of Aleppo, the model of Deir Ezzor should be studied carefully because of its similarity. In Deir Ezzor, IS more or less controlled the countryside while a combination of mainstream insurgents often called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), JN and Islamic Front (IF) controlled two thirds of the city. The other third was controlled by the regime. IS sealed off the supply lines to the city, forcing the rebels to come to terms. A deal was struck whereby JN and IF forces were given safe passage out of the city after surrendering their heavy weapons. The FSA on the other hand reached a co-existence deal with IS whereby they continue to man the front-lines in the city against the regime but they had to surrender part of their arsenal to IS and accept a permanent IS force in the city (around 150 fighters.) They also had to swear allegiance to Baghdadi. In Aleppo, a similar situation might happen. If IS is able to make gains in the northern countryside by capturing Marea, Tal Rifaat and eventually Azaz, they will be in a dominant position to impose terms on the rebel forces in Aleppo city. IS is likely to reach out to FSA units in the city with deals that would effectively co-opt them into IS while keeping their structure largely intact so as not to lead to a general breakdown of the front-line with the regime. IS is unlikely to be as generous to IF forces, who would either withdraw from the city or else effectively fragment and join IS as individuals or small battalion-sized units. An IS takeover of Aleppo remains a threat but the U.S. airstrikes and likely increased support to insurgents will militate against it for now.

IS may even attempt to galvanize what remains of the FSA plus remnants of the IF and JN behind a military campaign under its command to capture western Aleppo. Tempted by the chance to capture considerable booty, many rank-and-file fighters belonging to IF and JN may desert and join IS and allied smaller FSA units in this grand campaign.

For this plan to work, IS has to cut off the Khanasir-Sfira road that represents the regime's major supply line into western Aleppo. We know that IS is active in the Syrian

desert and can dedicate forces for this mission. The withdrawal of IS forces from the northern countryside of Homs suggests that they could be re-assigned to more strategically important campaigns. The fall of Tabqa air base clears the road for an IS push on Khanasir. However, the most obvious regime target for IS in Aleppo governorate would be Kuwairis air base. The most likely course of action for IS in Aleppo governorate would be to launch a serious offensive against IF/FSA forces massed along a front that extends from Mar’ea to Soran and Dudyan. Positions there have been bolstered by the IF/FSA and a joint operations room to halt IS advance has been created. With enough heavy weapons however, IS is likely to breach that front at some stage, especially that on-ground sources say that IS has heavily infiltrated rebel ranks.

IS is only able to threaten Aleppo city if it is able to defeat the combined IF/FSA forces in the northern Aleppo countryside, thus creating a decisive shift in the balance of power and in effect cutting off the supply road to the rebel-held eastern half of the city. This is exactly what happened in Deir Ezzor where JN defeats in Shuhail and Bukamal in the Deir countryside sealed the fate of the city.

Insurgent frontlines in Aleppo are wired with landmines and complex surveillance systems, or are dense and urban, this will make it difficult for IS or the regime to advance. Fence-sitting Aleppans that could provide a base of support for the regime have fled. Those that now remain are the diehard rebel communities, the poor and the destitute, or the insane. But even a scenario of a continued grinding stalemate is unattractive.

The immediate need for a ceasefire in Aleppo (and elsewhere) can be leveraged towards a political deal. A U.S. backed ceasefire in Aleppo allows Washington to tell its allies in the Gulf that “we saved Aleppo.” Likewise ceasefires in peri-urban Damascus help save a large opposition stronghold from eventually being eradicated and remove images of dying Sunnis from Arab satellite networks.

Finally, recent leadership changes in JN suggest that the group is edging closer towards an understanding of some sort with IS. Therefore the group should be discounted from any serious strategic calculations when it comes to countering the IS threat. There are also many fighters in the countryside who sympathize with IS and would likely defect to it. So Aleppo city may fall to IS in the long-term but the most likely scenario is that the regime encircles it. For a long time it seemed that that was going to be extremely difficult and would take some months more. And that even if they did so, they would be vulnerable to attacks from rebels in the Northern countryside, or that rebels would force open a new road from the south. Or that rebels inside of the city would maintain the fight and carry on contesting the road into the city. However conversations with two FSA military strategists offer a different point of view. If the regime takes Handarat there will still be roads into Aleppo city but the regime can shell them from a strategic hilltop, meaning that, in effect, the city is surrounded. Rebels fear that Aleppo city-dwellers would then immediately capitulate to the regime, first because they have always been relatively pro-regime and second because they are used to the free flow of goods from Turkey and so would be unwilling to tolerate any hardship. They make the contrast with

residents of Homs who had a greater 'revolutionary spirit' and who had never had it easy at all and so were relatively used to hardship when Homs fell under siege.

