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Syria Is Broken and These Peace Talks Won’t Put It Together Again

Posted on Jan 20, 2014

By Reese Erlich

(Page 2)

  Young men attend a ceremony at the Rukaya Shrine in Damascus. Shiites and Alawites, seen here, tend to support the Assad government. Photo by Reese Erlich.

“Now the military checkpoints divide up the city and repression is everywhere,” she said during a clandestine meeting in Damascus. “The civil society movement doesn’t exist here anymore.”

Ahmad Bakdouness, another activist interviewed in 2011, helped smuggle food and medicine to civilians under government attack in the city of Homs. Then he was arrested and brutally tortured. Leen hopes that by making Bakdouness’ name public, international pressure could force his release.

Mahmoud, once an avant garde playwright and journalist, also interviewed in 2011, became a devout Muslim. The former civil society leader now fights with the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria.


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“We’ve all changed,” Leen said. The civil society activists retain some popular support but have been overwhelmed by the conservative and extremist rebel groups.

By the end of last year, rebel groups faced a series of setbacks because of internal fighting. In July, the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over several northern cities from control of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. In November, the Islamic Front—another extremist group—seized a warehouse full of U.S.-supplied trucks, weapons and other provisions, driving out the head of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Idris.

“Fighting among the militias is a viper’s nest,” Landis said. “Everyone is scrambling for power.”

In the cities under its control, the ISIS imposed a harsh interpretation of Shariah law, detaining and torturing civilians, as well rebels from other groups. So the Free Syrian Army and other rebels have attacked ISIS-controlled towns for the past few weeks. The fighting continues.

The Islamic Front played an important role in the battle against the ISIS, so the U.S. is considering an alliance. The Islamic Front consists of Syrian nationalists who support Shariah law, and whose leaders call for death to all Alawites, a religious minority that tends to support Assad. Some within the Obama administration argue, however, that the Islamic Front is better than the ISIS, which is implementing immediate dictatorial rule.

In reality, the Islamic Front militias have a lot in common with the extremist rebels of the ISIS, according to Landis.

“Both idealize Islamic Empire, both reject democracy and embrace what they call shari’a, both welcome jihadists from [abroad] ... and both fly the black flag of Islam rather than the Syrian flag as their predominant emblem,” Landis wrote on his website Syria Comment.

The Obama administration shouldn’t classify the Islamic Front as moderates, he said. “The U.S. interventionists are grabbing at straws. They’re trying to find some hope for a pro-Western force,” Landis noted.

The Assad regime has tried to take advantage of the rebel infighting but with mixed results. It stepped up blockades of rebel-controlled towns on the outskirts of Damascus and dropped barrels full of dynamite on civilians living there. Rebels surrendered in some of those towns. The Assad government retains control in Damascus and some other key cities in the country’s middle.

On the other hand, fighting continues in Aleppo and Homs, which the government had declared almost completely liberated three months ago. Rebels control swaths of northern and southern Syria. A Kurdish militia has taken control of much of the northern, Kurdish region.

The country is locked in a military stalemate, but neither side appears ready to reach a political settlement.

The Syrian regime hopes the U.S. will tire of its intervention and eventually reach a compromise with Russia, which supports Assad. A U.S.-Russia agreement would likely stipulate that in order to fight extremist rebels, Assad would stay in power with some kind of participation from opposition groups. So far, no rebel group is willing to consider such an option.

After three years of setbacks, the Obama administration is constantly adjusting its Syria plans. However, there are no indications that recent moves will be more successful than prior ones.

Civil society activists remain optimistic despite all the recent lapses. “The people of Syria will win against Assad,” activist Leen said. “We don’t need military intervention from the U.S. or anyone else.”

Reese Erlich reported from Syria with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Erlich’s latest book, “Inside Syria,” will be published this fall by Prometheus Books.

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