Syrian Bomb Plot Marked Deadly Turn in Civil War

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A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs, where the early confrontations between protesters and regime authorities progressed into civil war. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Al Qardaha, December 19, 2014 by Sam Dagher

On the fourth day of a rebel assault on President Bashar al-Assad ’s seat of power in Damascus, an explosion tore through offices of the National Security Bureau, killing the president’s brother-in-law and three other senior officials. 

Rebel groups claimed credit for the audacious plot, and Syrian opposition groups declared it was the beginning of the end for the regime. In Washington, the Obama administration ordered a task force from the Pentagon, State and Treasury to draw up plans for a post-Assad Syria, said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time.

The July 2012 bombing indeed marked a turning point in Syria’s conflict. But rather than the downfall of Mr. Assad, it ushered in a new, more deadly phase of Syria’s civil war that allowed him to cling to power. Any regime voices still open to accommodating the opposition went silent, and, within a year, pro-Assad forces deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

Now, new revelations point to a startling theory about the bombing that killed Assef Shawkat, an army general who was Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy defense minister: It was an inside job. 

Two dozen people, including past and current regime officials, opposition leaders, activists and rebels, and politicians in neighboring countries with ties to Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal the bombing grew out of a split between the Assad family and its hard-line allies on one side, and officials seeking negotiations with opposition groups on the other.

Acceptance of the theory by such a broad cross-section of Syrians highlights the ruthless reputation Mr. Assad has cemented since the conflict began more than three years ago. It also shows the dynamic of the president’s inner circle as it struggled to keep a grip on power.

Mr. Assad’s media office rejected requests for an interview with the president. Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk and Maj. Gen. Deeb Zeitoun, two of the regime’s top security officials, declined separate requests for comment.

Former Syrian army general Manaf Tlass believes the regime was connected with the bombing. Mr. Tlass defected two weeks before Mr. Shawkat was killed—after guards found six explosive devices planted outside Mr. Tlass’s office on a military base in Damascus. He accused the regime of wanting to kill him, too. 

Mr. Tlass said he and Mr. Shawkat were among those calling for talks with both peaceful and armed regime opponents, a position contrary to Mr. Assad and his intelligence and security agency chiefs, who sought to crush the insurgency.

“Bashar never opted at any time for serious and credible reforms, but instead chose to destroy the country rather than lose power,” said Mr. Tlass, who is living in Paris. “He sold Syria to the Iranians.”

The attack opened the door for Iran, Mr. Assad’s principal regional ally, and Hezbollah, its proxy militia in Lebanon, to play a greater role in defending the regime, according to members of Syria’s security forces and pro-regime militias. Within weeks, foreign Shiite militiamen flocked to Syria. The fighters joined homegrown militias trained by Iran and Hezbollah to help prop up the overstretched Syrian army.

These fighters took the lead in the regime’s recapture of rebel territory, helping push the death toll from less than 20,000 at the time to more than 190,000 as of August, according to the United Nations. Millions more Syrians have fled their homes amid the destruction.

Iran’s embassy in Damascus and a spokesman for Hezbollah in Beirut refused interviews or comment.

Mr. Ford, who now works with the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said top members of the Syrian opposition told him rebels weren’t responsible for the bombing but believed the regime was. “I’ve never seen convincing evidence that it was an inside job,” he said, “but the allegations were widespread.” 

A leading Syrian opposition activist, who had direct ties with rebel groups and was in Damascus the day of the bombing, said it would have been impossible for rebels at the time to carry out such an attack.

“If you asked me then, I would have lied to you and told you, ‘Our heroic rebels did it.’ But now I can tell you, ‘No, we were amateurs back then,’ ” said the activist, now based in Turkey. The bombing boosted opposition morale after government reports credited the rebels, he said. It also spurred more Alawites, members of Mr. Assad’s Shiite-linked minority sect who opposed the Sunni-led revolt, to rally around the regime.

Growing involvement by Shiite-dominated Iran and Hezbollah boosted support from Sunni Arab states and private donors to more militant rebel groups, including Islamic State, said Western officials and analysts. 

Today, many Syrians—and the U.S. and its allies—face a choice between the Assad regime or the militants of Islamic State, which has turned large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq into a magnet for foreign jihadists.

Long before Syria’s conflict began in the spring of 2011, Mr. Tlass and Mr. Assad—military academy classmates—were seen as a new breed of Syrian leaders: young, modern and open to reforms. 

“Bashar started making reformist steps between 1998 and 2000, even before becoming president,” Mr. Tlass said. “I was close to him. People were hopeful and thought he was capable of changing things.”

Even the U.S. thought it could do business with Mr. Assad, reappointing an ambassador in Damascus in 2009.

The killing of two Syrian protesters by regime forces on March 18, 2011, in the city of Deraa, changed everything. It shattered a short period of peaceful marches by mostly Sunni crowds calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Two days later, Mr. Tlass said, he got a call from Mr. Assad asking for advice. Mr. Tlass said he suggested Mr. Assad remove the governor of Deraa, release anyone detained in the demonstrations, arrest the local security chief and make amends for the killings with a visit to the city.

“I told him our society is tribal and will value your conciliatory gesture,” Mr. Tlass recalled. “He told me, ‘OK.’ ”

But as more protesters poured into the streets, more were killed. “It’s no secret that Syria is facing today a grand conspiracy whose threads extend from inside the homeland to far and near countries,” Mr. Assad said in a speech to parliament on March 30, 2011.

At the time, Mr. Tlass commanded a 3,500-strong unit within the Republican Guard that was charged with protecting the president and the capital. Mr. Tlass said about 300 of his men were sent to the city of Douma to help with crowd control as thousands of people took to the streets.

