A closer look at the regime’s process reveals its real goal – retribution and control.
Since 2016, the Syrian regime has applied various coercive methods, namely sieges and intense indiscriminate attacks, to pressure the majority of rebel-held areas across the country to negotiate local surrender agreements, which the regime euphemistically labels ‘reconciliation deals’.
But despite the enormous number of those agreements, it remains highly underreported how such deals are being implemented on the individual level. The details of such a process are not only important to further understand its scale, the profile of individuals targeted and the type of information collected and why, they also help draw a better picture of how the process could ultimately undermine long-term stability in Syria.
Once a surrender deal has been reached, the negotiating committee, composed of regime representatives and local intermediaries, usually registers the names of armed combatants and activists who wish to remain in their areas. Those who continue to resist Assad’s rule, both fighters and civilians, are forcibly displaced to the last remaining rebel-held resistance pocket in northwestern Syria. Simultaneously, local pro-regime intermediaries, and the respective intelligence agency in charge, start opening special offices in their areas to process individual surrender applications for those who stayed.
There are contradictory reports on the profile of the people who should undergo the surrender process. Some sources reported that all individuals, males and females, between the age of 18 and 55 should fill the required forms, while others stated that the applications are limited to those who were affiliated with anti-regime groups or their international supporters, such as civil society, armed groups, media or the political opposition. However, this confusion might be due to the variety in implementing such a process according to the level of anti-Assad resistance in the targeted area and the political entity controlling it afterwards (the regime, Iran or Russia).
The individuals required to undergo the surrender process are instructed to go to the designated offices to fill and sign a number of documents, which usually takes between 10 and 45 minutes. The first document includes questions about the applicant’s personal data, contact details, career history, political orientation, criminal record and travels abroad, as well as relatives active against the regime.
The second document includes 12 detailed questions about the individual’s role in any anti-regime activities, including demonstrations, armed rebellion and terrorist activities. The person is also asked to give information about rebel groups in their areas, including the names of the leaders, their locations and activities, and the location of weapons, explosives stores and warehouses.
The last section of the document enquires about secret tunnels, people kidnapped by rebel groups (names and locations), and foreign members or governments supporting rebel groups (names, affiliations, roles and locations). In addition, the applicants have to sign statement pledging not to carry out any action against the state and its armed, security and auxiliary forces through the use of demonstrations, social media, anti-regime publications and media platforms, or armed rebellion.
The collected surrender forms are sent to the security branch in charge of the area to crosscheck the data against the files they have on the respective individuals. Towards that end, the regime seems to be using multiple levels of verification to assess the credibility of the submitted information. For those who do not have a record in the branch, a new file is created for them, especially if they were affiliated with any of the opposition entities.
The second layer of verification is usually carried out by the respective branch through networks of local informants based in former rebel areas. The task of such informants is to collect and share intelligence about the individuals that were involved in anti-regime activities. Some of those informants were recruited either before or during the conflict, while others are newcomers who joined during or after the deals.
A third layer might be done through crosschecking information with other branches, but that rarely happens in practice due to the rivalry and completion between the different security agencies.
Once the verification is over, the individuals are provided with a document to prove that they successfully finished the process, which is usually required to pass through regime checkpoints. But multiple sources have reported that not all surrender applications are accepted. According to a report of the news website al-Modon, the applications of around 200 people in the towns of Babila, Yilda and Beit Sahem, south of Damascus, were rejected.
The official reason cited for denying their plea was providing false information. But they were given no further details on which part of their statement was considered false (i.e. the sections about themselves or the affairs of other people). They also were not told about how the respective authorities have reached their decision and the verification mechanisms used for that purpose.
Instead, the rejected individuals were informed that their applications should be refilled again in the security branch in charge of their area, which likely means that they will end up being detained there. Local sources have told the author that similar cases have occurred in other areas in rural Damascus and Daraa province, but the scale of this phenomenon remains unclear.
The scale of the surrender process and the types of the questions asked clearly indicate the security focus of such practices, which can lead to future reprisals or prosecution. Unlike its official title of ‘reconciliation deal’, this process is not part of a fact-finding mission to establish individual responsibilities in order to hold people accountable and help communities reconcile and co-exist.
Contrarily, locals have expressed their concerns that their confessions will be used by security agencies to punish them, sooner or later. This fear was amplified following a regime-led campaign in southern Damascus to storm and search the houses of locals, especially those involved in anti-regime activities, even after submitting their surrender applications.
Likewise, regime opponents are scared of being discriminated against, for years to come, due to having an anti-regime record, which hinders their ability to obtain a security clearance that is required for all aspects of daily affairs such as recruitment, obtaining official documents or opening businesses.
Furthermore, the relatively unstructured and random nature of the vetting process used by the regime through local informants – which often relies on anyone who is willing to cooperate, without paying much attention to the intentions behind such a decision – is extremely prone to abuse. People could easily use this mechanism to pursue grudges and vendettas – this type of reporting on neighbours used to happen even before the conflict.
Using people to spy on each other can trigger revenge attacks, given the high level of personal grievances among locals, and dissuade refugees and internally displaced people from returning to their homes. Consequently, many former rebel fighters who remained in regime-controlled areas were pressured to join pro-regime forces as a means to safeguard themselves.
The surrender process has, so far, succeeded in securing the areas captured by the regime. But those short-term gains will likely undermine Syria’s stability as long as this process does not take any substantial measures to achieve its official stated goal, which is reconciliation.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.