9 min read  | Damascus, Interviews, Politics

Sam Heller on this moment in Syria: ‘Building towards a soft partition’


February 24, 2016

Does Syria exist?

Sam Heller, a freelance journalist and analyst focused on the Syrian conflict whose work has been featured in VICE News, World Politics Review, War on the Rocks, Foreign Policy, and Jihadology, tackles the question in this first of a two-part wide-ranging interview with Kristen Demilio.

Q: Would you care to give a snapshot of where you see Syria at this moment? Is there a Syria?

I think that even at this point it seems debatable. Even among analysts who deal with very pessimistic, difficult subject matter, I have a reputation of being a little bit negative.

Q: I don’t think you can have a settlement, because I don’t think that Syria exists as we know it. And there is very little left to settle.

At this point, I don’t understand how any sort of political settlement or reconciliation could take root. I think that we’re continuing to see a sort of geographic sorting, that is building at least towards a soft partition of the country, but a lot of people are going to suffer and die in the meantime.

Q: How would you envision a partition?

I think you can identify the main component parts of what Syria will look like, the key zones of geographic influence; sections of the country for the opposition, the regime, the Kurdish YPG, and the Islamic State. And I think those are likely to continue to exist as such, for the most part.

I think that where the boundaries are drawn will change, depending upon various parties’ battlefield fortunes. I think that with the regime you’re seeing a continued consolidation of its western coastal stronghold. There is a fear among many in the opposition that this is paving the way to some sort of Alawite statelet. But whatever the ultimate character of this section of regime territory, it looks like the regime is doing an effective job of locking it down and shoring up its defenses.

Q: Are you working at all on the SDF? What do the Kurds want?

I don’t know to what extent the north Aleppo fighting is the result of anyone’s real agenda or planning. The fighting there seems like it erupted after a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings and assaults.

Q: But the Kurds want to link Afrin and Kobani, right?

You’ve seen spokesmen articulate that, and I believe it, but I think they’d be crazy to try and achieve that by pushing east from Afrin. You see some rebels argue that this is a Russian-backed plot to push from Afrin to join the cantons and close that northern Aleppo countryside. But it might just be the product of a lot of standing local disputes and static, and Jaish al-Thuwwar acting unilaterally. Jaish al-Thuwwar, after all, is composed partly of former members of local brigades that were liquidated by Jabhat al-Nusra, so there’s bad blood there.

Q: Jaish al-Thuwwar points to northern rebels as the aggressors against them.

In this instance, people I’ve talked to said it was Jaish al-Thuwwar specifically and not necessarily the SDF as an umbrella organization that initially aggressed on northern rebels and assaulted areas around the Azaz road. There’s been recurring static, low level clashes, around a lot of these Kurdish enclaves in Aleppo.

Q: Do you have any observations about trends you’re seeing in the north? How it’s playing it out with all the intra-rebel fighting?

We’re arguably seeing more of a distance recently between some of the more hardline jihadist elements and other rebels, including Islamists. I’m specifically thinking of Idlib, but also the broader north.

There’s a sort of contest for the character of these areas between Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa on the one hand and Ahrar and more nationalist local FSA elements on the other. So we see Idlib, Hama and Latakia divided into overlapping spheres of influence defined by the authority of either the jihadists’ “Dar al-Qada” courts (which implement the “hudoud” capital punishments) or the Ahrar- and FSA-backed “Islamic Commissions,” which are less extreme in relative terms. Idlib city seems to be the one instance where the two trends have really embarked on a joint governance.

But we have to see how long this can last. On the one hand, the gap between most area rebels and ultra-hardliners like Jund al-Aqsa has only seemed to grow. Jund al-Aqsa has now withdrawn from the Victory Army and, more recently, its Idlib city security force after the execution of some Jund members responsible for a series of bombings and assassinations.

On the other hand, though, the differences over justice and governance that have really divided these rebels and jihadists into competing camps may become less relevant in the face of this multi-front regime offensive. Debates over Islamic governance may now be a luxury rebels can’t afford.

Regardless of their political differences, rebels and jihadists are mostly collected across northern Syria, which is a big part of why negotiations that are now supposed to be happening and any discussion of ceasefires don’t really mean anything. At least in the north – the Damascus area and the south are kind of a different case because of the different makeup of the rebels there.

But in the north, if you declare a ceasefire but then say that Nusra and IS aren’t covered by it…well, Nusra is active and present on most northern fronts. They’re not the entirety of the northern rebellion, which some people say, but they are a prime actor in the north, and they are present along the Latakia, Hama and south Aleppo fronts. If all of these fronts are exempted from a ceasefire because of Nusra’s continuing presence, then what does the ceasefire mean? This is not to say that Nusra would itself abide by any ceasefire.

Q: Thoughts on the Russian quagmire?