He said they were pushed aside by forces reporting to intelligence chief Hafez Makhlouf —a maternal cousin of Mr. Assad—who shot and killed about a dozen protesters in April 2011. Mr. Makhlouf couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mr. Tlass said some of his men were executed for refusing to shoot protesters. One of his best officers, he said, returned from Douma and pleaded to be relieved of the assignment. 

“I told him, ‘Be patient, the president promised that things will be fixed within three weeks,’ ” Mr. Tlass said. “The next day, he committed suicide.”

Syria’s security and intelligence agencies believed they could rely on repressive measures that had worked for decades, according to former regime officials and Western diplomats.

Haytham Manaa, a Syrian opposition leader who has spent much of his life in exile in France, said the regime was surprised when people overcame fears and continued the street protests, which were inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Mr. Tlass said he retained his official position but was sidelined by the regime after he raised objections to shooting demonstrators and called for talks with community leaders involved in the protests. That view, he said, put him at odds with hard-liners close to Mr. Assad. 

In May 2011, Mr. Tlass said, he had a last meeting with the president. “I told him, ‘I am your friend and I advised you not to choose the military solution,’ ” Mr. Tlass recalled. “ ‘Go for the political one, it’s more inclusive.’ He answered, ‘You are too soft.’ ”

Mr. Assad’s vice president at the time, Farouq al-Sharaa, one of the country’s most seasoned politicians, fell next. He was pushing for dialogue with opposition groups, his relatives said, and was put under house arrest shortly after he chaired a national dialogue conference in Damascus in early July.

Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese political leader, said he last met with Mr. Assad in June 2011: “He told me at the end, ‘I don’t want people to love me, I want people to fear me.’ ” 

Regime loyalists, meanwhile, took up the slogan: “Assad or nobody. Assad or we burn the country.”

In June 2011, some activists tried to keep their opposition movement peaceful amid the growing sectarian violence between the mostly Sunni rebels and regime forces, largely Alawite.

Mohammad-Mounir al-Faqir and fellow activists bought 5,000 ping pong balls that they covered with such slogans as, “Assad, we want freedom whether you like it or not,” Mr. Faqir said. They released the balls from a spot uphill from Mr. Assad’s residence and filmed guards scurrying to collect them.

By fall, rebels in Homs took control of neighborhoods by force. For the regime, the rebel advances threatened important roads connecting Damascus with Syria’s only seaports.

In December 2011, Mr. Shawkat, the brother-in-law later slain in the bombing, and two security chiefs visited Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, to meet with opposition activists, businessmen and religious and community leaders.

Mr. Shawkat and the others offered a cease-fire plan that would have committed the regime to end opposition arrests and the shelling of neighborhoods in return for a pledge by rebels to halt attacks on regime checkpoints, said people who were there.

One opposition activist said Mr. Shawkat seemed to be the regime representative most interested in the discussion. One of the businessmen there agreed.

“I told them, ‘You are turning people into your enemies, what’s your interest in that?’ ” the businessman said. “I was interrupted by an angry official but Assef [Shawkat] snapped at him and told him, ‘Calm down. Let him finish.’ ”

No deal was reached. Conciliatory gestures approved by Mr. Shawkat, such as allowing ambulances to pick up the dead and wounded, were blocked by regime hard-liners, according to activists and community leaders.

Mr. Tlass, the defected general, said Mr. Shawkat’s power diminished shortly after his return from Homs, as security and intelligence chiefs asserted greater control. “He insisted on retaining his functions and powers,” Mr. Tlass said, “and here the real clash began.” 

Mr. Tlass and several people with knowledge of the matter said Mr. Shawkat posed a threat to Mr. Assad’s rule. Mr. Shawkat, who was married to Mr. Assad’s sister, had previously headed Military Intelligence—one of Syria’s most feared institutions—and commanded a loyal group of officers.

Mr. Shawkat moved within the circles of power that surround Mr. Assad. The first circles include Mr. Assad’s wife and mother, his army commander brother, Maher, and maternal cousins, the Makhloufs, Mr. Tlass said. The next circle includes the chiefs of security and intelligence services.

“In my opinion, they got rid of him. They were scared of him,” Mr. Jumblatt, the Lebanese politician, said of Mr. Shawkat. Others, including Mr. Tlass and people who know members of the Assad family, said Mr. Shawkat was seen as a potential threat to Mr. Assad. 

Two months before the July 18, 2012, bombing, Mr. Tlass said, there was an unsuccessful plot to kill Mr. Shawkat with a poisoned takeout lunch of kebabs and hummus in Damascus.

The bombing marked a shift by Hezbollah and Iran—when saving the Assad regime became their top priority, according to Iraqi and Lebanese officials close to both sides.

On the day Mr. Shawkat was killed, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, was in Damascus, Mr. Tlass said. The Qods Force is a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for operations abroad, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Also that day, Hassan Nasrallah, commander of Iran’s main regional proxy force Hezbollah, spoke to supporters in a Beirut suburb to mark the anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah said Mr. Assad and his regime were indispensable for the survival of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed movements, including Hamas. Mr. Nasrallah said rockets fired at Israel in the war were Syrian.

A Syrian militia leader said in an interview last year that Syria’s intelligence services worked with Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force to raise fears that Sunni militants planned to attack holy Shiite shrines in Syria—an effort to attract more Shiites across the region to fight alongside Assad regime forces.

With the help of foreign fighters, the regime “succeeded in giving the impression of a strong and cohesive army,” said Ezzat al-Shabandar, an Iraqi Shiite politician with close ties to Iranian and Syrian regime officials.

