Assad’s Divide and Conquer Strategy Is Working

After months of merciless bombardment, the Syrian regime is now exploiting rebel rivalries to win back Eastern Ghouta.

Syrian civilians and rebel fighters stand in a bus  on March 26, 2018, after their evacuation from Eastern Ghouta.
Syrian civilians and rebel fighters stand in a bus on March 26, 2018, after their evacuation from Eastern Ghouta. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government claws back control over the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, the images are sadly familiar: Pillars of smoke rise over broken concrete and desperate civilians run for safety. Yet violence isn’t the whole story behind Assad’s victory. No less important are the internal rivalries, secret talks, and links across the front line that have for years shaped Syria’s conflict in ways that outsiders hardly notice and even Syrians struggle to follow.

To be sure, Eastern Ghouta’s final battle has been brutal. More than 95,000 civilians have been displaced so far, with more expected in the coming days, according to Rachel Sider, an advisor with the Norwegian Refugee Council based in Amman, Jordan. Human rights groups accuse Assad’s air force of targeting civilians and hospitals, and opposition authorities have counted 2,000 dead in just over a month of fighting. Though at a far less lethal scale, rebels have also shelled civilian areas of Damascus, recently killing at least 35 Syrians at a market.

The government’s victory is in large part the result of brute force and a choking five-year siege, but more sophisticated tactics have also played an important role. Loyalist commanders have cleverly exploited the social and economic ties linking Damascus and Eastern Ghouta, while working to divide the opposition — which is not a difficult job.

Eastern Ghouta’s politics are complex, but the main armed groups there have been at one another’s throats with pathological persistence, often fighting over smuggling profits. Before the current offensive, the enclave had suffered a three-way split. To the north, Jaysh al-Islam ruled Douma, the largest city in the area. Its rival, Faylaq al-Rahman, dominated the Damascus suburbs farther south alongside a smattering of jihadis, while a smaller town, Harasta, was run by the Islamists of Ahrar al-Sham.

Assad has made good use of these divisions. When his government launched its attack in February, it went straight for the soft tissue between rebel lines, slicing Eastern Ghouta into three small pieces. Halfway into the offensive, loyalist media began to broadcast video clips of protests in Ghouta neighborhoods such as Mesraba, Kafr Batna, and Hammouriyeh, where civilians waved Assad posters and Syrian flags. Locals have long been frustrated with Eastern Ghouta’s rebel factions, which stand accused of profiteering and authoritarian rule, but this was unprecedented.

Though seemingly staged for the cameras, the protests were significant for showing that loyalists now felt safe enough to come out of hiding and that the government still had strings to pull inside the enclave — a tentacular network of spies, sympathizers, and exploitable relationships that have mostly escaped the attention of Western analysts. In a typical example, pro-Assad tribal leaders were wheeled out once the offensive got going to plead with civilians and fighters from their home region, Marj, to abandon the rebels.

Then there was Mesraba. A strategically located hub between the three rebel regions, this small village had also long enjoyed a special status in Eastern Ghouta’s war economy. In 2014, the Syrian military handed the Mesraba businessman Mohiyeddine Manfoush an informal monopoly on trade with the besieged enclave. Working with both rebel and regime commanders, he quickly emerged as a pivotal figure in the area’s political economy, moving regularly across the frontlines to manage his dairy factory in Mesraba while also cultivating patronage networks, given his role as the sole source of food imports to the hunger-ridden enclave. When the offensive began, Manfoush brokered a deal to let his hometown (and factory) escape the fighting, which allowed the army to seize Mesraba and cut Ghouta into first two, then three pieces.

Next to go was the frontline suburb of Harasta. Fighters there belonged to Ahrar al-Sham, a Turkish-backed militia that holds ground in northwestern Syria. Judging by the rhetoric of its deeply religious leadership, Ahrar al-Sham would be hard to sway — but a good number of its Ghouta fighters only flew the group’s flag for convenience. Most were local Harasta boys linked to a network of smugglers who had previously marketed themselves as Free Syrian Army fighters, pious Sufis, hardline jihadis, or whatever else was opportune. They now wanted to make a deal.

On March 22, those in Harasta who wouldn’t or couldn’t join the loyalist side began boarding buses for evacuation to northern Syria. Immediately after they left, pro-Assad gunmen swooped in to loot the now-undefended area, ignoring the pleas of government-appointed negotiators who had promised rebels that no such thing would come to pass.

