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How Assad Is Winning

Syrian boys in the rebel-held town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, January 2017
Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Syrian boys in the rebel-held town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, January 2017

In Damascus people call it the “million-dollar checkpoint,” although it is not one but two face-to-face roadblocks, barely a rifle shot apart. On a suburban road between government and opposition zones of control in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers and their rebel enemies inspect cars, vans, and pedestrians. Their shared objective is extortion, exacting tolls on medicine, food, water, and cigarettes, as well as people, that are moving in and out of the besieged orchards and homesteads about ten miles from the center of Damascus in an area known as the Eastern Ghouta.

This devastated region, where a half-million people lived before the Syrian civil war, was the scene of the regime’s chemical weapons attacks in August 2013 that nearly drew American air power into the conflict. Partly as a result of a deal with Vladimir Putin, United Nations inspectors arrived instead, and removed or destroyed most of the government’s poison gas stocks. Since then, the frontier between the state and its opponents has provided profits to both. Such cooperation between enemies surprises those unfamiliar with Syria’s political and economic landscape, although neither side has concealed its recurrent contacts with the other.

The fierce game between the government and its adversaries is not confined to Eastern Ghouta. Wherever the warring sides want peace, there is peace. Where they contest territory, as they did until recently in the eastern quarters of Aleppo, there is war. Where they want profits, they collaborate. Hence, the “million-dollar checkpoint” and lesser checkpoints throughout the country that sustain the business of war. Paltry exactions from beleaguered citizens add up to large fortunes, giving the fighters incentives to mute the conflict in certain areas and marshal their forces elsewhere.

No one denies that the regime is winning the war. It owes its ascendancy as much to its opponents’ disunity and incompetence as to its own effectiveness. Rebel policy, whichever group was involved, was to seize and hold terrain for as long as possible in violation of every tenet of guerrilla warfare. The local people welcomed the rebels in some places and tolerated them in others.

In both cases, opposition fighters failed to shield people from the regime’s sieges and assaults as well as the misbehavior of their own “rogue elements.” Rather than wage a mobile guerrilla war and build a solid coalition within the population, they occupied land they could not hold. This alienated many Syrians whom the rebels could not govern and risked the lives of those they could not defend. The rebels failed to create effective alliances among their more than a thousand armed bands. Their reliance for arms and other support on rival outside powers—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, with the United States, Britain, and France in the wings—left the rebel groups vulnerable to the antagonistic and variable priorities of their sponsors. In sum, the opposition had no more chance against the Syrian regime than the similarly fractured Palestine Liberation Organization had in the 1970s and 1980s against Israel’s superior military and intelligence apparatus.

From the outset, forces loyal to President Assad held the main population centers, notably central Damascus, most of Aleppo, and the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia. During the past year, the government, with Russian and Iranian assistance, recovered pieces of lost territory. While the battle for eastern Aleppo raged last autumn, parts of suburban Damascus were coming back under Assad’s control—discussions with the rebels were followed by capitulation.

The government, with its known record of harsh human rights abuses including torture, demonstrated more flexibility than its opponents. The state security system, armed with intelligence files amassed over generations, knew its enemies and their vulnerabilities. Discovering that no tactic worked everywhere, the regime’s negotiators dangled offers of a deal with some rebel fighters and civilians while dropping barrel bombs on others. In some neighborhoods, the government allowed the wounded out and medicine in. In others, it tightened the siege.

The means varied, but the objective was the same: pacification and restoration of control by the Assad regime. Among the negotiators for the government were army and intelligence officers as well as pro-regime residents of contested areas. They talked with militiamen from a variety of groups, as well as Muslim clergy, local mayors, and community leaders. The government promised to end its assaults if the rebel forces departed. To obtain food, water, electricity, and a respite from bombardment, the local people put pressure on their self-proclaimed defenders to leave. The process of trial and error that the government called “reconciliation” may have reconciled hardly anyone but it brought more relief to more people than did its badly divided opponents.

“Reconciliations are doing very well now,” President Assad’s political and media adviser, Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, told me. “And there are many areas in the pipeline. We feel that this is the best way to end the war.” Bitter fighting and expansion goes on, but there is some truth to what she said.

The government established a Ministry of National Reconciliation at the beginning of the conflict in 2011, but its brief did not involve discussion with armed militias officially designated “terrorists.” Ziad Haidar, a Syrian journalist who covered the war for the Lebanese daily As-Safir until the paper closed at the end of 2016, said that negotiations with so-called terrorists began almost by accident two years after the ministry was established. “The governor of Homs, Ahmad Munir, started the reconciliation in Tal Khalak on the border with Lebanon in 2013,” he recalled. “He discussed it with the head of the militias in Tal Khalak. This was the first reconciliation process. It triggered others in Homs.”

According to “Reconciliation, Reward and Revenge,” a ten-month study by the Berlin-based Berghof Foundation:

By 2014, local ceasefires formed a clear part of the Syrian government’s strategy in managing the insurgency as well as appeasing the strong international interests [i.e. US, Russian, and European] for a de-escalation of violence for humanitarian and political purposes.