It still seems hard to believe that the city would fall in a day after being surrounded by the regime, given the sheer number of fighters and difficulty of advancing through dense urban settings. It is also not clear that the soft pro-regime city-dwellers would be the ones deciding whether it fell or not. That would be the decision of the rural fighters based in the city who may not give up without a fight. There is still a possibility of IS taking Northern rural Aleppo/Bab al-Salam and then heading into the city immediately afterwards. But they probably would not want to, since they would benefit more from consolidating control of Bab al Salameh (the border crossing between Turkey and Aleppo province) and then concentrating on Bab al-Hawa (the border crossing between Turkey and Idlib province). This would give them control of essential supply lines. It seems that IS believes itself to have no popular support inside of Aleppo city and so it would be pointless for them to try straight away. They would be most likely to repeat a Deir Ezzor scenario, perhaps tacitly collaborate with the regime in besieging the city (if they control Marea and surrounding) and then picking the city factions off one by one, having them pledge allegiance to IS. IS was always more interested in territory and resources than rushing in and controlling heavily populated areas. So they will attempt to consolidate their positions on the border, neutralize possible reactions from the rebels in Idlib and launch an attrition war against regime positions in Aleppo without trying to take control of the city. A ceasefire in Aleppo helps create a solid border between the IS and non-IS areas and provides immediate respite to hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians.

Regional Actors

This approach has to be orchestrated internationally. A crucial driver of Washington’s policy in the Middle East today is to avoid looking weak on Iran, and avoid being accused by Sunnis that it is giving the region to the Persians. The loudest voice is that of the Saudis and Emiratis and fear of this shrill voice is one factor pushing Washington to seek a credible Sunni umbrella strategy. In reality this strategy is simple. By adopting the vision explained earlier Washington is preventing Sunnis from dying, releasing Sunnis from prison, returning Sunnis to their house, and security safe zones for Sunnis. No other strategy or tactic or vision offers these results. Instead all other solutions lead to more Sunni bloodshed, if one must look at things from this narrow sectarian approach. Since there is no viable plan for getting rid of the regime there might be Saudi acceptance for a vision which saves Sunni lives and lets the opposition focus on confronting the IS expansion.

IS is a graver threat to Gulf monarchies than it is to the U.S. The Saudis are very concerned about the stability of Jordan and the fragility of the Jordanian king. Jordan is threatened by an internal IS threat as well as the masses of Syrian refugees who pressure its monarchy. Ceasefires which allow for the return of the Syrians to Daraa and get them out of Zaatari camp, and end the drive for new IS and JN recruits.

The Saudis have proclaimed themselves leaders of “the Sunnis” so they have set themselves up for criticism and it has become very personal for their leadership. The previous Saudi team working on Syria was removed and with Muhamad bin Nayef and Khaled bin Bandar now in charge of Saudi’s Interior and Intelligence respectively and overwhelmingly focused on counter terrorism in Syria rather than regime change or solutions, there are new opportunities to insert such a vision without incurring Saudi ire.

Ending the war in Syria reduces the regime’s dependence on Iran allowing the Syrian regime to return to the more natural balance they had before 2011 when they played powers off each other and received aid from other sources, like Gulf countries, granting them influence as well.

For an example of the Saudi ability to reach an eventual accord with the Syrian regime it is useful to look to recent events in Lebanon. The new mufti in Lebanon was appointed after negotiations between Saudi Arabia, Syria and Hizballah. And Saudi backed politician Saad al Hariri finally returned to Lebanon after years in exile, which could only take place with Syrian and Hizballah acquiescence, and Saudi backed politicians Ashraf Rifi and Nuhad Mashnuq were respectively appointed minister of justice and minister of interior, which could also have only place with Syrian and Hizballah acquiescence. The Houthi conquest of Sanaa in Yemen also places pressure on the Saudis to reach accommodations with Iran and its allies.

The Qataris are looking for a reset of their foreign policy. Qatar views its relationship with the Saudi as more important than Muslim Brotherhood and wants to repair it, returning Doha to its Geneva like role and being recognized as brokering a peace deal. The Saudis can use Qatar to save face on Syria and talk to Iran. Qatar can adopt the role of peacemaker in Syria by cooperating with on this proposed solution, or resolution. This also allows Qatar to play an important role in its implementation and leaves Qatar as one of the most influential actors in Syria. For years Qatar was known for its mediation in difficult conflicts. It was only five years ago that all of Lebanon was saying “thank you Qatar” for its role resolving disputes there. Qatar can return to its role as an important mediator and peacemaker through our vision for Syria. This plan also appeals to the Syrians Qatar has backed, both in local councils and in the armed opposition. A decentralized Syria with greater power at the local level favors Qatar’s civilian and armed opposition friends. They have popularity and influence at the grass roots level. Through them, Qatar can maintain its influence in a decentralized Syria and also help find a peaceful solution for Syria that does not lead to abandoning its Syrian friends.

