Rewriting Syria’s War

An influential, unpublished report looks to radically revise notions of how to achieve peace in this war-torn country.


As Syria’s moderate armed opposition loses ground and the United Nations embarks on a new peace strategy, a noted Syria researcher has written the most radical reassessment of the war’s dynamics in the history of the conflict.

As Syria’s moderate armed opposition loses ground and the United Nations embarks on a new peace strategy, a noted Syria researcher has written the most radical reassessment of the war’s dynamics in the history of the conflict.

The author, former journalist Nir Rosen, is a researcher with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), a Geneva-based conflict mediation organization. Rosen’s report is 55 pages long, single-spaced, including both his own analysis and extensive quotes from Syrian officials about their views of the conflict. In it, he argues that the armed opposition has become hopelessly radicalized, while the Assad regime is nonsectarian in nature. The only way out of the conflict, he says, is through U.N.-brokered “local cease-fires” between the armed opposition and the regime, which would pave the way for an end to the bloodshed and the emergence of local institutions, though at the cost of abandoning efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad from power in the near future.

The report came out of meetings Rosen held with U.S. officials and analysts in Washington, and was an attempt to answer questions posed to him during those discussions. When finished, he sent it to officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, including senior director Robert Malley, where it was distributed among Syria policy groups. The HD Centre, meanwhile, produced an 11-page version of Rosen’s report that contained the same policy proposals, but omitted the quotations from regime officials and many of the sweeping statements about the nature of the armed opposition and the Assad regime.

With the United States still struggling to define the way forward in Syria, the call for local cease-fires could find support in the White House. Last month, the Obama administration reportedly launched a review of its Syria policy, so that its efforts to combat the Islamic State would fit into its larger strategy in the country. But while Secretary of State John Kerry has referred to the relationship between the Islamic State and the Syrian regime as “symbiotic,” Obama has repeatedly refused to lay out actions that could force Assad from power. Asked on Nov. 16 if the United States was actively discussing ways to remove Assad as part of a political transition, Obama answered simply: “No.”

“Despite the evident difficulties, the White House is likely to latch onto [the idea of local cease-fires] in the absence of any other plan they’ve been able to develop,” said Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria until February and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

The version of the paper provided to Foreign Policy specifies that it solely represents Rosen’s views and is not the official position of the HD Centre. Nevertheless, it uses phrases such as “we are asking” — referring to Rosen and his organization — and offers the HD Centre’s services as a facilitator for contacts on all sides, noting that the organization can reach everyone from senior Assad regime officials, to defected Syrian officers, to leaders of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. It adds that the HD Centre has already played a role in facilitating the cease-fire in Homs, and has “helped convince the regime of the importance of these deals.” Both Rosen and the HD Centre declined to comment for this article.

Rosen’s paper is much more than out-of-the-box policy advice — it represents an effort to radically revise Western assumptions about the nature of the Syrian conflict, and the actors on both sides of the war.

Rethinking the Assad regime

Rosen, who has likely spent more time than any other researcher interviewing regime officials and supporters, attempts to partially rehabilitate the image of the Syrian regime. “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,” he writes. “It has strong systems of education, health care and social welfare and compared to most Arab governments it was socially progressive and secular…. It had a solid infrastructure and a relatively effective civil service.”

Such a description is dramatically at odds with most U.S. officials’ and independent analysts’ assessments of the regime. In the years before the uprising, the Assad regime stands accused of organizing a campaign of terror in Lebanon against its critics, building a secret nuclear power plant with North Korean assistance, and facilitating the flow of jihadis into Iraq to combat the U.S. occupation — to say nothing of its repression of dissent at home.

Rosen also argues against the assumption that Assad presides over an Alawite-dominated regime. “Most of the regime is Sunni, most of its supporters are Sunnis, many [if] not most of its soldiers are Sunni,” he writes. “The regime may be brutal, authoritarian, corrupt and whatever else it is described as, but it should not be seen as representing a sect.”

The sectarianism that does exist in Syria, Rosen argues, is preponderantly on the side of the anti-Assad opposition. The regime’s brutality toward the Sunni opposition, he writes, “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism.”

For this reason, Rosen argues, the conventional wisdom that the Assad regime is dedicated to oppressing Syria’s Sunni majority is fatally flawed. “It is more accurate to view it as a staunchly secular regime ruling a sectarian population with an Alawite praetorian guard.”