The regime also began using social media to shift popular views toward the idea that opposition groups and rebels had joined savage Islamic extremists. Mr. Assad in speeches and interviews embraced the idea that he was an indispensable leader who must use violence to rescue Syria, a message that has echoed down the chain of command.

“I always tell Sunnis, ‘Your only protector is Bashar al-Assad because he’s restraining us and not letting us do more,’ ” said Col. Jamal Younes, an Alawite army officer.

Militancy on the opposition side also rose dramatically. By the spring of 2013, such extremist groups as Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front were displacing both secular and homegrown Islamist rebel groups in Syria. 

Islamic militants in March seized the predominantly Armenian-Christian resort town of Kasab, located in the mountains of Mr. Assad’s home province near the border with Turkey in western Syria. 

Regime forces drove them out three months later, leaving homes and churches ransacked.

“We are victims of both sides and this is why I want to leave,” said Armen Georgekian, an Armenian Christian and the town’s only shopkeeper. He recalled visits by Mr. Assad before the conflict and said he and his group bought ice cream cones from his shop.

“He can survive,” Mr. Georgekian said, “but he can’t win.” 

Down the coast is Mr. Assad’s hometown of al-Qardaha, which has been largely untouched by the war. A domed mausoleum stands on a hill where a dozen workers in late summer trimmed hedges and pulled weeds in its garden.

Inside, two guards in suits stood motionless next to a casket, covered in a green velvet cloth, that holds the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president’s father and the founder of the Assad regime.

Around the casket in the black-marble hall are the tombs of two of Bashar al-Assad’s brothers, Majd and Bassel, who had been groomed by his father to take over power. Bassel al-Assad ’s death in a 1994 car accident opened the way for his younger brother, Bashar.

In Qardaha’s central market, shops were fully stocked and farmers from nearby villages hawked fruits, vegetables and freshly picked tobacco leaves.

A statue of Hafez al-Assad, surrounded by four lions symbolizing his four sons, stands in the main square. 

Posters of Bashar al-Assad were plastered on shop windows. One showed him next to his father, who had a halo above his head. “Rest in peace in the heavens above, our master,” the caption said. “You should be proud of Bashar.”

U.N. Security Council renews cross-border Syria aid authorization

Kurdish refugee girls from the Syrian town of Kobani play in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province November 13, 2014. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Kurdish refugee girls from the Syrian town of Kobani play in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province November 13, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL

United Nations, December 17, 2014 by Louis Charbonneau

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday renewed for 12 months its authorization for humanitarian access without Syrian government consent into rebel-held areas of Syria at four border crossings from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The unanimously adopted resolution authorizes aid deliveries across Al Yarubiyah on the Iraq border, Al-Ramtha from Jordan and Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa from Turkey. The Turkish posts cross into territory held by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

The United Nations says some 12.2 million Syrians now need humanitarian aid, an increase of 2.9 million people in just 10 months. Nearly half of the Syrian population is displaced with more than 7.6 million internally displaced and over 3 million refugees in neighboring states.

The resolution calls for continuing a monitoring mechanism for loading aid convoys in neighboring countries, which confirms for Syria that aid consignments are in fact humanitarian relief.

It says the council is “gravely concerned” with the ineffective implementation of previous resolutions demanding increased aid access to Syrian civilians trapped in hard-to-reach areas, and at the barrel bombs, air strikes, torture and abuse of children in Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year.

"The council’s strong demands have gone unheard," U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos told the council earlier this week. 

"The parties to the conflict continue to ignore the most basic principles of humanity," she said. "In many parts of Syria the level of violence has worsened, with civilians continuing to pay heavily with loss of life, serious injuries, psychological trauma, ongoing and recurring displacement." 

The resolution adopted on Wednesday also had the council condemning impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and front lines. 

It added that U.N. humanitarian aid agencies and their partners should “scale up humanitarian deliveries into hard-to-reach and besieged areas, including by using, as effectively as possible, (the authorized) border crossings.”

The resolution has the 15-nation council “expressing its grave concern” that parts of Syriahave been taken over by Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front militants.

The council also voiced support for U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s “action plan” to implement local ceasefires in some regions of Syria, with the country’s second city Aleppo as a possible starting point.

Some 200,000 people have died in the conflict, according to U.N. estimates.

Iran’s support for Syria tested by oil price drop

Amman, December 19, 2014 by Suleiman al-Khalidi

Syrian businessmen and trade officials say they are worried the economic lifeline provided by Iran is under strain from plunging oil prices, despite public messages of support from Syria’s strongest regional ally. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has relied on oil-producing Iranto help him fight a nearly four-year-old civil war and also prop under a currency under pressure.

“If it had not been for Iranian support we could not have survived the crisis,” a senior Syrian trade official said from Damascus, requesting anonymity.

"It was Iranian support that has been the most important. In return, we are promising them more and more, and opening more and more doors for them to invest in Syria," he said.

Oil production in Syria, which is under U.S. and European sanctions, has dropped sharply since the start of the conflict and as insurgents have taken over energy installations. 

In July last year, Iran granted Syria a $3.6 billion credit facility to buy oil products, according to officials and bankers at the time. Another $1 billion went for non-oil products.

But with the global oil price down 50 percent since June, Syria - where rebels have seized up to a third of the country - has sought reassurances Tehran will maintain the status quo.

The public message has been an overwhelming “yes”.

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi visited Tehran this week to boost Iranian support for Syria, in particular ensuring Iranian petroleum products reach the Syrian market, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

“Iran’s economic support for Syria will continue incessantly,” said Iran’s Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri on Tuesday after meeting Halqi, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA.