Ahmad Munir moved to the Reconciliation Ministry to initiate discussions with other rebels. His successor as Homs governor, Talal al-Barazi, continued the policy locally and negotiated the surrender of the old city of Homs in December 2015. By that time, most of the rebel-held portions of the city had been destroyed.

In February 2016, a day after the US and Russia declared another cease-fire that the combatants ignored, the Russians inserted themselves into the reconciliation scheme. Major General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman of the Russian Defense Ministry, declared on February 23, “Representatives of the opposition groups in Syria, who decided to stop the hostilities and start peace talks, will be able to call the Coordination Center round-the-clock on the common phone number.” Russia invited anyone interested in resolving local conflicts to contact its Coordination Center for Reconciliation at its Hmeimim air base. By November last year, the center claimed, “the number of settlements joining the reconciliation process has reached 971.” The United Nations estimated that 700,000 people remained under siege in fifteen main areas as of January 16. A small number, at least, were speaking with the Russians. But the basic facts remain: some 400,000 people have been killed since the war began in 2011, and 11 million left homeless.

Surrounded, cut off from supplies, and losing ground, rebels near Damascus were receptive to offers that guaranteed their lives. “They need to have the sense of losing,” Ziad Haidar said. “Why reconcile with the government if you are winning?” Damascus and its environs were too remote from rebel supply lines along the five-hundred-mile border with Turkey for fighters to hold out for long periods. But nearer Turkey in the northern province of Idlib, insurgents had the upper hand and were besieging regime forces in the Shiite villages of Fu’ah and Kefriya. They had no reason to give up.

On the southwestern periphery of Damascus, the adjoining neighborhoods of Moadimiya and Daraya illustrate the regime’s tactics and the opposition’s limitations. At the outset of the conflict in March 2011, both relatively poor quarters depended for their livelihoods on farming, light industry, and small businesses. Their Sunni Arab majorities believed rebel promises of a brighter future after Assad had left. In 2012, parts of both areas became what the media called “rebel strongholds.”

Artillery, sniper fire, and barrel bombs ground the rebels down. Most of the residents fled to safer places in and out of Syria. Civilians and combatants dwindled to an estimated four thousand in each area from pre-war populations of about 100,000 in Daraya and 60,000 in Moadimiya. When the government encircled each of the neighborhoods by seizing the land bridge between them last February, its stranglehold intensified the pressure to capitulate. An activist in Moadimiya, Qusai Zakarya, told the website Syria Direct:

The Fourth [Armored] Division was responsible for negotiations in Moadimiya and the truce as well. They sent the External Committee, which contains people from Moadimiya who live outside the town, some of whom have good relationships with the Assad regime.

Syria-MAP-022317-ALT
Mike King
Damascus-Detail

By September of last year, the government was in a position to dictate terms: civilians and rebels with small arms could leave for another part of Syria, which in practice meant traveling about two hundred miles from Damascus to Idlib; or they could go without weapons to government-supervised camps for the displaced. The town of Moadimiya, but not Daraya, was given a third alternative: its people, even rebels who had given up their arms, could remain in their homes. The anti-regime Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that eight hundred rebels and 2,400 civilians went to Idlib from Daraya and 1,500 rebels and only two hundred civilians from Moadimiya. Most of Moadimiya’s people stayed to repair their houses, and some exiled residents went back. In Daraya, no one remained and no one returned.

“When we went in, people were given one hour to evacuate,” a United Nations official said of Daraya. “They took nothing with them.” Regime soldiers looted everything the residents left. A Syrian friend, who has avoided taking sides in the war, told me, “When soldiers conquer an area, they regard everything as theirs.” Soon furniture, crockery, linens, televisions, refrigerators, and electrical cables turned up in the ta’afish—market for stolen goods—of Damascus.

With the pillage came destruction. The government forces were “razing Daraya to the ground,” a UN official told me. This was obvious when I drove along the highway beside Daraya and saw, beyond earth barricades, a devastated territory of demolished houses, mountains of rubble, and untilled fields.

“Moadimiya did not attack outside,” said a Syrian aid worker. “Daraya was attacking.” More importantly, Daraya was close enough to the government’s Mezze military airport for rebels to hit it with mortars. Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters, “The Islamist groups which control Daraya have been launching rockets into the military airport zone.” The government is trying to ensure that Daraya never threatens the airfield again, although a missile attack on it on January 13—blamed on Israel by the Assad government—indicates that it remains vulnerable.

I found some of Daraya’s rebels and residents in a new camp ten miles south of Damascus near Harjallah. Harjallah is a Sunni Arab village beside the sprawling base of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, whose presence deters the defeated fighters from taking up arms again. The government’s detention of several hundred Daraya and Moadimiya residents, whom it releases in stages, provides another source of control. According to government figures, the people of Harjallah, like their compatriots in the rest of Syria, welcomed refugees from Daraya and took in about 17,000 of them. The government installed others in new single-story concrete houses that give the impression of permanence. The camp stretches along three main avenues, in contrast to the jumbled streets of the semirural village they left behind.

