5 January 2017

After the Syrian Regime Recaptures a Neighborhood, the Reconciliation Begins


In early November 2016, Syrian regime officials were clear. “Once Aleppo is retaken, there is going to be a turn in the war,” a source said on the sidelines of a conference organized by the British Syrian Society at Damascus University.

“President Bashar Al Assad is ready to start a peace process throughout the country,” the source continued.

The turning point for Al Assad came in September 2015, when Moscow decisively boosted its support of the Syrian regime. Without Russians troops, Al Assad would have lost the country.

Now it’s the opposite. Now he’s winning the war.

But to actually bring Syrian territory back under full state control, Al Assad must embark on some kind of political reunification process. It’s already beginning.

On Dec. 23, 2016, the Syrian Arab Army retook Aleppo. A week later, Moscow and Damascus brokered a new, albeit fragile, ceasefire with rebel forces. Russian president Vladimir Putin was even able to convince Turkey and Iran to back the ceasefire.

Russia claimed the ceasefire was part of the reconciliation process.

While Syrian and Russian forces advanced and recaptured swathes of the country, the Ministry of National Reconciliation — established in 2012 — worked behind the scenes to hash out compromises and end the fighting in some neighborhoods.

“There can’t be peace without a political solution,” Elia Samman, a political advisor to Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haider — who is also the leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party — told War Is Boring.

The SSNP, which has also branches in both Lebanon and Palestine, was established in 1932. Historically right-wing — although in 1967 the party made an ideological shift toward the left — the SSNP is secular and advocates for a unified Syria. The group fought in Lebanon during that country’s civil war.

In fact, the first female suicide bomber in the region was affiliated with the SSNP. Sixteen-year-old Sana’a Mehaidli blew herself up among Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon in 1985, killing two people.

Rebels in Areha in northern Syria. David Axe photo

According to Samman, in 2011 the party took to the streets in Syria with the anti-Al Assad protestors — although some critics claim that’s a lie. When violence broke out, the SSNP decided to back the regime and the much-hated Ba’ath party. No fewer than 6,000 SSNP fighters have fought on the side of the Syrian regime.

Nonetheless, most of the SSNP’s detractors believe the group is a regime puppet. “They do nothing without the regime’s permission,” one informed source said on condition of anonymity. People are still getting arrested, some disappeared. The reconciliation ministry has forced young men to enlist in regime forces.

Yes, the minister is an opposition leader. But the ministry’s bureaucrats are all from the regime’s dominant Ba’ath Party. “This reconciliation process is a farce,” the source said.

The ministry’s description of the reconciliation process is, well, different — needless to say. “Since I started working in the ministry, I’ve had at least four attempts on my life by terrorists who didn’t want us to succeed,” Haider said at the Damascus conference.

The reconciliation ministry claims to have worked with two million people inside of Syria — and likes to tout examples of its self-described “success.”

One is the town of Qudsaya, which the Syrian army recaptured in mid-October 2016 following a five-year siege. The neighborhood is a 20-minute drive from the center of Damascus. Several checkpoints control the uphill road that leads into the neighborhood.

Although granted permission by the Defense Ministry to visit, War Is Boring was refused entry at the last checkpoint. Soldiers claimed there were security problems. In fact, it’s likely the refusal was the result of some internal power struggle.

As part of the reconciliation process, some moderate and secular rebels man checkpoints alongside the Syrian police. According to the ministry, this arrangement gets sorted out on a local basis. As military pressure intensifies on a neighborhood, special envoys from the ministry work to forge a local peace agreement.

As leverage, the ministry offers to restore electricity and water services. In Modamayeh in the Damascus suburbs, the reconciliation deal included the promise that “the city will become like paradise after the settlement and will be serviced with everything,” according to the regime.

“In normal circumstances the process for the fighters is divided into three parts,” Samman explained. The first step is for combatants to stop fighting. Then the regime offers offer amnesty to secular rebels who aren’t under suspicion of committing war crimes. Islamist fighters supposedly get safe passage to Idlib.

In recent years, the regime has extended 50,000 pardons, according to Samman. On a few occasions rebels have begun working alongside Al Assad’s police and army. They also get a government stipend of $50 a month.

Displaced civilians from reconciled communities must go through a background check, after which the regime allows them to return to their homes.

The real problem is for men between the ages of 18 and 25. Since 2011, the Syrian government has extended the standard, two-year military conscription to five years. A stop-loss policy is also in place — preventing, on an emergency basis, conscripts from leaving military service.

The only way to avoid military service is to enroll in a school or university. Education in Syria is free, technically — but space in any given institution is limited. As a result, young men with money rush to register at one of Syria’s private schools. Thousands more young men simply leave the country to avoid conscription.

The regime gives young men six months to sort out their education status — after which they’re subject to arrest if they don’t enlist.

One of the most controversial aspects of the reconciliation process is the safe passage to Idlib that the Syrian government claims to offer to Islamist rebels. Safe passage was the brainchild of U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan De Mistura, who originally fought to get Al Nusra fighters in Aleppo a way out of the city. “I am ready to physically accompany you,” De Mistura said on Oct. 6, 2016.

The regime decided to extend the same invitation to all rebels in Aleppo — and indeed, even organized several convoys of green school buses. Idlib became a sort of haven for Islamic fighters. Many others fled Aleppo for nearby Turkey.

“They can either going to Idlib and be killed later or fight and be killed now,” Fares Shehabi, Aleppo representative in Syria’s parliament, told War Is Boring during the regime’s siege of the city in the fall of 2016.

In Aleppo a Syrian general, a Russian general and a local sheikh jointly oversee the reconciliation process. Before the end of the fighting, the regime compelled all the civilians in East Aleppo to go to Jebrin, just outside the city. The government transformed empty hangars into security centers where Syrian intelligence agencies and the army ran background checks on everybody.

Some people were arrested. Several men got drafted into the military.

In parallel with the regime’s main efforts, Russia has been running its own, allegedly more aggressive, reconciliation process. While the Syrian government claims to have closed 76 reconciliation deals in four years, the Russian government says its own tally is much greater.

“The total number of inhabited areas, the leaders of which had signed reconciliation agreements, remained 1077,” the latest Russian informational bulletin claimed. “The number of ceasefire application forms signed with leaders of armed groups remained 94.”

Experts in Damascus said they are skeptical of the number, although none dared challenge the statistics in public.

But even Samman admitted that reconciliation is, at best, a band-aid. A permanent peace requires changes to the Syrian constitution, he said. “Otherwise in two years’ time, we will have a new conflict.”

Still, Samman said he’s confident Al Assad’s regime will negotiate any fundamental legal changes from a position of strength. “On the political level, nobody has a chance of beating Assad and the Baath Party,” Samman said. “After winning the war, he will be a national hero.”

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