In any kind of post war Syria the central government will not have full control over its

borders. That is now in the hands of insurgents, neighboring countries, and the U.S

result those regional players already involved in Syria will continue to play a role. This applies to Turkey more than any other country. Turkey is under pressure from a Syria policy that has failed and led to the burden of a massive refugee population and a border controlled by JN and IS. Privately Turkish officials admit that “we are sick of it, of what is happening in Syria, we are spending money for nothing.” The Turks are walking between two third rails, the Kurdish question and the Sunni extremist question, lacking

As a

the capacity to deal with either one effectively, caught unprepared for their attempted role as a regional power, lacking even enough Arabic speakers to implement their policies. Early in the Syrian uprising the Turks effectively allowed themselves to lose control over their border. Now they can only regain respect on the border once again through military operations and killing people. Turkey’s leadership is worried about appearing (or being portrayed as) weak. A reversal of policy is possible, as the Turks are already moving towards a containment strategy, but they will not move if they feel they are alone. They too are waiting for American leadership. A pacified north is in Turkey’s security and financial interests. In any post conflict scenario Turkey will have an overwhelming influence over northern Syria just as it does over northern Iraq.

Return of the Moderate Opposition

We need to arrive at an agreement that offers political change in Syria but first we need to reduce violence and create the conditions for dialogue. Until 2014 the goal of the international community was to have the Geneva Conference at all costs. The Geneva Conference was the objective. Many months were wasted on the myth of the Geneva process, of pressuring the regime by changing the balance of power on the ground and changing their calculus. Everybody knew Geneva would fail, that it could not lead to anything new because it was based on the unrealistic notion that the regime would voluntarily engage in a process that ends the regime. In reality there will be no transitional body and no transitional process in Syria any time soon, but the NGO offers a roadmap that may eventually lead to a new and better system, once the war is over.

There are numerous challenges to any attempted solution. There are millions of Syrians who are displaced internally or abroad and are eager to return home but fear the regime, or insurgents or general instability. And of course returning refugees will also bring instability with them. There are foreign fighters and Syrian extremists scattered throughout Syria, in its north (Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Der Ezzor) even in the central provinces of Hama, Homs and Damascus, and in the south (Daraa and Quneitra). They will oppose any deal, they have nowhere to go and many are entrenched in local communities, even taken Syrian women (and tragically often girls) as wives. Sometimes viewed as “moderate,” JN has deeper grass roots throughout Syria and is often popular. It appears to be consolidating control over territory and maybe establishing an emirate. Most of its men are also Syrian. It too will oppose ceasefires, possibly assassinating those who pursue them or resorting to traditional terror attacks like car bombs and suicide bombers to continue attacks against its perceived foes. And if the U.S. war in Syria includes attacks on JN then this may provoke greater hostility to any Western project and unite JN with IS as well as uniting some mainstream insurgents with them both as well out of solidarity.

The mainstream insurgency may be corrupt, venal and in thrall to extremist groups who lead the fight on the frontline but as much as they complain about the war and want it to end at all costs, many of them have made their careers out of this war and now possess economic interests that they need to maintain control of. Many of their constituents, who have lost everything, are often even more intransigent. Many refugees say that they want

it to end at all costs but paradoxically average people still living inside are sometimes the most intransigent of all, precisely because they have lost everything. Extremists (JN and just general extremist currents of discourse) may be a numerically minority but clearly dominate the discourse.

Local truces can work in areas of Damascus, Homs or elsewhere when the regime has the preponderance of power and the only people to worry about are the actual inhabitants of the area. In the north things are far more fluid. There are so many more actors, trade flows and economic interests from Turkey, internal resources, groups disbanding and regrouping etc. This creates a much more fertile climate for rejectionism. One need look no farther than the reaction of “moderate” rebel communities to U.S. strikes and their public support for IS in the name of “sovereignty” and the revolution. Insurgents have regained confidence about defending Aleppo and “core” rebels areas. Jabal al-Zawiya and border areas are always going to be easier to defend. Even if eighty percent can be bought or swayed by foreign donors or are sick of fighting there will remain an intransigent core twenty percent who are ideologically extreme, or profiteers, or simply have such a strong sense of the injustice of it all or disregard for their own lives that they will reject any compromise and carry on fighting.

Any time insurgents make some progress at the tactical level as they have in southern Syria then they back off from the idea of compromise. And the promise of more Western support only makes them more truculent and ambitious. One coalition representative in Washington recently expressed the hope that “containing IS frees resources so the FSA can clear Aleppo, Idlib and threaten Hama military airport.” But only destruction can come from continued war. As insurgents seize new ground civilians flee and the regime pounds insurgent havens. This cannot be called progress. If the West is serious about de- escalation then if it provides ammunition it must be conditional and it must be able to cut off supply to pressure insurgents to adhere to a broader strategy which is de-escalation rather than trying to seize one more village or regime checkpoint. The fortunes of the insurgency and the regime rise and fall, emotions peak and crash, but today supporters of the opposition feel a renewed confidence with the regime struggling in several places after its humiliation in the east. Insurgents have received a fillip since the U.S. campaign began, with an increase of support. They cling to the promise of even more support, enough to keep them alive and ease the mood of desperation that previously prevailed. While the war is a grinding stalemate, as in every period of small gains, insurgents will be more recalcitrant unless they receive strong signals from the U.S. The U.S. strikes have halted progress on reconciliation deals and made vulnerable those that already took place. Groups formerly interested in pursuing talks with the regime now have new considerations, such as whether the U.S. will give them the long sought after assistance to bring down the regime, or whether the U.S. itself will strike the regime, or whether JN or IS or other hardline groups might make progress and kill “traitors” who compromised with the regime.