But there were no detailed announcements of joint ventures or oil deals as followed previous such visits in the past.

CURRENCY FALLS

The Syrian pound, which fell around 70 percent since the civil war began in 2011, lost another 10 percent over the past fortnight alone.

Dealers said the fall was driven by several factors, including a realization that U.S. strikes on Islamic State were not helping Assad as much as had been expected. But a major one was that a falling oil price had made them fear Iran would be less able to help shore up its ally’s economy.

Shi’ite Iran has deep ties with Syria. Assad is an Alawite, an off-shoot of Shi’ism, and Tehran sees him as a bulwark against Sunni Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region.

In the past, Assad streamed Iranian support to Shi’ite Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, while now, the militia gets funds directly from Iran to fight Assad’s enemies at the front.

Damascus-based businessmen and bankers say the Syrian Central Bank is worried about the drop in oil prices affecting Iranian support for Syria.

Iran deposited $500-$750 million in Syria’s Central Bank more than a year ago that has been used by the authorities to help stabilize the pound, according to two senior bankers with close ties with central bank officials.

In recent weeks, the bank sold dollars shore up the pound in some of the largest market interventions since the start of the crisis, the two bankers said.

Syrian officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday or Friday.

There is a general consensus by traders, bankers and businessmen that the drop in Iranian oil earnings will have untold consequences on level of economic support in the long term despite little impact on business ties so far.

“The 50 percent steep fall in oil prices will break Iran’s back, not just the level of support for Assad,” a prominent member of the Damascus Chamber of Industry said, also requesting anonymity.

OIL DISRUPTIONS

Iranians have delivered turbines for power plants and have been promised contracts to rebuild housing, roads and other infrastructure destroyed by the war on the understanding that Tehran would finance them in return for equity shares.

All this could be jeopardized. Much, however, will depend on how long oil prices will continue to stay depressed, they say.

Two Syrian businessman who sell products including olive oil and garments to Iranian private traders are worried they may defer payments.

A member of the Syrian Chambers of Industry from the city of Aleppo said he understood the main item on Prime Minister Halqi’s shopping list in Tehran was bigger quantities of petroleum products imports.

Growing power cuts have hit government-controlled areas as more gas fields go out of action, forcing the authorities to rely even more on imports of fuel for its power plants.

Islamic State militant control of some of the border crossings with Iraq has disrupted the flow of tens of thousands of barrels of crude from Iraq that were delivered overland by oil tankers, an oil trader based in the region said.  

Four Iranian tankers have discharged cargoes of gasoline products in the last two months in Syria’s ports, traders said. But they did not end shortages accentuated by higher demand in the winter season, prompting small protests in Alawite villages near the port of Latakia, the heartland of Assad support.  

The Assad Regime Under Stress: Conscription and Protest among Alawite and Minority Populations in Syria

December 15, 2014 by Christopher Kozak
After three years of grueling warfare against armed opposition fighters, the Syrian regime faces a dire internal crisis not witnessed since the initial months of the conflict. Defections, desertions, and over 44,000 combat fatalities have reduced the Syrian Arab Army from a pre-war high of 325,000 soldiers to an estimated 150,000 battle-tested yet war-weary troops. Despite reinforcement from tens of thousands of foreign volunteers, Lebanese Hezbollah militants, and pro-government militias, regime forces have proven unable to decisively overcome rebel brigades on the battlefield. These pressures were only exacerbated by the withdrawal of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen from Syria in June 2014 redeployed to counter the ongoing ISIS offensive in Iraq. At the same time, key demographics within the President Bashar al-Assad’s support base – including the Alawite population – have exhibited growing signs of dissatisfaction with the Syrian regime. Pre-existing grievances related to repression and social inequities have merged with high casualty counts and rising economic stress to fuel a sense of exhaustion among regime supporters. Faced with both a war-weary populace and a burgeoning manpower deficit that threatens its survival, the Syrian regime has resorted to a nation-wide forced conscription campaign – threatening to further split the regime from its base. Charting the contours of this program and its interaction with growing discontent within pro-regime elements of the Syrian population will prove critical for understanding the future state of pro-regime forces and the overall trajectory of the conflict in Syria.