When I arrived, boys were kicking a soccer ball up and down a paved road in the middle of the camp. A young man, one trouser leg pinned up where his lower leg had been, leaned on crutches and watched. The camp director, a sixty-six-year-old retired charity worker from Harjallah named Mohammed Dib Karawan, introduced himself and invited me into his spartan office. He said that a week earlier the camp housed 900 people. When I asked how many remained, he consulted a sheaf of typed white pages that listed 285 men, 303 women, and 64 infants. Where did the others go? He produced another list that gave names of the families and their destinations: Harjallah village, Tartous, Suweida, and other places in Syria where they had relatives or friends. “If you want to leave, you can leave,” he said. “If you want to stay, you can stay.” The advantages of staying are free food, water, electricity, medical care, and education with help from the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and several UN agencies. So far the government has not released comprehensive figures for those participating in the reconciliation program.

The camp, which the regime must regard as a “Potemkin village” to attract other rebels to accept amnesties, was achieving a kind of normality in an abnormal environment. The children attend school in Harjallah, and they receive remedial lessons in mathematics, Arabic, and English to make up for four years of lost education. “Fifteen women are giving birth,” Dib said. “There will be a wedding for five couples in two days.”

I left Dib’s office to walk through the camp. Four women sitting on the doorstep of a house invited me inside for coffee, as they would have done with a stranger in any Syrian village. My hostess was Ghousoum al-Ghazi, the thirty-three-year-old wife of a farmer whose two children followed us in. Her friend, fifty-four-year-old Ruweida Abdel Majid Naccache, came as well and asked me to sit on a cushion. The house had one bedroom, a bathroom, and a modest front room with a kitchen built into the far wall. Paper-thin mats marked “UNHCR” for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees covered the freshly washed floor. Mrs. al-Ghazi told me she had moved into the house on August 26, weeks before the final surrender, when civilians were fleeing Daraya. “We were very hungry,” she said. “There was fighting every day. The children were afraid at first. Then they got used to it.”

Mrs. Naccache recalled life in Daraya: “When there was an airplane, we fled to a shelter. It was just a hole in the ground. We stayed like that for five years. I was there when they besieged the town. I lost a lot of weight. There was no food. Here we are living in heaven.”

Two men removed their shoes, entered the house, and sat down. One of them, who preferred not to give his name, said, “I thought all Syria was like Daraya. We thought it [the war] was everywhere. When we were in Daraya, there was no electricity, no television. The destruction was everywhere.” His companion, a forty-six-year-old electrician who called himself Abu Anis, said: “When we were in Daraya, we didn’t care who was going to win. We thought it would end in fifteen days. That was before the siege. On the road between Daraya and Moadimiya, we could pay the soldiers to let us leave.” Was he a fighter? “I never carried a weapon, but I worked with the rebels. If they needed anything, I helped.”

The other man said that he had fought against the government. Unlike other regions of the country, such as parts of Idlib, most of the rebels were Syrian. He had considered going to Idlib with his comrades: “We were given a choice. Even when I came here, it was not an easy choice. Everyone said the regime would take me to prison.”

Why did he take the risk? “Because I know that here is better than there. Going there means continuing the fight.” The government was encouraging men like him to call their former comrades in Idlib and tell them they would not be arrested if they accepted an amnesty. I asked people in the room, “Will you go back to Daraya?” They all said, “Yes,” but the disarmed fighter added, “Inshallah”—God willing.

The government has made their return extremely unlikely. “They looted my house,” Mrs. Naccache said. “Then they burned it.” “They” are the government. Is there anywhere to return to? She said, “No.”

The war is far from over. Armed militants from many rival Sunni groups, including Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Fustat, and Jaysh al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta on the fringe of Damascus, have yet to give up, but their front line is static and mostly quiet. “Furthermore,” the Berghof Foundation’s report noted,

the extremely lucrative checkpoints between Ghouta and Damascus—and the inflated prices of smuggled goods within Ghouta—provided numerous military and political actors on both sides with strong financial incentives to keep the siege firmly in place.

The Damascus suburbs of Jobar, Barzeh, Harasta al-Qantra, Hawsh Nasri, Arbin, and Hawsh Haraba remain redoubts for numerous, mainly indigenous rebel factions, who fire occasional defiant barrages while enduring government artillery and air strikes. Syrian rebels and foreign jihadis retain control of Idlib province. The most extreme jihadist groups move freely in large parts of eastern Syria. The self-declared Islamic State has yet to relinquish its caliphate’s capital in the town of Raqqa. In December, it reconquered the Roman ruins at Palmyra and the adjoining town of Tadmor that it lost to government and Russian forces last March, and in January it cut off an important government supply route in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. Jabha Fateh al-Sham, the al-Qaeda branch that previously called itself Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked government troops near Hama in January. Both remain resourceful, resilient, and immune to civilian pleas for an end to the ordeal. So far as I could find, they are not part of the discussion about ending the war. Russia did not invite them to its peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, in January—already the scene of bitter quarreling—and they would not have attended if it had. They will not go quietly.

—January 25, 2017