The solution in the short term is neither transition nor power sharing but freezing the war as it is and acknowledging that Syria has been decentralized at the barrel of a gun. Enshrining the decentralization so that Syrians can freely elect their own representatives

at the local and provincial level will allow them to create leaders who may one day compete at a national level. The country is already decentralized so we are merely calling for its reintegration in fact, rather than its division. This is all going to happen eventually anyway, so the question is do you want to wait a few more years and watch tens of thousands more die, or get involved in the process to make it better, to protect more civilians, to help create a better Syria? Or do you want to mislead the Syrian opposition with the false hope that salvation will come from the outside so they can continue their futile struggle a few more years until there are truly no moderates left?

This might not give you the satisfaction of justice. And justice might be a threat to security. The ICC referral is impractical because nobody will be coming in to arrest anybody and it makes a solution more complicated. Millions of dollars have been spent on transitional justice schemes and conferences that will never be implemented. More likely transitional justice will be implemented by silenced pistols and bombs planted under cars. That’s better than mass killing. This vision does not provide justice but it provides life. This vision provides a road map towards ending the war, allowing Syrians actually engaged in the conflict to begin cooperating in conflict resolution under international supervision and guarantees.

Syria has changed irrevocably. The regime can never control the country the way it did in 2011. Even Alawites are boiling with rage at the regime while most Sunnis prefer the state, the regime, Bashar, anything, to the opposition which has failed to produce one attractive model, or has been made to fail by a combination of broken promises by its alleged friends, the regime’s lethal bombardments, al Qaeda, criminal groups, corruption and other ailments afflicting the opposition such as the general problem that Syrians in the opposition just cannot work together successfully. You have Alawite militiamen going on strike to demand better conditions or clashing with security agencies. You have Alawites openly criticizing the regime and even Bashar while millions of Sunnis have fled opposition areas to regime strongholds because they prefer the state to chaos. The solution must be engaging with the regime and demanding huge concessions in exchange for that including international observers or peacekeepers and significant decentralization to allow the opposition and loyalists to practice politics safely at the local level. Syria is much more complex than it is portrayed, and the solution far more complex and gradual. Focusing on ending the war can create openings for local accountability, politics and repairing the broken bonds between Syrians.

What is Needed

To actors in the region the U.S. strategy remains unclear but they are already responding to perceived U.S. intentions. For example the regime is hastily trying to clear greater Damascus in advance of the introduction of new American trained insurgents. In Iraq it was not so much the surge itself but the declaration of the surge that forced armed factions to change their calculations, signaling an increase in commitment and a change in strategy. Likewise in Syria, were the U.S. to declare that it supported a vision based on de-escelating the conflict and accepting that a regime it found abhorrent was not going anywhere but neither was the Syrian opposition and if the U.S. were to send positive

messages or even take action to support ceasefires, both sides would pursue such an approach with greater vigor. International involvement in these ceasefires also guarantees that conditions for the Syrian opposition and the local population will be better.

Pressure from the Saudis and from supporters of Israel who see any overture to the Syrian regime as a sign of weakness of Iran means it is impossible for the U.S. to openly negotiate with the Syrian regime. A positive statement from the U.S. about the potential for ceasefires to improve conditions for Syrians and allow them to focus on the war on extremists will be an important signals. Other countries such as Germany or Norway can be used to adopt reconciliations and support their improvements. Until now they are little more than glorified ceasefires. If the United Nations is encouraged to play a role than conditions can be improved and crucially they can allow transition from mere local ceasefires to greater power sharing and regime reform. The Syrian regime is close to bankruptcy. Even if it were well intentioned, it lacks the competence and resources to manage these ceasefires properly and allow them to be sustainable. Outside intervention in the ceasefires can help residents rebuild their homes, reopen their businesses and feel that they are tangibly benefiting from their courageous decision to compromise.

Conclusion: Age of the “Freeze”

In the context of a civil war like Syria’s peace can only be achieved incrementally after obtaining a critical masses of ceasefires and in turn these local ceasefires might be consolidated into bigger deals. One advantage of all the ceasefires that took place in Syria until now is that none of them are final status deals. Instead they are all evolving works in progress waiting for a final deal. This among other reasons is why those who claim the deals “cement a regime victory” are wrong, the deals merely neutralize areas and put them on hold until it will be time for final status talks. The opposition needs to be reassured that if they enter into a ceasefire process it will be part of larger future deals. It is necessary to have some minimal base of peace and stability on the ground to build upon and provide breathing space to the central process. Until then all talks of national level solutions even if ISIS areas are excluded will remain unrealistic.

