How a nearly unknown businessman named Khaled al Ahmad became Damascus’ secret liaison to the West and quietly dealt Syria’s grinding war to a close
by Rania Khalek
Part 2 - The man behind the deals
In dozens of towns, villages, and cities across Syria, reconciliation agreements have brought fighting to a halt. Some people call them truces, others refer to them as settlements and those staunchly opposed to them call them forced surrenders. Whatever one’s preferred label, there’s no denying that the reconciliation process has been vital to the de-escalation of violence Syria has witnessed over the past two years.
The reconciliation process was initiated in 2015, when al Ahmad carried a message to Berlin. There, he met with representatives of the Southern Front, a coalition of Western and Saudi-backed rebel groups that operate in Southern Syria and received support from the US-run Military Operations Center (MOC) in Jordan. That same message was delivered to faction leaders from the Southern Front in Jordan and the south. Some leading commanders even secretly entered Damascus to meet security chiefs before returning to the south. This series of exchanges formed the basis of the southern ceasefire agreement and ultimately became the Russian-American de-escalation zone.
Coordinated with Wafiq Nasr, who was at the time the head of security for the south and one of the most respected security officials in Syria, the offer held that the Southern Front would be allowed to administer the south on behalf of the Syrian government. One Western observer described it as offering the opposition in southern Syria the chance to become the “Palestinian Authority of the south,” a cynical analogy that painted the opposition as a toothless vassal, with the Syrian government as a stand-in for the Israeli occupation.
Pragmatic as it might have been, the division of Syria into de-escalation zones was at first opposed by then-Secretary of State John Kerry. The top US diplomat wanted a national Cessation of Hostilities instead, but when that failed, the Americans came around to the proposal. Following a 2017 visit to Moscow by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his policy chief Brian Hook, Trump personally signed off on the plan.
In a seven year war where so many previously unknown figures have gained worldwide notoriety, al Ahmad managed to remain largely anonymous. One of the few observers to pick up on Al Ahmad’s importance was the neoconservative operative Tony Badran, a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Badran observed that al Ahmad had briefly appeared in the media in 2012 when emails to Assad were leaked showing him to be some kind of advisor to the Syrian president. Badran described Al Ahmad as “a man who would emerge at the center of the White House’s channel to Assad. Remember that name. Ahmad appears in the correspondence as an adviser of sorts to Assad; a troubleshooter active on the ground and offering counsel on issues ranging from security policy to monetary policy.”
Badran also noted Al Ahmad’s connections to then-Al Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen, adding that “Ahmad’s connection with Rosen would endure, and ultimately intersect with, other, bigger channels Assad tasked Ahmad with. Namely, contact with the White House.”
Al Ahmad resurfaced again in a December 2015 article in the Wall Street Journal, which revealed that his contacts with the Obama White House began in late 2013 when he met Robert Ford, the Special Envoy for Syria, to offer collaboration between Assad and the US in fighting terrorism. The article also revealed that it was al Ahmad who in 2015 arranged for Steven Simon to visit Damascus and meet Assad. Simon had been head of Middle East policy in Obama’s White House until 2012 and at the time of his secret mission to Damascus he was at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The Gulf-funded institute fired him after his Damascus trip.
The Wall Street Journal article revealed that Simon and al Ahmad had met “at least twice before the Damascus trip.” This counter terror approach would prove fruitful over time as the ISIS threat grew, and al Ahmad eventually brought officials from the anti-ISIS coalition to Damascus to meet security chiefs.
In addition, Simon met with his successor at the White House, Robert Malley, before and after the trip to Damascus to coordinate the message. The connection with Malley is significant because in 2015 and 2016, al Ahmad secretly met with him in the Middle East while he was still at the White House and again at a global conference called the Oslo Forum, where al Ahmad was described as a “senior strategic adviser.”
In September 2014, Malley commissioned Nir Rosen, now working for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “a Swiss-based private diplomacy organization,” to publish an informal but influential paper on de-escalating the Syrian war. The arguments and proposals featured in Rosen’s paper – which was first reported on in Foreign Policy and is published here in full for the first time – appear to have been vindicated four years later.
The paper promoted de-escalation, local ceasefires and freezing the conflict as the solution for the Syrian war. These recommendations were adopted by UN special envoy Staffan De Mistura when he proposed his Aleppo Freeze. It appears that De Mistura’s draft for the Aleppo Freeze was written by Al Ahmad and Rosen and then personally approved by Assad, only to be ultimately rejected by the opposition and their foreign backers. UN sources say it was Rosen who led a delegation of De Mistura’s staff to Aleppo to help plan the ill-fated freeze.
It’s hard not to see in these negotiations a clever and ultimately successful Assad policy of using Al Ahmad, the urbane English speaking face of the Syrian government, to influence White House and UN policy on Syria. By sending al Ahmad to Moscow and to Oslo to meet with Russians, Assad was able to manipulate the Russians, implanting his own ideas in the minds of their officials, preventing them from proposing ideas the government would not accept, and instead pitching initiatives like the Sochi talks which changed the parameters of what could be discussed in international settings.
Still, not all Western officials are enamored with al Ahmad. One Swiss diplomat, who like most people I contacted for this article agreed to talk only on a voice call on the application Whatsapp, accused al Ahmad of having blood on his hands. Others dismissed him as a smuggler and regime enabler.
In a second article by Badran, the neoconservative operative drew a more explicit connection between Rosen, al Ahmad and the American foreign policy establishment.
“Malley met in Washington with journalist Nir Rosen, who has a close relationship with the Assad regime. Following his meeting with Malley, Rosen authored an unpublished pro-Assad report making the case for local cease-fires—which have been an instrument of warfare for the regime camp. Malley distributed Rosen’s report, which, naturally, was also leaked to David Ignatius. Simon’s and Lynch’s pieces floated the approach favored by Malley and the White House in much cleaner form and venues than the tarnished Rosen.” Behind all this was al Ahmad.
In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I met Al Ahmad’s brother, Tariq, in a 2017 reporting trip in Damascus. Tariq is an official in the reformist wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), part of the country’s ruling coalition that believes in a greater Syria encompassing all of the Levant. Repeated attempts to contact Khaled al Ahmad have failed, and his close partners, Syrian and Western, largely refused to respond to requests for information.
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