On the other side of Syria’s political divide, Rosen argues that the entirety of the armed anti-Assad opposition is dedicated to Sunni domination of Syria rather than any sort of secular, democratic future for the country. “There are no actual moderate insurgents either ideologically or in terms of their actions,” he writes at one point. Nor did most insurgents pick up weapons at the beginning of the uprising to defend themselves; instead, they did so “out of religious zeal or political extremism.”

U.S.-backed rebel leaders are dismissed as “warlords” and mercenaries. The so-called “moderate rebels,” he writes, “still all favor an Islamic government, they are anti-liberal, their views on women, secularism, democracy, non-Sunnis, anything for that matter are deeply conservative and often Sal[a]fi and they engage in grave human rights violations [or] war crimes.”

Rosen’s report does come at a time when the U.S.-backed armed opposition is in a weaker position than it has been in years. The Nusra Front routed Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigades in northern Idlib province last month, seizing some of the last swaths of territory held by U.S. allies in the country. Meanwhile, the Assad regime continues its advance on rebel-held areas in Aleppo, where both jihadi and moderate armed groups are fighting.

The local cease-fires negotiated in various locations throughout Syria, Rosen suggests, could present a blueprint for stemming this growing radicalization and salvaging some hope for political change. Through the mediation of the United Nations and the HD Centre, he calls for a spread of these cease-fires to pave the way for a de-escalation of violence, the defeat of jihadi groups like the Islamic State, and a decentralization of authority that will produce political change in Syria. The issue of Assad’s departure would only be addressed at a later date, at least five years in the future.

Rosen does not ask much from the United States to bring about this plan: He acknowledges that a reconciliation with the Assad regime at this point would be politically impossible, and asks only that Washington issue positive statements about the potential of local cease-fires to convince intransigent commanders to get on board with the plan. Other countries, like Germany or Norway, could take the lead on supporting the cease-fires.

“Such a deal does not offer the promise some want that Bashar will meet his end at the Hague like [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic or at the gallows like Saddam [Hussein],” Rosen concludes. “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.”

Mr. Freeze

Rosen is not the only one hoping that local agreements can halt Syria’s seemingly endless slide into chaos and radicalization. U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura recently broached the idea of “freeze zones” to halt the fighting, which he hopes can improve the humanitarian situation, lead to a common front against the Islamic State, and, if successful, pave the way for a broader national dialogue on a political solution.

Like Rosen, de Mistura’s team has called for initially focusing on Aleppo, the northern economic hub that is at risk of a humanitarian disaster. De Mistura traveled to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep last week to discuss his plans with opposition groups, including a representative of the rebel forces in Aleppo.

There is no outward sign that de Mistura shares Rosen’s beliefs about the nature of the Syrian regime or the armed opposition. When asked about the similarities and differences between the two plans, Juliette Touma, the spokeswoman for de Mistura’s office, said the U.N. envoy spent roughly 50 days on the road gathering ideas from the diverse array of actors involved in the Syrian crisis, but the idea for a “freeze” was a uniquely U.N. initiative. “[It] is different than whatever was implemented before on the ground with the local cease-fires,” she said.

De Mistura has purposefully employed different language in an effort to distinguish his plan from the efforts already underway in Syria. He speaks of a “freeze” rather than a “cease-fire,” and of encouraging a “national political process” rather than “reconciliation,” which is the term used by the Syrian regime.

“A cease-fire can be broken by one bullet, or a slight escalation,” said Touma. “For us, a freeze entails that everyone stops where they are right now, and that there is no advancement … the most important thing is that the violence gets to a freeze.”

But can either Rosen’s or de Mistura’s plan actually bring peace to Syria? For all their ambitions, neither examines in much detail the history of local cease-fires in war-torn parts of the country. Rosen cites the example of Latakia, Tartous, and Hama — cities that have not experienced the worst of the fighting in Syria, and have remained largely under regime control. Meanwhile, he only devotes a paragraph each to important cease-fire agreements in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh and the city of Homs. The Homs agreement, Rosen wrote, “was another example of both sides negotiating in good faith and achieving success.”