But individual ceasefires must also be approached incrementally, without fanfare and with modesty and caution. The arrival of a new Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura (SDM) and with him a new more realistic approach to reducing the conflict is a welcome development. The premature announcement of Aleppo as the first and sole objective of his initial efforts combined with the lack of an understanding of Aleppo and what is possible on the part of the UN threatens to make a worthwhile goal unattainable and thwart SDM’s ambitions for success. This paper is a hastily drafted vision that offers a way to salvage the Aleppo idea and turn it into a plan.

In Syria, especially with the opposition, deals have bad reputations. It is better to avoid them at first until both sides and especially the opposition see that a deal can also serve their interests. The goals of the proposed Aleppo Freeze are to reduce violence, allow humanitarian assistance, introduce elements of reconstruction to revive life. It is a sad

comment on humanity when even a simple idea like a freeze for Aleppo appears so daunting and complex.

The concept of a Freeze implies a near instant and total cessation of conflict in the identified area. But this is the wrong approach and cannot work. Instead we must think in terms of a cooling down very gradually and almost imperceptibly that results in people waking up one day and realizing the Ice Age has begun and then the UN can come in and make official what has already become unofficially accepted.

The children’s story Stone Soup offers a model for an accretion based solution for Aleppo. To plagiarize from Wikipedia, “Stone Soup is an old folk story in which hungry strangers trick the local people of a town to share their food…Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making "stone soup", which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavour, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.”

In this case the ingredients for the soup, or the Freeze, would be local projects conducted by the government in cooperation with the UN that would lead to temporary ceasefires during the working hours. Their work will provide the ingredients as would the Syrian government agencies operating out of the governor of Aleppo’s offices, increasing cooperation and trust. Thus the Freeze can be created out of nothing, making previously skeptical people believe it can and should work and that there is a plan when in fact there was no plan. For example UNESCO can fix schools in the old city, while UNICEF works on schools outside. Other agencies can work on winterization or medical assistance. The UN will have to move beyond the concept of humanitarianism and invest in salt and pepper for the soup, radishes, carrots, to bring back functionality. It means taking risks in fragile zones. As agencies and organizations work in areas there will be “humanitarian pauses” for the duration of their work, or temporary freezes. The freeze will come as a result of these things and as a consequence of working on both sides of the frontline.

The UN country team is eager to increase or even just resume its work in Aleppo. So far the freeze just managed to cause UN work in Aleppo to be frozen. According to one senior UN humanitarian official in Damascus, the “freeze” initiative “stopped all UN work in Aleppo. The moment the freeze was raised all discussion on purely humanitarian grounds was stopped, they said this is a package deal and everything has to wait.” He and others have been supportive of an approach similar to the one outlined in this proposal. “Don’t change the name (from freeze) just the approach and turn it on its head,” he said,

“start with a temporary ceasefire to provide medical services to children, bring in food assistance, bring in materials to support families over the winter period, stuff that wont cause a big problem. There is no other way to build trust, you have to have some semblance of normality. This is the only way to work, but it should not make humanitarian activities seem secondary to political objectives and it should not undermine political objectives. The UN has to say this stuff has to come hand in hand. People have needs today so we’ll focus on them at the same time, we cannot have sequencing, one and then the other.” Another UN official in Damascus reminded the author that the only reason any armed groups talked to them at first was because they came offering something, and then they were able to discuss other things. This of course requires the government not to hit health centers or schools or other projects that the UN is working on.

For example the government and opposition stop shelling and sniping from 09:00 to 16:00 without announcing it publicly or formally and it becomes the norm so the UN comes in to deliver aid but importantly the UN delivers aid from the government side. Then the UN establishes a point and it establishes more services. This will require the government to take the first step as a good will gesture.

The UN can find entry points working on humanitarian needs, emergency livelihood, early recovery, instruments for stability and social cohesion. This will also lead to alternative sources of employment and the potential for some demobilization in the long term. It appears that the UN has not mapped and contacted local civil society let alone established communication procedures. This is essential because the UN must identify entry points into equitable delivery to both sides. Schools and health care are entry points. The UN can work on clinics and education on both sides. But this requires the UN doing its homework now and this cannot be done remotely. The UN must identify what service channels are available and what is the ability of the private sector to act to help address needs and revive life and commerce.

The government views the insurgents in the city as invaders from the countryside who occupied its city. It does not want to normalize a situation where mostly loyalist civilians cannot return to areas seized by insurgents or opposition supporters. It will not trust local elections to take place in a context where most of Aleppo city’s original inhabitants are not in their homes and insurgents dominate, creating facts on the ground. Issues of local governance and elections and formal politics should be delayed and not even discussed until more trust has been created, and the freeze should initially focus on humanitarian issues alone. This will allay similar opposition concerns about being forced to accept the Syrian state’s authority or sacrifice on their own political ambitions. It is best to let things develop organically once both sides increase cooperation then introduce politics at a premature stage. One of the mistakes made in the past was the attempt to expand the conversation beyond a freeze and introduce too much of a political approach and insert agendas rather than just focus on the initial challenge of getting people to stop killing each other.

