September 2014

by Nir Rosen

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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

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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

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

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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.

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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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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

! 13!
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.

! 14!
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

! 15!
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

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

! 16!
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

! 17!
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

! 18!
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

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

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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.

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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.”

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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

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

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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.

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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

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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

! 25!
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

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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

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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

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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

! 29!
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

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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


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

! 31!
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 4th 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

! 32!
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

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

! 33!
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.

! 34!
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.

! 35!
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

! 36!
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

! 37!
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.”

! 38!
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.”

! 39!
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

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

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

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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

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(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

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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

! 43!
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

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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,

! 45!
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

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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

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

! 47!
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

! 48!
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

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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

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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
U.S.. For example the U.S. could say that it is in favor of local ceasefires between the
regime and moderate elements of the opposition that facilitate fighting IS.

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

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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

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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

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.

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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.. As a
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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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,

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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

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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

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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.

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