The Regime Conscription Campaign

The Syrian Constitution enshrines compulsory military service as a “sacred duty” for every Syrian citizen. Young men aged 18 or older must serve an eighteen-month tour as a conscript soldier and remain eligible for recall in the army reserves until the age of forty. However, reports indicate that the avoidance of this legal obligation has reached staggering levels. Activists in the southern Druze-majority province of as-Suwayda, for example, claimed that only 450 out of 8,000 eligible youth enrolled for military service in 2012 while only 250 out of 7,000 eligible conscripts enlisted in the reserves during the same period. Thousands of young Syrian men have entered into hiding in rural areas far from urban centers, fled to opposition-held areas to evade the reach of regime security services, or utilized the smuggling networks built by Syrian refugees in order leave the country for LebanonTurkey, or Egypt. To surmount this challenge, the regime has engineered a series of incentives, administrative decrees, and crackdowns which include:
1. Large-Scale Mobilization of Reserves: In the second half of October 2014, the regime announced an unprecedented series of army reserve activations in several major urban centers. On October 20 the regime issued a general mobilization of all reservists born in or after 1984 in the city of Hama, with activists reporting over 1,500 men detained for service at checkpoints or during raids over a four-day period. Activists and eyewitnesses reported that the regime conducted a similar operation in Homs city over the same time period, arresting roughly 1,200 men. Another general mobilization began in Deir ez-Zour city, a zone of active conflict between the regime and ISIS, on October 27. Generally, these mobilizations were preceded by reinvigorated regime attempts to enroll thousands of former conscripts into the reserves. Lists of ‘reserves to be mobilized’ numbering up to 70,000 names circulated to checkpoints across Syria, threatening both local residents and internally-displaced persons from eastern Syria with redeployment. Interestingly, the regime has refrained from conducting large-scale reserve mobilizations in core support zones such as Damascus or the Alawite coast, where it has limited itself to recalling reservists in designated “specific and critical” specialties such as heavy artillery or aircraft support.
2.  Checkpoints and Raids in Regime-Held Urban Centers: The regime has complemented its reserve mobilizations with concentrated crackdowns on young men attempting to avoid compulsory military service. Military police, intelligence branch officers, and National Defense Force militia have employed mobile checkpoints and raids in regime-held areas in almost every Syrian province – from regime-held neighborhoods of Aleppo city in the north to Dera’a in the south, and from Latakiaand Tartus along the Alawite coast to Hasaka in the east. These activities are not a new phenomenon: the Syrian Network for Human Rights catalogued over 5,400 arrests for military conscription during the first seven months of 2014, averaging almost 170 detainees per week. However, the regime has reportedly started to take stricter measures to target men avoiding military service. Regime forces now conduct raids on busescafes, and other venues frequented by young men instead of relying on fixed checkpoints. In some cases, security officials have conducted violent house-by-house searches in entire neighborhoods and detained any youths with improper documentation. Extortion and corruption are endemic, with National Defense Force militiamen reportedly charging young men or their parents up to 600,000 Syrian pounds ($3,300) to avoid detainment. Men conscripted into military service during these arrests often receive minimal training, in some cases being deployed to frontline fighting positions within days of their detention.
3.  Incentivizing Enrollment in Volunteer Militias: The regime has also promoted voluntary service in the National Defense Forces. Ba’ath Brigades, or other pro-government militias as an alternative to conscription or reserve duty in the Syrian Arab Army. National Defense Force offices have opened in several areas targeted by conscription campaigns, tempting young men to volunteer in exchange for a monthly salary ranging from 25,000 to 35,000 Syrian pounds, a security card which waives detainment for military service, and an opportunity to serve in one’s hometown. Although occasional reports have emerged of detainees being forced to sign two-year NDF contracts, the majority of pro-regime militiamen appear to be volunteers taking advantage of these incentive structures. Despite regime promises to the contrary, however, National Defense Forces members are often deployed to active fronts – especially in zones where the regime feels pressure to augment its forces.
                                                                                                                                                                  
4. Administrative Rules to Prevent Emigration: The regime passed several decrees in Fall 2014 which restricted the ability of military-aged males to leave the country and avoid mandatory service. Since the start of the uprising in 2011, the Syrian government has required that men between the ages of 18 and 42 provide a statement from a recruitment division indicating an official exemption from service before being authorized to travel abroad. However, on October 20 – concurrent with the start of major reserve mobilizations – the General Mobilization Administration of the Department of Defense bannedall men born between 1985 and 1991 from exiting the country for any reason. Meanwhile, another new regulation ordered all authorized travelers to pay a 50,000 Syrian pound deposit returnable upon reentry to the country in order to ensure that the traveler is not attempting to flee.
5.  Tapping Previously Protected Populations: Finally, the regime’s conscription campaign has tapped into populations which had so far been insulated from the full brunt of mandatory conscription. University students are one such population. While students had previously been able to defer military service by extending their studies, the regime has begun to erect checkpoints near universities in Damascus, Dera’a, Homs, and Latakia Provinces to detain young men for military service. Students at Latakia University, for example, have sardonically renamed the roundabout in front of the college to ‘Reserves Roundabout’ after 200 students were arrested at a nearby checkpoint between October 20 and November 20. Other youths began returning to their homes after dormitory managers began preparing detailed lists of students which were seen as an initial census for military enrollment. In a further step to target degree-holders, on November 25 the regime announced that state institutions will only hire employees who have completed military service regardless of their educational background. Another new recruitment pool is drawn from state employees. New regulations threaten government employees with five-year prison sentences, fines, and immediate dismissal if they refuse to enroll in compulsory military service. Civil servantsteachers, and even employees of state-run bakeries must present proof of enrollment in the army reserves in order to collect their salaries, with their eligibility cross-checked against lists compiled by their agencies. 