There are past precedents that give reason for optimism. From 2013 until the present there have been informal agreements and ceasefires between both side for the sake of restoring electricity or evacuating sick patients and for a long time even an accepted safe zone at the Bustan Qasr crossing for civilian and commercial purposes. Likewise in Seif adawla and Salahedin areas where the neighborhoods are divided among both sides there have been ceasefires so that civilians can return to their homes and remove their belongings. The Red Crescent has played a key role as a middle man between both sides. The government continues to pay salaries and even provide supplies to government employees in insurgent and ISIS held towns. Government directorates dealing with issues such as health, water, electricity and communication remain very active including in insurgent held locations and take great risk to serve the population. On the ground, away from Damascus or Istanbul or Riyadh, deals are constantly made for practical and expedient purposes and out of mutual interests, as in many civil wars. These can be built upon but only if one is on the ground. These understandings will cause splits in the opposition, forcing some to choose peace over war, services over lack of them, the needs of their purported constituency over their unrealistic ambitions, it will also put them on the defensive, forcing them to articulate their positions and their interests.

An incremental approach will also address concerns of both sides. The government refuses to formally recognize the councils and governance structures of the opposition and the opposition refuses to formally allow the state back into its areas to operate. The government is concerned about attempts to create a parallel government in east Aleppo. In fact there is already tacit cooperation in Aleppo for issues such as electricity and water. An incremental and informal approach will allow for much greater cooperation and reconnection between the civilian structures on both sides without anybody being able to object on principle until it is already too late and has become the norm. Insurgents might agree to the offer of returning IDPs, stopping the shelling of east Aleppo, allowing for civilians to cross between both sides. But they might feel threatened by the prospect of a hasty return of the state or regime, which is why they must be gradually reconnected to it. Insurgents fear being accused of betraying the revolution by other groups. An informal understanding will prevent the opposition media and facebook pages from launching a campaign of condemnation before giving it a chance. Likewise insurgents fear Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and other hardliners. But who can be opposed to increased humanitarian activity in opposition held areas? Insurgents fear the government will redeploy its forces in other fronts. Their mistrust will be addressed by a gradual process in which they observe the government’s behavior. The government claims that the insurgents have no command and control or leadership and cannot be trusted to agree to a deal let alone respect its terms. One or two months of an informal cooling down period will allay government concerns and prove that the insurgents can be trusted. Another option is to agree initially to certain rules, such as no mortars, rockets, barrel bombs or airstrikes so that even the types of weapons that fall under the ceasefire are incrementally increased. There are already preexisting channels between opposing sides in Aleppo for the purpose of negotiating exchanges of prisoners and corpse as well as to work on electricity and water or allow for sick patients to be transferred to government hospitals. In fact there is a constant communication between both sides to address issues of mutual interest.

The reconciliation negotiation process is slowly changing the regime. Gradually officers in the security forces are seeing in the reconciliations another path to their own personal professional success. The positive attention Damascus NDF commander Fadi Saqr received from President Bashar al Assad makes the pragmatists on the government side feel more protected from accusations that they are soft, or weak, or “selling out” by talking to the terrorists. Just as it took several years for American military officers to agree to talk to and eventually partner with Iraqi insurgents they had previously called terrorists, so too will it take even more time for the Syrian government to get used to talking to its opponents, but this leads to important changes in the cultures of institutions both military and security.

One senior advisor to President Assad explained how the reconciliations are slowly changing the government itself. “Every agreement you make changes the politics, even if its with one man, a tribe, smugglers, ten men who call themselves a brigade, you have created a new political force. You made an agreement with somebody who has weapons. The more the government does it it is changing, learning how to talk. Until a few months ago Military Intelligence did not have anybody who knows anything except how to arrest. Old Military Intelligence guys like Suheil Ramadan (of the Palestine branch) were removed for new people, this is policy change. Changing policy requires changing the nature first. I am changing my nature from hostile to more pragmatic, putting new people who know how to talk and accept the opposition as a partner and will turn the insurgents into a peaceful opposition and may be a partner in ruling Syria in the future, unlike somebody who just knows how to fight.” On the ground this is visible when one observes the initial tension at the first meetings between opposing parties and how they gradually become partners. Soon security officers and regime representatives are personally invested in the agreements and in defending their partners on the insurgent side.

Many if not most of the fighters in the city hail from the reef and are thus primarily loyal to the reef. They might not care about the city but to incentivize them to comply their own hometowns in the reef should be included eventually. The Khanasir road is the only lifeline to the government held side of the city. The government fought tooth and nail to reopen this road after insurgents closed and cut off all supplies to the city. This road must be protected from JN and ISIS. It is not possible to broker a deal for Aleppo without securing that road. JN might conduct operations on that road just to make its presence known if there is no agreement. A neighborhood by neighborhood approach has been suggested but while some insurgents are very local and tied to neighborhoods many others belong to groups that operate in several neighborhoods.

