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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 4 - Obscure origins

It remains unclear clear how al Ahmad rose from relative obscurity to become the devil’s advocate. I was told by multiple sources that his ascent was a symptom of Assad’s frustration with the inefficiency of his own system and with the dishonesty of his own advisors. The Syrian leader began to circumvent the official chain of command and appoint informal advisors who reported directly to him. While it was unusual for Assad to select a 30-year-old man who was not part of the security apparatus to be his secret representative abroad, it appears that al Ahmad was elevated into the system by an influential father. There is much confusion about his sect, but his name and the fact that he is described as originally from Homs suggest he is a Sunni Muslim, which surely helped him build bridges with the opposition. While he does not seem to respect the system or regime itself, according to those who have spoken to him, he is staunchly loyal to the president as an individual and as the only man who can guarantee the stability of the Syrian state and Syria’s triumph over the crisis.

Said to have studied aeronautical engineering, al Ahmad is also believed to refer to the de-escalation process as a “soft landing” for Syria. Thus in meetings with Western officials, including Americans, when they would inevitably bring up the fate of Assad, al Ahmad is said to have dismissed the issue out of hand. The ship of state could weather a harsh storm, but under no circumstance would he allow it to crash against the hard rocks of regime change.

Another reason for al Ahmad’s emergence appears to be that he is simply the only man available for the job. Syria’s diplomats and intelligence officials lack the flexibility and finesse to talk to Westerners without sounding like ossified Baathist ideologues. Here too Assad demonstrated a clever approach. Knowing that his traditional representatives would alienate their interlocutors, he needed someone who could speak for him and cast him in a favorable light. Al Ahmad, say those who know him, is an avid consumer of books and articles in English and Arabic. WHile he is loosely associated with the Syrian nationalism of the SSNP, he has demonstrated a pragmatic approach shorn of ideological bonds. His sensibilities stand in strong contrast to Syrian government officials who have relied on local news that reinforces their worldview and hardens their outlook.

The withdrawal of international diplomats from Syria also meant that government officials only talked to a handful of emissaries from places like Algeria, China, Russia, North Korea and Cuba. One European diplomat compared al Ahmad to Ronaldo, the soccer striker who carries the otherwise unimpressive Portuguese national team on his back.

Al Ahmad appears not to be on a sanctions list, allowing him frequent travel to Europe, where he has met with officials in multiple governments. Members of the armed opposition have met him in different European cities including Berlin, Geneva and Oslo. On top of bringing Steve Simon and other Western officials to Syria, he’s brought opposition leaders to Damascus, both civilian and military.

Al Ahmad was frequently sought out by insurgents and opposition members seeking to make a deal with the government. He was also regularly invited to international conferences in Oslo, Moscow and elsewhere to explain the government point of view in logical and measured terms. He also provided special briefings for UN special envoys to Syria Ibrahimi and De Mistura, as well as Jeffrey Feltman, the former State Department official who until recently headed the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

Al Ahmad’s years of outreach and marketing on behalf of the government didn’t lead to radical change in the policies of the enemies of Damascus, but they prevented more radical policies from being adopted. Indeed, his efforts helped normalize the idea of de-escalation, reconciliation, local ceasefires, and decentralization as alternatives to endless war. In Western capitals divided in debates between Syria hawks and those who were more skeptical of regime change, al Ahmad offered the pragmatists crucial arguments to help prevent the pursuit of maximalist policies. His work was thus crucial in persuading an Obama administration that knew de-escalation was the only solution but couldn’t admit it for political reasons.

Likewise, when NGOs and humanitarian organizations needed advice, visas or a guide for working in Syria, al Ahmad often facilitated their work. And when when international media touched down in Damascus, he encouraged them to portray daily life in government-held areas and generate more balanced coverage. Many Western officials would deny meeting al Ahmad, even as they desperately sought him out. For them, he was a trusted guide to Damascus and a counter-weight to the rumor-mongering and propaganda spread by their Turkey-based colleagues, who had “gone native,” along with a cartoonishly biased Western media that has relied exclusively on a carefully cultivated network of opposition activists.

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