Some observers are skeptical that it is any such thing. A former U.N. official who worked on the Syria crisis said that the Homs agreement, like other local cease-fires, was only reached after Syrian forces had besieged rebel-held areas for months on end, cutting them off from food and medical supplies, and subjecting them to indiscriminate shelling. Only when local fighters were faced with the prospect of essentially watching their families starve to death in front of them did they relent.

At other times, the divisions within the regime forces undermined negotiations as much as the rebel fragmentation. The official recounted an incident when roughly 100 fighters from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor reached an agreement with one security service to lay down their arms in exchange for being allowed to go back to their lives — only to be arrested by another security service the following week. “It’s a Kafkaesque crisis,” the official said. “Absurdity and unreality have no limits.”

Cease-fires and local surrenders

In fact, there is a growing body of research assessing the dozens of local cease-fires that have emerged across Syria. Rim Turkmani, the president of the Syrian NGO Madani, which calls for a democratic transition in Syria, has co-authored a paper on the successes and failures of local cease-fires in cooperation with the London School of Economics; Integrity Research and Consultancy published a report assessing 26 truces across the country; and the Syrian NGO Etana produced an in-depth report on the efforts to reach a cease-fire in Homs. This research, as well as other sources, suggests that there are more reasons to be pessimistic about local cease-fires than optimistic.

The reports find that some local cease-fires have done little to nothing to alleviate human suffering. A cease-fire reached in Damascus’s Yarmouk Camp, for example, has not stopped Syrian security forces from drastically curtailing the amount of aid let into the area, keeping the population of 18,000 people on the verge of starvation. This example is just one reason that Integrity Research concluded that the local cease-fires “do not represent the localised beginnings of a peacebuilding process,” and were instead part of a regime strategy to “force opposition surrender through the exploitation of dire humanitarian needs.”

The cease-fire reached in the old city of Homs has largely resulted in a regime victory rather than facilitating the emergence of local institutions or advancing a national political process. Pro-regime militias hostile to the deal several times attempted to sabotage the negotiations, both kidnapping a negotiator and shelling a U.N. convoy delivering relief to besieged areas. According to Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry, some young Syrian men who were evacuated from the area were immediately drafted into the army — the United Nations lost track of them after several weeks. “The honest truth is we don’t know what happened to them afterwards,” Houry said.

The Homs cease-fire also moved the conflict elsewhere. Many of the civilians and fighters evacuated from the area headed to the nearby area of al-Waer — and the regime is now tightening its siege of the district, preventing food from entering. The cease-fire caused regime officials to be more intransigent in negotiations with opposition leaders in al-Waer: “[T]he same government representatives who were previously in favour of a fairly negotiated deal were now adopting much more hardline positions, as a result of their perceived victory in the old city,” according to the paper coauthored by Turkmani.

If one were to look for a glimmer of hope that a local cease-fire could pave the way for a better future, the best example would probably be the Damascus suburb of Barzeh. Under the terms of the deal, the Free Syrian Army-affiliated brigade in the area retained its weapons and maintained its positions — effectively ending violence and institutionalizing opposition control over the area. The opposition was able to negotiate better terms in Barzeh, argues Turkmani’s paper, in part because the rebel groups controlled a key road connecting regime-held areas, pressuring a pro-regime suburb adjacent to Barzeh.

For cease-fire advocates, however, this one success raises as many questions as answers. Both Rosen and de Mistura, after all, promise that future halts in violence will lead to improved conditions for the opposition — either through decentralization or a national reconciliation — than what has been reached in the past. But the anti-Assad opposition in Barzeh was only able to achieve better terms because it was negotiating from a position of relative strength. If the United States pressures rebel commanders to agree to local deals, and European countries make it clear that they no longer are calling for Assad’s exit, the Syrian regime will have fewer and fewer reasons to make concessions with opposition forces.

Despite the evident challenges, the Obama administration hasn’t written off calls for “freeze zones” or local cease-fires — there are, after all, vanishingly few other options to stem the violence in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the White House was “looking at ways short of a full political transition to diminish the conflict,” including de Mistura’s freeze plan, even though it believed the U.N. initiative had a slim chance of success.

The former U.N. official also sounded a pessimistic note about this being an exit to the crisis: “To be honest with you,” the official said, “I personally don’t know if I agree to call them local cease-fires, or just local surrenders.”

AFP/Getty Images

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