Discontent within Regime-Friendly Populations

The progressively heavy-handed measures taken by the regime are a telling indicator of the precarious nature of the regime’s war effort. Equally noteworthy, however, are the increasingly public displays of discontent within traditionally pro-regime populations, particularly the Alawite and Druze minorities. Initial stirrings of public dissent began in late August after ISIS militants overran regime forces at the Tabqa Airbase in ar-Raqqah Province and executed over 160 soldiers, sparking a largely-Alawite social media campaign decrying the lack of transparency and competency demonstrated by senior military officials. The most major infection point, however, occurred on October 2 when twin car bombings against an elementary school in the majority-Alawite neighborhood of Ekrama in Homs city brought hundreds of protestors to the streets and forced the regime to sack two high-ranking security officials. This loss of faith in regime institutions came to the fore once again on December 9, when residents the Alawite town of Masyaf in Hama Province held a mass demonstration after rumors that ISIS forces had captured the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport raised fears of a second Tabqa massacre.
In the majority-Alawite Syrian Coast provinces of Latakia and Tartus, long considered the Assad regime’s heartland, dissent regarding declining living conditions, rising fuel prices, and the disproportionate share of Syrian combat casualties suffered by local residents has been exacerbated by calls for additional conscription, sparking small-scale protests throughout the Syrian Coast against the regime and rebels alike. In several cases, displaced Syrians living in Latakia city have exchanged livegunfire with regime security forces raiding their neighborhoods to search for recruits. Despite a regime crackdown, activist groups such as the “Free Syrian Alawites” and “Harakat Ansar al-Watan” [Movement of Supporters of the Homeland] continue to circulate pamphlets urging residents to refuse military service or abandon the Assad regime. This message has apparently been well-received. Even staunchly pro-regime families have reportedly sent their military-aged children as far afield as Alawite enclaves in Lebanon in order to avoid the draft, while the regime has been forced to close passenger terminals at the Tartus port in an attempt to stem the exodus of young men from the country.
In the majority-Druze province of as-Suwayda in southern Syria the antagonizing nature of regime conscription has been even starker, with Druze elders and residents actively organizing targeted resistance to compulsory military service. After a group of elders stormed a regime barracks and freed approximately 450 young men who had been detained for military service in December 2013, the regime accepted a ‘tacit agreement’ with as-Suwayda’s Druze population to prevent further mass arrest campaigns in exchange for compliance. Over the past two months, however, several regime conscription patrolshave been beaten and expelled by residents of Druze villages who accused the Syrian armed forces of deploying Druze conscripts to the heaviest zones of fighting. In another sign of escalating tensions, Druze villagers attacked a regime security post on December 12 and kidnapped an intelligence officer in an attempt to free a local man arrested for military service. The Druze have also conducted street protests against the deteriorating economic situation in province, including the announcement of a major sit-in in front of the Ayn al-Zaman shrine in Suwayda city to be held on December 12.

Conclusion


The dueling incentives driving the conscription campaign as well as increased dissent from within pro-regime populations present the Syrian security apparatus with an insoluble paradox. Sustaining combat operations in the context of a war-weary populace is a mission doomed to failure. The regime clearly understands the threat posed by the interplay between these two dynamics and has modified its program accordingly, avoiding mass reservist mobilizations in core support zones and striking deals in areas with a demonstrated resolve to revolt against mandatory service. However, increasing displays of passive and active resistance to the regime provide an early indicator that the Assad regime cannot contain these opposing forces in the long-term. If the United States can successfully exploit the developing gap between the regime and its supporters, it may find the space needed to negotiate a settlement which could witness the exit of President al-Assad – a necessary step towards neutralizing Syria as a haven for ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Salafi-jihadist groups which pose a critical threat to the region.

Syria: where modern and medieval warfare combines

December 18, 2014 by David Miliband, Justin Forsyth and Jan Egeland

More aid is reaching more people inside Syria, but escalating violence across the country has left more people than ever in need. So warns Ban Ki-moon in his latest report on the Syria crisis. As the UN prepares to launch a humanitarian appeal for those affected by the conflict – the biggest single aid request in history – the secretary general’s report signals the urgent need for a step-change in international engagement with Syria. The lives of the country’s beleaguered civilians, and the future of hard-won norms of warfare, depend on it.

Every month the number of people requiring basic assistance inside Syria rises: the figure now stands at 12.2 million. More than half of those in need have been driven from their homes, and a quarter of a million people in the suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus remain besieged, trapped in the ruins of what used to be their houses.

Meanwhile, Syria’s steady descent into a human rights black hole continues. The obligations enshrined in international law hold no purchase in the country: six times as many schools were attacked over the 30 days to 16 November as the month before. Bombs and shells rain down on terrified civilians sheltering in wedding halls or awaiting treatment in hospitals. Water and power supplies are routinely cut. Murder, torture and sexual violence are part of daily life.

Since war broke out in Syria in spring 2011, our organisations have repeatedly called for a political solution to the conflict. We commend the efforts of the UN Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to secure a freeze to the fighting in Aleppo. Depressingly, however, the prospects of a wider peace deal remain remote; the continuing violence can only result in greater instability in the Middle East and heightened insecurity beyond. But there are concrete steps that the warring parties, those with influence in and outside the region, and the wider international community can and should take to alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering.

First, aid must get to those who need it, regardless of whether they are in government- or opposition-held areas. Resolution 2165, the second of two security council resolutions on access in Syria, explicitly authorises UN agencies to deliver aid across borders and conflict lines. While the resolution’s adoption in July constituted a diplomatic breakthrough, it has achieved limited success on the ground: only 30 UN convoys have crossed into Syria from neighbouring states since the summer.

While we welcome Wednesday’s decision by the security council to renew the resolution for 12 months, much more needs to be done. UN agencies should ramp up their cross-border and cross-line assistance to Syria, in close cooperation with humanitarian organisations like ours, which have been delivering aid from neighbouring countries for nearly three years now. The security council, and key Middle Eastern states, should appoint senior politicians and diplomats as humanitarian envoys, mandating and empowering them to support UN initiatives aimed at improving access.

Second, states supporting the government of Syria – namely Iran and Russia – and countries with influence over opposition forces should pressure those who fail to honour their obligations under international law. It must be made clear to those who target or indiscriminately attack civilians and civilian infrastructure that such crimes cannot be committed with impunity. The recent rise in attacks on schools – once places of learning, safety and fraternity – is illustrative of the depths to which Syria’s belligerents will sink if left unchecked, and a stark reminder that an entire generation of Syrian children is being lost to this conflict.