It is possible that civilian structures and civilians themselves no longer matter in East Aleppo and they may not be able to put pressure on armed groups. The official opposition political representatives in the Coalition certainly do not matter. Both insurgents and local civil society actors confirm that those wielding weapons rule the ground. Thus SDM’s emphases on reaching out to the insurgents who are influential on the ground was a welcome and wise development.

For any understanding to be implemented in Aleppo city there must be at least tacit acceptance of it by JN, Ahrar al Sham, Jeish al Mujahedin and Liwa al Tawhid. JN poses

a significant challenge to a deal for Aleppo city. While it does not physically or militarily or even numerically dominate, it plays a hegemonic role through its influence and people’s fear of it. No group will move without the confidence that Ahrar al Sham and JN will not object.

It is important to understand human psychology when dealing with insurgent

representatives in Turkey. They cannot just be bought or pressured by having funding cut off. There is a big core who cannot be bought and even if they are a minority they could easily spoil a deal. Dealing with Syrian insurgent groups should not be seen as the same thing as dealing with states in international relations or even with some militias with a clear chain of command. It is not enough to meet the ostensible leader of a group. There is an amorphous and shifting set of alliances and a leader is not a leader. Some interlocutors are not who they say they are, and might not be important at all. Therefore the leader and several others must be on board. Mid level leaders have their own agendas and interests and concerns.

Dealing with the Syrian insurgency can feel like struggling with problem children and many diplomats and interlocutors have suffered hours for days or months of frustrating interaction with them, but one must understand their world which is obscure and arcane, full of anger, pain and suspicion, and one must be prepared with counterarguments for all their obstreperous and obstinate objections. Those chosen to deal with the opposition must overcome their frustration and understand that they represent a deep societal trauma and they feel like they have suffered a monumental injustice the world has never seen before. This kind of understanding and empathy comes from spending time in places like Reyhanli day after day. This being said, it remains a significant improvement over previous UN special envoys that SDM is dealing with the armed groups directly.

The opposition heard SDM speak of solutions and worried that in his mind a freeze or a ceasefire was a solution. SDM might not have said this but there was not enough communication and initial conclusions were drawn. It is important to stress that freezes and ceasefires are not solutions but only a first step in a long process that involves a political process. The opposition felt that SDM displayed great diplomatic sensitivity when engaging with the government but not with the opposition. Of course at this point there are also many people in the opposition who just don’t care anymore and are against any political solution (or they ask for impossible terms such as the regime basically surrendering).

The opposition insists it wants a comprehensive solution rather than a mere Freeze in Aleppo. Those in insurgent held territories in northern Syria have reached the point where they may prefer ISIS to the government if presented with such a limited choice. It is simplistic to think that ideology or even pride and anger do not matter and that what might seem like a rational choice to those sitting in Geneva (ceasefire instead of further fighting) will be seen as a good idea to those sitting in Aleppo, or Damascus, or Reyhanli. The opposition is not capable of producing its own plan (and the government seems

barely more capable itself). Thus the UN will have to present the opposition with a plan (which is what they were expecting when they met SDM). The opposition reacted negatively to the Aleppo proposal in part because they saw the government continuing to push its encirclement of Aleppo. They also fear that a deal in Aleppo will be seen as betrayal of the revolution, or their slain brothers or their brothers fighting on other frontlines, especially because they worry they government will move its forces to put pressure on insurgents elsewhere. In fact they should be concerned about the opposite, that the government would actually increase its forces. The government’s current allocation of forces for Aleppo is not enough to control the city, and they are struggling to besiege it with the few men they have. The prospect of potentially assuming control of more of the city would require the government to increase its forces there. This it would also do because it fears a trap. Withdrawing forces to fight elsewhere in the country would expose the city to insurgents. Thus rather than freeing up men, an Aleppo freeze might add to the amount of men the government needs to control the city but the consumption of ammunition and fuel as well as loss of life would go down.

The government was suspicious of SDM’s proposal. It came at a time when they had the upper hand over the insurgents in Aleppo and thus they believed it was a trick by the opposition’s outside backers to save them from defeat. The government also views previous ceasefires from the Kofi Annan or Arab League mission eras as opportunities for the insurgents to rearm or seize new territory, as indeed happened in various parts of the country in 2012.

Government security officers and members from other provinces who serve in Aleppo are not hostile to the city or its population the way they may be elsewhere but instead appear to like the city and its people and view them as supporters. This differs greatly from their attitude to towns or neighborhoods perceived to have a popular base for the insurgency and which in turn receive collective punishment. While senior government officers in Aleppo readily admit that they will obey whatever their political leadership orders them, they express skepticism about the freeze and its motives. The government’s local militiamen are more supportive of the freeze then its security and military officers and they are also more skeptical about the government’s ability to close the siege let alone retake the entire city. Most of the government’s paramilitary forces or militias are composed of Sunnis from Aleppo. Aleppo was and continues to be a loyalist city. Loyalist militias are from the same locations and social backgrounds as the insurgents they fight. They maintain communication with their former neighbors now on the other side. Sectarian tensions are not a problem in Aleppo the way they might be in places like Homs. There is unified and centralized command and control of government forces in Aleppo and militias appear more disciplined and under control than in most other places. The opposition greatly exaggerates the government’s command and control problems as well as its reliance on foreign fighters (Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon etc).

