An extremely tentative process is unobtrusively underway in Syria behind the hue and cry over Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal and its destruction. An advance international inspection team arrived in Damascus Tuesday Oct. 1 to discuss logistics with Syrian officials for the complex and daunting task of eradicating the chemical weapons stockpiles on Syrian soil.
On the quiet, meanwhile, hesitant talks have secretly sprung up for the first time in some corners of the battlefield between high-ranking Syrian army officers and rebel Free Syrian Army commanders, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal.
Just a week ago, reports of such interchanges would have been ridiculed as over-the-top speculation. But this week, our sources confirm instances of Syrian civil war combatants coming together in the Damascus, Homs and Aleppo war arenas.
Here are some details:
Syrian army and FSA officers start talking
Damascus – The capital’s suburbs and roads leading to the city centre have been the scenes of the most ferocious battles for control between the Syrian Army and the FSA, and of the war’s biggest chemical attack as recently as August 21.
But it is also there that in the last few days, Syrian army and FSA field commanders have met face to face on neutral ground, each side secured by its own forces, to discuss putting in place an agreed ceasefire in the areas marked out for inspection by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors.
FSA chiefs have never before been ready to hear of a ceasefire – or even a short respite of a few hours to clear the field of dead and wounded.
That they are ready to discuss this with Syrian army officers now opens the first small window of hope for a limited ceasefire in two and-a- half years of bloody conflict. It may even hold the potential for a longer halt in hostilities and ultimately put the Assad regime and the mainstream insurgent faction on a path to an agreed end of the war.
In this regard, some sources in the field say these exchanges are more advanced and cover more ground than the short-term goal of a limited ceasefire.
Nascent rebel contact with central government
They say that the FSA has put forward a list of demands for Syrian government representatives to consider. They call for:
– The start of an “internal Syrian dialogue;”
– Respect for private and public properties;
– An end to – and condemnation of – civil, sectarian and ethnic strife;
– The striving by both sides of the conflict for a democratic Syria subject to the rule of law.
Our sources report that a prompt reply came back from Damascus, consenting to “dialogue within the Syrian homeland”; while rejecting preconditions and offering a presidential guarantee of safe conduct for FSA representatives to the talks.
Although some of our sources may be over-optimistic about the rate of progress in the exchanges between the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army, it must be said that even the smallest steps toward conciliation are noteworthy in this most vicious, destructive and intractable of conflicts.
Aleppo students start returning to classrooms
Aleppo – For four months, the Syrian army backed by Hizballah forces stood at the threshold of an all-out assault to recapture this largest of Syrian towns. Yet instead of intensifying, combat there has of late diminished.
In at least seven of the neighborhoods, or enclaves, held by FSA forces, and surrounded by Syrian troops, even the daily rattle of gunfire has died down and there is no sign of big battles.
Public employees are starting to go back to work in their offices and government institutions and schools reopening. After fighting as militiamen for two years, students have put down their guns and are gradually returning to the classrooms.
This new calm was not spontaneous. It came out of understandings reached by the warring sides in each of those neighborhoods. Those understandings are turning out to be more inclusive and advanced than the informal negotiations taking place in Damascus.
Former comrades-in-arms find each other
Homs – The case of Homs is quite different from those of Damascus and Aleppo. For 40 years, this traditional thorn in the side of the central government was held in an iron grip by Assad regimes. But now, an eerie calm has descended on some of the most bitterly contested neighborhoods of Homs, scenes of hideous battles between regime and rebel forces.
By common consent, the two parties have stopped fighting and are standing still at their last positions. A quiet and unique standoff has developed in those areas. Indeed, Syrian soldiers and FSA militiamen are working together to enforce calm and security.
The emerging dialogue taking the place of violence in some of these parts of Syria is attributed by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources to the fact that most – if not all – of the FSA officers negotiating with their counterparts in Assad’s army are former soldiers themselves who defected to the rebels.
They are therefore acquainted – either personally or through shared connections – with personnel fighting in the rival camp. As rivals from the same background, it is easier for them to converse and negotiate battlefield deals.
President Bashar Assad and his generals see a whole range of benefits accruing from these informal exchanges and are therefore in favor of pursuing them.
A nucleus for homegrown national conciliation?
The Syrian ruler sees them as a potential vehicle for drawing defectors back to their old units. Furthermore, bleeding rebel ranks of professional soldiers would hasten their defeat.
Turning defectors round would also cancel out the huge investment of intelligence capacity and financial resources made by the Americans, the Turks, the Saudis and their clandestine agencies to promote desertions from the Syrian army, with a view to causing the Assad regime to collapse for lack of military support
The rebels never came anywhere near reaching this objective.
As cooperation in the field expands between the Syrian military and FSA forces, more and more rebel-controlled areas will revert to government control.
How do the Obama administration, Moscow and the European Union relate to this fledgling process of dialogue, in which they have no hand?
After all, one effect would be the perpetuation of Assad’s rule in Damascus, very much against the declared wishes of President Barack Obama but ardently supported by Vladimir Putin.
Much depends on how the peculiar relationships unfolding among the involved parties develop. For now, effective strategic cooperation on the local level is still mixed with profound mutual mistrust.
Pivotal future role for the FSA: Expelling al Qaeda
The most positive outcome would turn on how the Free Syrian Army regards its own future.
Would the FSA be wiling to turn the energies released by de facto local ceasefires with the Syrian army toward cutting down the violent Islamists?
Would they step into the role of a strong fighting force ready to take on Al Qaeda’s affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS), and other jihadists, to curtail their growing influence and spreading control and eventually drive them out of Syria? They are already at loggerheads with jihadis who take over areas liberated from the army and impose their extremist agenda on the population on pain of brutal penalties.
This anti-jihadist campaign, which the FSA and Syrian army could wage together, would call for a strong military figure with the professional skill and charisma for leading a united national operation. It would also require generous financial resources and plentiful arms supplies.
This operation could draw on the lessons of the initiative led by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq in late 2006, early 2007: He bought local Sunni tribes and organized them into the “Awakening Councils” which eventually joined the US army and turned the tide of the Iraq war against Al Qaeda.
This comradely partnership between the Syrian army and rebel FSA, if it took off, would also provide a strong nucleus for a process of national reconciliation between a key opposition faction and the regime in Damascus.