Third, donors must fund the UN’s appeal for Syria: unless every country joins the relief effort, needs will continue to outpace resources at an ever greater rate. The provision by Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq of shelter and protection to the more than 3 million people who have fled the country has made these four states by far the biggest humanitarian donors to date. Worryingly, they have begun to restrict access to their territory, allowing only some of the most vulnerable to get through. It is essential that these countries receive the support they need to keep their borders open, including through the resettlement of Syrian refugees outside the region.

The suffering in Syria reflects the realities of 21st-century warfare: extreme violence within states, urban battlegrounds, attacks on aid workers. But besiegement and cutting water supplies go back centuries. With its cruel mix of the modern and the medieval, and a contempt for civilian life that risks undermining international law into obsolescence, Syria is the defining humanitarian crisis of our time. Now is the moment to act.

Botched cyberattack on Syria group blamed on IS

London, December 18, 2014 by Raphael Satter

A botched cyberattack aimed at unmasking Syrian dissidents has experts worried that the Islamic State group is adding malicious software to its arsenal.

Internet watchdog Citizen Lab says an attempt to hack into systems operated by dissidents within the self-styled caliphate could be the work of hackers affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Citizen Lab analyst John Scott-Railton said there is circumstantial evidence of the group’s involvement, and cautioned that if the group has moved into cyberespionage, “the targets might not stop with the borders of Syria.”

The Nov. 24 attack came in the form of a booby-trapped email sent to an activist collective in Raqqa, Syria, that documents human rights abuses in the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital. The activist at the receiving end of the email wasn’t fooled and forwarded the message to Bahaa Nasr of Cyber Arabs, a project which provides online security training.

"We are wanted — even just as corpses," the activist, whose name is being withheld to protect his safety, told Nasr. "This email has a virus; we want to know the source."

The message eventually found its way to Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. There, Scott-Railton and malware researcher Seth Hardy determined that it could act as a kind of electronic homing beacon by revealing a victim’s Internet Protocol address.

Citizen Lab regularly dissects rogue programs from the region, but Scott-Railton said this sample was different from previous attacks blamed on the Syrian government.

"We think we are looking at a different actor," he said — an opinion echoed by malware scientist Thoufique Haq at California-based FireEye, who wasn’t involved in the report.

The activists are convinced the “different actor” is the Islamic State group, whose supporters have publicly vowed to hunt the collective down.

Islamic State has previously expressed interest in electronic surveillance. Last week, a post to a pro-Islamic State forum carried a proposal for a project named “Eye of the Caliphate” that would task a team of computer experts with hacking into the caliphate’s enemies, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. British news media reported this year that Islamic State had recruited a British hacker.

Attempts to reach an Islamic State representative were unsuccessful. U.K. authorities have declined comment.

Scott-Railton said various bugs in the malware’s code suggest an author “with basic skills, but perhaps without a lot of ‘professionalism’ … or quality control.”

Security consultant and former Scotland Yard detective Adrian Culley said that’s no reason to write the hackers off.

"They will evolve and they will learn," he said.

Syria conflict: 230 bodies ‘found in mass grave’ in Deir al-Zour

Map of eastern Syria

December 17, 2014 

The bodies of more than 230 people believed to have been killed by Islamic State (IS) have been found in a mass grave in eastern Syria, activists say.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they were thought to be members of a tribe that fought the jihadist group in Deir al-Zour province in the summer.

The mass grave was discovered after the tribe, the Sheitat were allowed to return home by IS leaders, it added.

Last month, the UN said it had received reports of a massacre there in August.

Investigators said it appeared to have been perpetrated by IS in a struggle for control of oil resources near the town of Mohassan.

One survivor described seeing “many heads hanging on walls while I and my family escaped”, while locals saw several freshly-dug mass graves. 

Video published online also indicated that IS fighters had conducted mass beheadings of fighting-age Sheitat tribesmen.

'Civilians killed'

The footage shows men mocking the victims before they are executed and is even reported to include the killings of injured men who are believed to have been forced out of hospital before they were decapitated. 

The killings were reported to have taken place after negotiations between the two sides broke down, with Sheitat tribal elders refusing to give their allegiance to IS.

In early November, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly issued a statement granting members of the tribe permission to return to their homes upon the condition that they did not assemble. They were also told to surrender all weapons and inform on all “apostates” to the group. 

All “traitors” would be killed, Baghdadi’s statement warned. 

On Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory reported that it had been informed by a trusted source that the 230 bodies had been found by returning members of the Sheitat in a mass grave in the desert near the village of Kashkiya, in eastern Deir al-Zour.

The UK-based group said the “vast majority” of the victims had been civilians and that many of them had been executed in cold blood.

The discovery brought the number of Sheitat tribespeople killed during the summer to more than 900, it added. Hundreds more are still missing.

Kurds push back IS in Iraq near Syria border: US general

Washington, December 18, 2014 by Dan De Luce

Kurdish forces backed up by US-led warplanes have recaptured a large area in Iraq near the Syrian border in an offensive this week against Islamic State jihadists, a US commander said Thursday.

More than 50 air strikes in recent days have allowed the Kurds to recapture some 100 square kilometers (38 square miles) of ground near Sinjar, said Lieutenant General James Terry, head of the US-led campaign against the IS group.

Kurdish peshmerga forces said earlier they had captured several villages and were rolling back the IS militants around Sinjar in the country’s northwest.

It was the seizure of Sinjar by IS jihadists in early August and the plight of the mostly Yazidi minority population there that President Barack Obama cited when he first announced US military intervention in Iraq four months ago.

US and allied aircraft have carried out 1,361 raids against the IS group since bombing began on August 8, Terry told reporters. The strikes were extended into Syria on September 23.

