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Meet the mystery fixer who negotiated Syria out of seven years of war

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 3 - The strategy

Al Ahmad’s strategy appears to have involved two steps. The first was convincing the West and the US that there was a state and it should be preserved, the second was to support reconciliation as a way to build a wall against the spread of Salafi influence and build new local leaders.

According to Westerners who dealt with him, al Ahmad believed that reconciliation was a military tool best applied on besieged or partially besieged areas. Once an area was selected and the forces embedded there complied, the government could open trade and allow for goods to flow in. According to al Ahmad’s thinking, it would also be able to deal with new leaders who rose to power during the war or with those who previously had connections with the state. These men would be empowered as stakeholders assisting in securing peace and services. This would force people to choose between those who offered them money to fight or those who offered them money and services to gradually transition into a civilian role with less risk of death.

Al Ahmad once told me,” said one UN official, that “history teaches us that leaders are made of those who offer their people something and power is the most important tool for revolutionary change in history.” Al Ahmad saw in the war an opportunity to reform Syria, though he was confronted by a system that resisted change. Even in 2012 when the threat against the Syrian state was increasing, he insisted that the government should still enact bold reforms. “Khaled believed that all wars were alike and only those who studied past experiences and applied it could gain the upper hand,” an EU official told me. So al Ahmad studied American counterinsurgency experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan during the George Bush and Obama eras.

Al Ahmad may not have convinced the West to embrace the Syrian government, but he persuaded key officials not to invest in more war. According to one Western critic, “Al Ahmad’s meetings with Westerners and the opposition were just a good show, and he used the reconciliations as an excuse for the West to feel less guilty about abandoning the Syrian revolution. He played on our guilt.

Another Western critic, a UN expert on Syria with knowledge of areas that had undergone reconciliation processes, was unsatisfied with the outcome of Al Ahmad’s efforts. “The assessment I’ve been hearing from security minds in Syria is that there has been a striking calm in areas that have been reconciled, people are like the Walking Dead, but the trauma isn’t about the shelling,” the UN expert said. “The entire civil society has been blocked, it’s just going to explode. The outcome of the war, the end of the conflict, unless there is a genuine reconciliation, it’s just going to explode eventually. It can collapse any second.

But for now, the peace has held, allowing communities to return to a semblance of normality, and for economies and social structures to begin functioning again. The eerie calm taking hold in areas that had once been theaters of carnage is the legacy of one of the Syrian war’s most mysterious figures.

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