Then came the Damascus suburbs farther south, which were being targeted with unprecedented ferocity by the Syrian and Russian air forces. “Russia is killing everyone, women and children in the basements before the men,” said Mohammed Lahham, a Faylaq al-Rahman leader, in a message to me earlier this month. The rebel meltdown in the southern suburbs wasn’t just due to bombing, but also the result of a pro-Assad insurrection orchestrated by Bassam Difdaa, a Sufi preacher working in the Kafr Batna neighborhood.

“Difdaa is a sheikh from the al-Fath Institute,” explains Thomas Pierret, a leading expert on Syria’s Islamic movements. Al-Fath has long been a pillar of the state-backed Sunni religious establishment, though many junior scholars hailing from Eastern Ghouta joined the rebels after 2011. Difdaa seems to have followed the same trajectory. In 2007, he ran unsuccessfully for a parliamentary seat, and this record of working within the system helps “make sense of his ‘return to the motherland’s bosom’ today,” Pierret says.

Reports from 2011 claimed Difdaa had joined the opposition, and some say he worked with Faylaq al-Rahman’s Kafr Batna wing, but his conversion to the rebel cause seems to have been superficial. “He leaned toward the regime from the start of the revolution,” an opposition source inside Eastern Ghouta told me earlier this month.

By the time the final offensive began, Difdaa began calling for rebel capitulation and set up peace talks through the offices of Assad’s electricity minister, Mohammad Zuhair Kharboutli, whose family hails from Kafr Batna. Outraged, Faylaq al-Rahman leader Abdel-Nasser Shmeir vowed to respond to any attempt at negotiations outside his purview with “an iron fist.” Difdaa reacted by organizing his students and supporters in Kafr Batna into an armed guard, with firearms being easily available to anyone with money in Eastern Ghouta — and apparently, Difdaa now had money.

“You could say that there were sleeper cells that tried to take over several areas of Kafr Batna,” an anonymous source in Eastern Ghouta explained to me. “Two hours after they began to deploy, regime forces assaulted from two directions at once.” At the head of a force reportedly numbering hundreds of local youth and side-switching rebels, Difdaa linked up with the army as it pressed into the Damascus suburbs.

Within a week, Faylaq al-Rahman and its allies had been defeated, and on March 25, rebels began to board buses for northern Syria along with their families. All in all, some 13,000 people had reportedly left for Idlib by Tuesday.

The government takeover of Harasta and the suburbs leaves only Douma, the last but also the largest and best-defended rebel city in Eastern Ghouta. Four Douma-based sources, including Jaysh al-Islam leaders, tell me Russian-brokered peace talks have begun there, too, but all stressed that the group has rejected the idea of evacuating to northern Syria.

“We know it will be a difficult and unequal battle, but this is our land and our homes and we won’t leave them to the Russian and Iranian occupiers,” said Jaysh al-Islam’s Mohammed Bayraqdar on Tuesday, while adding that the group had always “kept the door to negotiations open in order to spare civilian blood.” The Salafi scholar Osama Hawwa also says Jaysh al-Islam continues to seek a deal, which, he insists, should offer an “acceptable form” for individual members to stay in the city.

So far, however, talks remain stalled, and government sources warned of a renewed offensive on Douma this week. Although the city’s surrender may take longer than that of Harasta and the suburbs, it seems certain that Douma, too, will eventually revert to Assad’s control.

And yet, even as this last patch of rebel territory teeters on the brink of defeat, the rebel infighting continues, with both Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman accusing each other of betraying Eastern Ghouta.

The opposition’s endless rivalries have turned out to be Assad’s trump card, allowing him to shut down rebel regions one by one while using his regime’s considerable social and economic leverage to split and undermine his enemies in ways only intermittently visible to the outside world.

From afar, Syria’s war may seem an irrational whirlpool of violence. But behind all the chaotic death and destruction, local leaders tend to operate according to their own subtle logic of informal grassroots relations, creating an unseen layer of politics understood only by the people most intimately involved in it — namely Syrians themselves, the masters and prisoners of their own unfolding tragedy.

Aron Lund is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and a fellow with The Century Foundation. He tweets about Syria at @aronlund. This work was supported by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Twitter: @aronlund