Coalition bombing near Sinjar marked a spike in air raids in Iraq this week, and Kurdish officers told AFP that fresh strikes were carried out on Thursday north of Tall Afar.

The advance of the IS militants, who seized vast swathes of territory in Iraq earlier this year, had been stopped and the group was having difficulty moving and communicating as a result of the air raids, Terry said.

"My assessment is that Daesh has been halted …and is attempting to hold what they currently have," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the militant group.

"I think they’re having a hard time in terms of communicating right now, in terms of resupply."

He said Iraqi security forces had cleared parts of Ramadi in the west but the east and northeast sections of the city were “still contested.”

Some areas in and around Baiji — north of Baghdad — remain the focus of fighting between Iraqi government forces and the militants.

The general said the pace of the air strikes was appropriate at the moment, despite appeals by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi for more air power and heavy weapons.

"I think we’ve got it just about right," Terry said. "The key here is building the capability inside the Iraqi security forces, give them an offensive mind set, and we’ll continue to strike."

Asked about plans to arm and train Sunni tribes in Anbar province to fight the IS group, he said “the conditions are getting better for that every day.”

"I see the current prime minister at least moving in that direction and we’ll continue to support them and encourage them to bring the rest of those that want to come to the side of the government of Iraq, support them to bring those around," he said.

In a departure for the US government, the American general used the Arabic acronym “Daesh” when referring to the jihadists who have declared a “caliphate” on seized territory in Syria and Iraq. 

Until now, US officials have used an English acronym ISIL, for the so-called “Islamic State” group. Terry said allies in the region had requested Washington use the Arabic acronym, Daesh.

"And I would just say that our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate, and … they feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that."

Iran ‘transformed’ Syrian army into militia: analysis

December 18, 2014

The Syrian conflict will enter its fourth year in March 2015, but continuous Iranian support for the government of president Bashar al-Assad will ensure that his forces will carry on fighting for at least another year, according to observers.

Those forces, however, no longer resemble a traditional national army. Instead, they have been increasingly behaving like sectarian militias.

"When regime forces opened fire on protesters, sparking the initial rebellion, thousands of soldiers defected to the opposition," wrote David Axe, a military correspondent, in an article published in Reuters blogs

Syria’s standing army has lost around half of its manpower.

"Defections, desertions and attrition after three years of civil war saw Syria’s total manpower decline from a high of 325,000 in 2011 to 295,000 in 2012 to an estimated 178,000 in 2013 and 2014," Aram Nerguizian, a military affairs expert from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.

To fill the gap, Tehran helped Assad recruit volunteers to be part of armed units, led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers.

"By 2014, the old Syrian army was a spent force," noted Axe, prompting Iran to replace "the Syrian army with a militia called the National Defence Force (NDF), which draws many of its volunteers from the Alawite religious group — the regime’s main supporters."

According to the UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 24,000 NDF volunteers have died in combat.

"But there are three million Alawites in Syria, more than enough to sustain the National Defence Force for years to come, barring an unlikely collapse in Alawite support for the regime,” said Axe.

Pro-Assad forces are not expected to secure a crushing defeat against their opponents, but neither are the rebels or militants.

"The rebels still struggle to obtain heavy weaponry for their two-front war. For their part, Islamic State militants have picked simultaneous fights with the Syrian regime, the Free Syrian Army, Iran, Iraq and a growing US-led coalition,” noted Axe.

High stakes for Syria’s Alawite community

One factor that has been suggested as a potential game-changer is the Alawite community, on whose support has relied throughout the civil war.

The Alawites, who make up some 12 percent of the population, top the ranks of Syria’s professional army and security services.

However, in recent months analysts say cracks have been appearing in the community, whose members span the socio-economic spectrum in Syria.

In July, a group of Alawite activists launched the Speak Up Against Assadcampaign, protesting against the high numbers of deaths among Alawites during the war.

Then, in October, a group calling itself the Syrian Alawite Congregation issued a statement calling on Alawites to “take a stand against Assad’s regime,” also citing high death rates among their community.

The statement alleged that Alawites were targeted for conscription in the pro-Assad paramilitaries, “because the President believes they are most faithful to him.”

If these cracks deepen, and significant numbers of Assad’s sect come out against him, the results would be catastrophic for Assad.

"If the Alawites started to fight amongst themselves, the whole edifice would collapse," said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

The group, long seen as receiving favoured positions and greater power in Syrian society, would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the forces battling against Assad.

"For the time being," Landis said, "that threat is enough to keep them together."

Billions of dollars of funding

The conflict has been sustained by billions of dollars of funding poured in to support the different warring sides.

Wealthy Gulf funders will not have a free hand in funnelling money into Syria after members of the Gulf Co-operation Council vowed in December to fight extremist groups, calling for their resources to be dried up.

And the $150 a month wages for some “moderate” fighters have been abruptly halted, it was reported last week.

On the Syrian government side, international sanctions are biting on Assad’s income streams, and his backers in Tehran and Moscow have less money to dispose of outside their borders.

"Nobody yet knows what impact this collapse in oil prices will have – both Iran and Russia have already been seriously affected. What the trickle-down effects of that will be on Assad’s finances is hard to know - but it will clearly be very bad," said Landis.

But Landis doubts the funding crisis will brighten the prospects for peace, predicting “the fragmentation in Syria will continue unabated.”

"Neither side is anywhere near defeat, and neither side is anywhere near victory."

Rewriting Syria’s war

December 18, 2014 by David Kenner

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 paperon the successes and failures of local cease-fires in cooperation with the London School of Economics; Integrity Research and Consultancy published a reportassessing 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.”