Basic reconstruction will be a major challenge since Aleppo does not have roads or ports to import cement and does not have the water to mix the cement. Even if the money for reconstruction is produced it will be a nightmare. But it will have to build on current existing institutions rather than on any notion of breaking down the state apparatus. Of

course even reconstruction is a governance issue because it requires more effective and transparent institutions and ones that international organizations feel comfortable cooperating with. But since the world is failing Syria on humanitarian assistance it is not likely to come to its aid for reconstruction. Aleppo needs billions of dollars and the Syrian government has no money to bring back services to Aleppo. It will remain politically impossible for most countries or actors to provide money seen as funding the Syrian government. This means only the UN in Syria can play that role.

The government hopes to convince Aleppo’s businessmen to return. This will provide it with the legitimacy it cares about and help revive the city. Despite all the destruction the government still cares very much about the city and its population and it wants to maintain links to Aleppo’s elites so that they see the government as a viable solution. These elites legitimize the government on an economic level and on a more basic philosophical level.

Life in the government held half of Aleppo appears more normal than one would expect. Thousands of small children can be seen walking home from school alone in the afternoon, public buses function all day and night, traffic police are on the streets,

restaurants and cafes are full of people, streets are bustling, women can be seen walking

or driving alone. And the occasional insurgent fired rocket lands on civilian areas every

day. There are four to five hundred thousand IDPs from east Aleppo living in the government held side and are relatively well taken care of given the few resources available and the ongoing war. The governor of Aleppo appears supportive of SDM’s proposal though like most government representatives he questions the ability of the insurgents to agree among themselves or adhere to the terms of an agreement. The governor himself is not disliked by the opposition. The state continues to function despite the many challenges.

The Syrian government is concerned about plans to divide Aleppo or make the current division a permanent one. This is an added incentive to allow the UN and other NGOs to work on the current line of divide and reopen it so the division made when armed opposition groups attacked the city in 2012 does not become normal and considered

“natural.” To this day in Lebanon one can find taxi drivers from East Beirut who refuse

to go to West Beirut out of a fear that lingers years after the Lebanese civil war ended.

The priority should be breaking this line so Aleppo can no longer be considered a divided city, but a city slowly reintegrating so this bloody dividing line and the scar it has left on Aleppo can slowly heal.

A neighborhood like Salahedin is therefore a good place to start working on this cooling

down approach. Salahedin was very damaged because the attack on Aleppo started there.

It is the first neighborhood one confronts when entering the city, and the destruction,

overcrowding and poverty are immediately apparent. Salahedin, like its neighbor Seif Adawla are divided, half under the government’s authority and half under control of armed opposition groups. Often families themselves are divided across the front line. The

connections between people were artificially broken in these areas. The divided sides of Salahedin are not fighting each other. Meanwhile people from Sukari and surrounding

areas have sought shelter in Salahedin because fighting is not intense there. Some UN agencies, like UN Habitat, have already done some work in Salahedin and are known

there. People need help with water and electricity on both sides of the neighborhood. This

is a good opportunity for the government to experiment with this cooling down and

approach and crucially to return the government to Salahedin, or to return the people of Salahedin to the government, starting with basic services that nobody can object to.

In late January there was a burst of intense fighting in the Old City after a period of

relative calm. This further strengthens the case to try to work across both sides of the old city. Aleppo’s old city is not only precious to the people of Syria. It is a treasure for the hold world, and its destruction is a loss for humanity, not just for Syria. Every day we delay a ceasefire more of the Old City is destroyed. Allowing work to happen on both sides of the Old City will spare it further destruction and allow the gradual return of the state and erode one more dividing line before it is considered permanent.

A few other random thoughts to conclude. The idea of monitors or observers was brought

up at the brainstorming meeting. The Aleppo frontlines are very long and circuitous and will require numerous monitors. When discussing the city abstractly it is easy to forget just how vast it is. Also, Aleppo as a city has no water resources. It relies on the Euphrates river and sources controlled by ISIS. The former governor of Aleppo should be used to mediate between both sides, he has respect and experience.

In conclusion, initially the SDM initiative was met with a lot of discussion in both

opposition and government media, but that momentum was lost due to lack of steady outreach in the media and to relevant actors. SDM’s approach remains far more relevant than any previous one, if it is properly implemented. In a context where millions have been displaced and thousands continue to die there is no humanitarian aid to Syria except stopping the war, everything else is giving aspirin to a cancer patient.