On the Russian “quagmire,” I don’t necessarily endorse that reading of it. I think you’ve had territory on both sides change hands, but it looks like Russian intervention is functioning as a real force multiplier for regime military effectiveness. And they have made important and lasting gains.

Rebels have yet to reverse their gains in south Aleppo and Latakia, and the regime holds Kweiris, which is at a minimum a very important symbolic victory.

I think the regime is succeeding in further consolidating and reinforcing its core territories in that corridor from the coast down through Homs to Damascus. I think the aborted ceasefire in East Ghouta is a fairly significant bellwether. This is an area that has stubbornly resisted regime control even if it has been progressively eaten-away-at over the past several years by successive regime offensives.

If we’re going to see anything really dramatic or kinetic by rebels, it seems like it’ll come out of the north. It seems like the south has mostly been shut down. It sounds like nobody’s interested in having the regime retake rebel-held parts of Quneitra or Daraa, but rebels don’t seem to be poised to make gains beyond that. That may be on purpose.

Q: Do you want to add any thoughts to your article about the New Syrian Army, founded at the end of November? Your findings are consistent with our findings, which is that driving the Islamic State out of Deir e-Zor is unlikely. Are you seeing any changes on the ground?

Not that I know of. It seems like a worthwhile project, and I wish them the best. But they have a lot of challenges in front of them, and so far they’ve been unable to get past the issues I flagged in the article – namely, their numbers are still very low, and they haven’t been able to square their differences with Deir al-Zor’s other rebels. We’ve since seen Jeish Usoud al-Sharqiyyah pull out of Jabhat al-Asalah wal-Tanmiyyah, when both Usoud al-Sharqiyyah and the New Syrian Army – as Jabhat al-Asalah affiliates devoted to driving ISIS out of Deir al-Zor – really should have been on the same page.

Q: Another failed prediction of mine; I thought the Deir e-Zor military airport would have fallen by now.

I also thought that. I mean IS, they’ve launched a few successive blanket assaults on the airport, and so far have been unable to capture it – although we now have to see if this latest push succeeds. I would have thought that IS would have invested more earlier, just as a prestige point, because DEZ is right in the middle of their declared Caliphate.

And to have this stubborn regime foothold there, from which the regime runs semi-regular bombing runs on and shells the surrounding countryside, the optics of it are not great for a self-declared Caliphate. It sounds like the continued regime presence does render a number of core urban areas in DEZ mostly unlivable. DEZ city, I know you guys have reported on the besieged regime-held areas, but apparently even the opposition-held areas are not really livable because they are subjected to regular shelling.

Q: And the Siyasiya brigde is cut, so it’s like an island.

I think it’s a similar situation in Muhassan, southeast of DEZ city. It’s held by IS, but it’s subjected to the same sort of persistent shelling and bombing that DEZ city is. That’s why, to my knowledge, even before IS took over the province, al-Mayadeen had become the effective capital of rebel-held Deir e-Zor, just because it was relatively safer. And it sounds like IS still has their prime Islamic court there, which is responsible for justice in other parts of the province.

Q: Do you think Deir e-Zor’s relationship with the Islamic State is more hostile, simply because the way they entered the province, along with the Sheitat massacre, or do you think that there is something in the character of the people, or the region that makes them more resistant to this invading force?

I don’t know what would explain it necessarily. But at this point, it does seem like there is a lot of bad blood and animus between many of the people in DEZ and IS. At the very end, you did have some brigades fold up or defect to IS, but they really did hold out for a while in what were pretty desperate conditions.

There is still a lot of resentment there about their perceived abandonment – I think that pretty much everyone I interviewed from Deir a-Zor complained about how the brigades in northern Syria had left them hanging.

It’s difficult to get a sense of the relative scale of IS repression in Deir e-Zor, whether it is worse than east Aleppo, for example, or Raqqa. But IS has been pretty ruthless in its campaign of arrests, executions, and crucifixions throughout Deir a-Zor, either in retaliation or to pre-empt any sort of local resistance.

Q: My interest in Deir a-Zor in particular is the assassination campaigns against the Islamic State, and they have happened in Mayadeen, Al-Bukamel and Deir e-Zor city. I feel like whenever these people have a chance to pick someone off, they do. And that if the opportunity should come, that people in DEZ will quickly turn on IS.

I think it is tough to get a sense of the real impact of some of these campaigns of assassinations or other resistance. A lot of the reporting on it comes out of interested parties, people who are personally involved. But this is a province that was pretty tapped into the resistance to the occupation of Iraq.

There are a lot of people there who have experience being insurgents, and just being generally difficult. And I think you’re seeing some of that operationalized. You saw that against the Assad regime at the outset of the revolution, when some people would protest in the day and hit checkpoints at night, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re seeing some of that now against IS.

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