A Free Syrian Army fighter sits in a shooting position behind sandbags, during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the Karam Barre frontline, beside Al-Maysar neighbourhood of Aleppo November 2, 2014. (Hosam Katan/Reuters)
Opinion writer

With U.S.-backed “moderate” opposition forces on the run in northern Syria, a mediation group is proposing an alternative strategy for local cease-fires and a gradual de-escalation of violence in a future decentralized nation.

“The solution in the short term is neither transition nor power-sharing but freezing the war as it is, and acknowledging that Syria has been decentralized at the barrel of a gun,” argues the report, prepared by a European group that is funded by more than a dozen European and Asian governments. The report urges that the cease-fires should be followed by local elections and eventual national elections.

“Cease-fires will allow us to move towards a political solution and a negotiated political transition,” and bolster the embattled moderate opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, argues the report. It says the regime “knows it cannot take back the whole country or turn back the clock.”

The group has done extensive field work in Syria, meeting with top regime officials, moderate opposition leaders and members of the extremist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. The report has been shared with U.S. officials and other governments. It was provided by a U.S. source on condition that the mediation group’s name not be identified.

The report surfaces at a moment when the moderate Free Syrian Army rebels, the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy for defeating the extremists, have been driven from their strongholds in northern Syria. The moderate rebels have been pleading unsuccessfully for U.S. help to reverse these losses.

The Free Syrian Army’s requests to U.S. commanders make painful reading: “The FSA needs urgent Coalition support,” said an Oct. 28 message that noted the Islamic State was sending reinforcements to help Jabhat al-Nusra fighters attack moderates in Idlib province. Three days later, the FSA warned: “We’ve got major problems w Nusra in Idlib. . . . Close air support badly needed.” And then, on Nov. 2, “Morale is low . . . air support would be welcomed to stave off disaster.”

These latest reversals suggest that, without the kind of support the Obama administration has so far been unwilling to provide, the U.S. strategy for the moderates to defeat the jihadists is, as the report bluntly states, a “fantasy.” The report’s alternative plan for cease-fires may also be unrealistic, but it might offer a reduction in violence.

The local “reconciliation” approach was attempted, with mixed success, last year in Homs and the Damascus area. The report describes one example in al-Tal, near Damascus: “There has long been an informal agreement in which the regime and its security forces are absent from the town but state institutions function and the area is effectively self-governed with its own internal security force, and as long as insurgent attacks are not launched from it, then the regime does not respond.”

The report says some workable cease-fires have been negotiated by Fadi Saqr, commander in the Damascus region of a pro-regime paramilitary group known as the National Defense Forces. In other provinces, this group “is notorious for being an out-of-control predatory militia,” the report says, but in Damascus, “it has been the most progressive in striking sustainable agreements with insurgents.”

The report urges a similar cease-fire in Aleppo. Other areas where this de-escalation process might work are the Ghouta suburbs east of Damascus, the region around Daraa in the south and the deserts of eastern Syria.

“The only solution is local reconciliations,” a senior regime official told the authors of the report. “The state must be returned to all of Syria, and there must be respect for the rights and dignity of all, including the insurgents, in exchange for them respecting the state and its institutions.” The Syrian official proposed amnesty for insurgents and said they could also keep their weapons.

The report likens this de-escalation process to what Gen. David Petraeus achieved in slowing violence in Iraq in 2007. A Syrian official described as “a senior security and strategy adviser to the Syrian president” makes this comparison explicitly: “The reconcilables for the Americans in Iraq were the ones who accepted the state, so accept the [Syrian] state.”

The big problem with the group’s recommendations is that, to the rebels, this approach would probably look like surrender. Assad has become a magnet for jihadists, and as long as he remains in power, it’s hard to imagine any reconciliation process being seen by Sunni rebels as anything more than a temporary truce.

“There is a pathway that leads back out of this hell,” argues the European mediation group. If the Obama administration has a coherent alternative strategy, let’s hear it.

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