As the Syrian regime and its allies have regained control of opposition areas in the Damascus countryside (Rif Dimashq), they have used two separate tactics to try to eliminate pockets of resistance. One is forced displacement of the entire population, which has occurred in areas such as Daraya and Zabadani. The other is the misleadingly named ‘comprehensive reconciliation’ – in reality, a combination of coercion and enticement aimed at replacing administrative bodies set up by the opposition with local authorities loyal to the regime.
This version of ‘reconciliation’ has been implemented in in Qudsaya, Al-Hama, Al-Tal, Madaya, and the suburbs of eastern Damascus, among others. It is a linear course of action to transform a besieged area from opposition to loyalist. It must be accepted in its entirety, by expelling anyone who is armed and does not accept its conditions, and forcibly dismantling political and service bodies created by the opposition. It results in the absorption of the former armed opposition into the regime’s local militias, mainly the National Defence Forces, or mandatory conscription into the Syrian Arab Army. It also entails the retaking of state service agencies in former opposition areas, to ensure the provision of electricity, drinking water, food and medical supplies – i.e. capitulation in exchange for the return of basic services.
In July 2016, President Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 15, which is the legal basis for ‘reconciliation’. It includes amnesty from ‘all punishment’ for those who ‘turn themselves in and lay down their weapons’, including, ‘anyone who took up arms for any reason, was a fugitive from justice or was in hiding’. Decree No. 15, which was reinforced through a number of subsequent decrees such as Decree No. 32, was intended to encourage elements of the armed opposition to turn themselves in.
The regime stipulated that it should be applied to dissolve the opposition’s local councils and would often impose lists of civil dissidents to be expelled to northern Syria. Most of those who are being displaced are active in forming civil service bodies, local opposition councils and civil society organizations. The regime sees the local opposition councils and non-governmental organizations that emerged during a period of declining regime authority between 2012 and 2016 as one of the greatest threats to its return to rebel areas. This is because these civil service bodies have enabled the opposition and local communities to self-organize, providing the population with a real alternative to state institutions when it comes to the provision of key services. For example, the regime stipulated that reconciliation in the town of Al-Hama would entail the displacement of all members of the local council. Meanwhile, in Wadi Barada it required the displacement of all medical staff members.
In this context, the Syria Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, has become a key target for regime propaganda due to its ability to carry out organized actions with greater independence than any other local organization – something Syria has not known since the Baath Party’s rise to power in 1963.
The new elite
In addition, the regime developed the policy of creating a single ‘reconciliation delegation’ in each area, comprising residents and regime officials from Damascus, who are then able to meet with the civil and military actors from the opposition.
Most members of the reconciliation delegation are traditional dignitaries, merchants and clerics loyal to the official religious establishment. The regime also laid the foundations for some members of the reconciliation delegation to become local leaders with temporary authority, while dismantling the civil and military apparatus of the opposition. Many members of the reconciliation delegation were sheikhs and imams of mosques appointed by the government’s Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Affairs) during the period leading up to the revolution in 2011. Some of them even rode the wave of revolution and became leaders in Islamic opposition factions. Through the former Mufti of Rif Dimashq, Sheikh Muhammad Adnan Afiouni, the regime rehabilitated those sheikhs, providing them with guarantees that they would not be prosecuted in return for their support for the policy of ‘reconciliation’.
But the regime also laid the foundation for some of them to become part of the new elite, by granting them a monopoly over representation in these towns and cities and transforming them into mediators between the people and the state. In the town of Yalda, in the southern Damascus countryside, the Imam of Masjid al-Saliheen played a prominent role after having been a judge in a Sharia court of the Islamist factions. The same thing happened with the Imam of Masjid al-Kareem in the town of Babila, as well as the Imam of the Beit Sahem Great Mosque, who was the commander of Liwa Sham al-Rasoul’s Saraya al-Sham.
The sheikhs of these mosques enjoy good relations with the ‘reconciliation centre’ at the Russian Hmeimim airbase. In Qudsaya, the Imam of Al Sahaba Mosque, Sheikh Adel Misto, emerged as the head of the reconciliation delegation; and in Al-Hama, the Imam of Masjid al-Khabouri has played that role. Rehabilitating imams and giving them power and authority through their control over the restoration of services to opposition areas is, in a way, a reproduction of official pro-regime religious establishments as existed before the war.
The regime has not hesitated to manufacture a new elite, even if they are ex-convicts, as has happened in the Qaboun district of Damascus. In the town of Al-Tal, one member of the reconciliation delegation became responsible for the regime’s mobilization offices that recruit members for pro-regime militias. In Madaya, in the western Damascus countryside, the merchant who had played the role of regime liaison has a brother who heads a group that pledged allegiance to ISIS. In Muadamiyat al-Sham, in the western Damascus countryside, one of the most important members of the reconciliation delegation has extensive relations with regime officers that are at odds with his previous work in Damascus casinos.
After the surrender and acceptance of reconciliation in some opposition areas, reconciliation delegations are effectively disbanded and turned into new de facto authorities acting as a front for pro-regime militias and regime security. The regime has quickly reneged on its promises to deliver services. In Al-Tal, electricity is yet to be restored and arbitrary arrests and attacks on civilians by the pro-regime Qalamoun Shield militia have continued. In many ‘reconciliation’ areas, the regime began imposing mandatory conscription on young men, violating the six-month notice period which it had said would apply before conscription was introduced. The regime has also not, contrary to its promises, released opposition detainees in Damascus countryside areas that have agreed to the policy.
Mazen Ezzi is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He graduated from Damascus University. He works as an editor at Almodon e-newspaper, and senior researcher in Synaps.