‘They took the idea of a ceasefire and distorted it’: Opposition negotiator reflects on de-escalation after Daraa battle

Government buses gather in held Daraa in a photo from July 15. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media

Yahya al-Aridi had his first foray into negotiations in the early 90s, when he worked with the Syrian government’s media team during Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Now, almost 30 years later, al-Aridi is the spokesperson for the mainstream Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the umbrella body representing Syria’s largest rebel bloc in peace talks with the government.

Instead of working alongside the Syrian government’s negotiators, al-Aridi, who defected in 2013, now squares off with them from the opposite side of the table.

“I’ve seen things from both sides,” al-Aridi tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Justin Clark.

Negotiations between the opposition and Syrian government have yielded mixed results. Opposition territory is shrinking rapidly after government-led military campaigns across the country saw the Syrian army and its allies consolidate control over most of the country—including areas previously designated as internationally recognized ceasefire, or “de-escalation,” zones.

In southwestern Syria, a complex, internationally brokered de-escalation deal that had largely halted fighting there crumbled last month, when a massive government-led aerial and ground assault saw one of the opposition’s last remaining strongholds fall in a matter of weeks.

“Nobody told [the regime] no,” reflects al-Aridi. “Nobody objected to such a criminal strategy concealed within a ceasefire.”

If the Syrian government recaptures the country’s northwest, “some might say that the regime and its supporters control everything in Syria,” al-Aridi tells Syria Direct. “So what role or position could there be for someone like me?”

Q: The Syrian government has nearly retaken all of Daraa and southwestern Syria after a brutal military campaign, yet for the past year it was the only region of Syria where a relatively stable political solution held. What’s your response to the collapse of de-escalation?

Since the very beginning, there were UN Security Council resolutions regarding the situation.

Astana was meant to have two basic goals—a military one and a humanitarian one. The military goal was for ceasefires or de-escalation in certain areas, while the humanitarian goal included the release of prisoners in Assad's jails, the lifting of sieges by the regime’s militias and Russia and for aid to arrive to those besieged areas. None of that has happened, though, because Russia and its allies’ intentions were untoward.

Throughout several rounds of those negotiations, Russia was working in concert with the regime’s main strategy and approach in Syria: the idea that ‘we will govern them, or we will destroy them.’

With de-escalation, they took the idea of a ceasefire and distorted it at the Astana meetings.

In Astana, there were de-escalation zones agreed between Russia and Turkey, and later Iran signed on as a guarantor. Meanwhile rebel factions joined these de-escalation agreements hoping there would be no obstructions.

But it turned out that what Russia had in mind—along with Iran and the regime—was that those de-escalation zones would silence the rebels, thereby allowing them to turn against the rebels and invade territory later. That proved to be their strategy. Nobody told them no. Nobody objected to such a criminal strategy concealed within a ceasefire agreement.

The last military actions took place in southwestern Syria. For this to happen, Israel played a role, and then the US played a role. The US told southern rebels not to give the Russians or the regime any pretext for invading the south when the people of the south decided to help Ghouta. They told them, ‘No, keep silent, do not provide them with a pretext to invade the south.’ [But when the invasion began], they didn't do anything.

Finally when the regime, supported by Putin's Sukhois as well as the Iranian militias, actually decided to go for the south, the Americans said that they would have nothing to do with the matter and refused to intervene.

Q: Right now, Assad is setting his sights on the last remaining rebel-held areas of the country. If this happens, how do you see your role as a negotiator evolving?

The Idlib issue is not settled yet. There are all sorts of things at play: Turkey is in the game—they have made it clear that Idlib would be different [than other regions attacked by the regime], and if Russia did anything then they would step in because it would be a violation of Astana.

Having said that, if [an Idlib campaign] happens—and we don't know yet if it will—some might say that the regime and its supporters control everything in Syria. So what role or position could there be for someone like me who left the regime, as a defector?

I left the regime because it is an aggressor, a criminal. I stood by my people and turned my back on 30 years of hard work, throwing away those 30 years of hard work because I couldn’t accept working for an aggressor, a criminal.

When things first started in 2011 nobody had an inch of land under his or her control. Even people's homes were not truly under their control. Someone from the mukhabarat [Ed.: Syria’s secret police force] would knock on your door and would tell you to come with them for a cup of coffee. And then, you'd disappear for 10 years or more, and your whole family would be ruined because of the secret police’s aggressive treatment of people.

People started that way and they didn't have control over an inch of their land or their homes. This uprising is part of a real desire and aspiration to be free—to have a democratic state that affords people the right to prove themselves as creative Syrians.

We see this in the refugees. When they get their freedom and are not under oppression and aggression they excel. But in Syria, they are so inhibited because they are not allowed the freedoms of the outside world.

This war has never been a military one—we had no choice. It was not our choice to pick up weapons. [The revolution] was peaceful and we simply raised our voices before we were met with bullets by this brutal regime.

The moment the regime moves towards a political solution, it means that it is coming to an end, that this brutality is coming to an end.

And yet the world is unfortunately being quite unreliable regarding that point. We had supporters—the so-called Friends of Syria—but unfortunately they were not real friends after all. If they were real friends, we could have confronted Iran, we could have confronted Russia, who are just as criminal as the regime itself. This is our real confrontation. We believe in our rights and we will continue to confront this brutality, because Syrians are good people and deserve freedom.

They’ve been fighting all these years to take their freedom—and I believe that ultimately they will.

Q: That said, though, without international support, without holding territory in the country, how do you see yourself negotiating directly with the Syrian government if it remains in place in its current form?

What’s important here is for us to understand the nature of our battle with this regime. In our opinion, that battle is not only military in nature. The regime is strong militarily and is succeeding militarily—although not on its own. The regime is winning its oppressive [military] campaign only with the help of the dual occupation of Russia and Iran.

But on the other hand, the battle also relates to law and politics. Even in the political battle, if the regime was under Russian protection, then it is hindering international legitimacy. It is hindering international resolutions. This matter will not earn the Russians a solution, and they don’t want a solution anyway.

The government must be the one who calls for a national congress that will create a national committee responsible for drafting a new constitution, for calling elections; and all from from bottom up.

Ultimately, this is the only way to have a solution for Syria—not according to the tactics of Assad, Iran and Russia.  

Q: You spent 30 years working with the Syrian government. Afterwards, you defected and—as you said—threw all of that away to come to the negotiations table alongside the opposition.

Does your experience working with the government's media apparatus give you any kind of unique insight that improves your ability to work in negotiations? After all, you've seen things from both sides.

I have seen things from both sides, yes. When I got my PhD in 1986 I began working at Damascus University as a professor.

At one point, Bashar al-Assad approached me. I was doing a program with the faculty of education about youth development, and he asked me to prepare a certain project for the youth in Syria—something we called a “youth parliament.”

I spent six months working on it alongside him. We gathered responses from university students between the ages of 18 and 25, and reviewed the questionnaires. Six months into the project he decided—because of pressure from others, since his father was in power at the time—that we needed to stop.

I realized at the time that this hesitation to push for change was a bad sign for the future of Syria. For a time I believed that change could happen, but later on I started having doubts.

When the revolution started in 2011, I realized that this was time for Syria to come back to life and for the Syrian people—with their intelligence and creativity—to once again make a real contribution, and to be free to contribute to human civilization.

Unfortunately, the protestors were met with bullets. I tried for the first five months to work from within the regime to dissuade them from responding to peaceful marches with bullets. But in the end, I failed. Nobody listened.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.