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 5 - Life returns to normal
I caught a glimpse of the consequences of al Ahmad’s efforts last summer when I visited several areas in Syria that have reconciled with the government.
One of the most genuine reconciliations to take place was in Hammeh, a Sunni suburb of Damascus formerly under rebel control. Then there was Qudsaya, also an outlying area Damascus that had been controlled by the armed opposition. These suburban areas were the first to be fully normalized, meaning the siege was totally removed and a free flow of goods and people were allowed. They were also freed from unregulated militias and their weapons. In a deal organized by the then-head of the National Defense Forces in Damascus, Fadi Saqr, the opposition was given a choice to stay and receive an amnesty that guaranteed that none of the security agencies would arrest them. Their other option was to receive safe passage further north to opposition held areas, a practice pioneered in Homs in 2014.
During Ramadan of 2017, a group of Syrian youths from Hammeh went to the orphanage of the neighboring poor Alawite suburb, Jebel Wurud, to deliver presents to the children, many of whose parents were killed during the fighting. The residents of Jebel Wurud, who up until a few months earlier had been enforcing a government-imposed siege on Hammeh, were astonished. The next day the young people in Hammeh held a children’s festival on a patch of land in the valley between the two mountain villages that had been a no man’s land during the fighting. As people from Jebel Wurud passed by the area to buy bread at a nearby government-run bakery, they and their children, though somewhat cautious and suspicious at first, eventually joined the fun. Inspired by the kind gesture from Hammeh’s youth, a group of young people from Jebel Wurud visited Hammeh the day after the festival, bearing gifts for Hammeh’s orphans.
“We focused on the families who suffered from this crisis from both areas,” explained Ebrahim Fatouh, a Hammeh local who helped lead the activity. “We got them together, especially the mothers who lost their children.”
Ebrahim, a 23-year-old freelance graphic designer born and raised in Hammeh, is public relations manager of Temkeen, which means empowerment in Arabic. Temkeen is a civil society group established by Ebrahim and his friends back in 2016 to help repair Hammeh’s social fabric. But it wasn’t until after the fighting ended that Temkeen was able to do anything truly effective.
“From 2012 to 2017, until the reconciliation, these villages were fighting,” said Ebrahim. The truce had allowed the necessary space for him and his friends to get to work. Hammeh is but one example.
Hammeh is an extension of Qudsaya, an even larger Damascus suburb that reconciled with the government as part of the Hammeh negotiations last year. In early 2017, residents of Hammeh kicked out the armed groups inhabiting the town and reconciled with the government after lengthy and arduous negotiations.
Hammeh and Qudsaya were held initially by the FSA — in Hammeh the rebel forces included some fighters affiliated with Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. During ceasefires in Qudsaya, fighters from Hammeh would often spoil the truce by launching attacks on government areas. This infuriated the government and the residents of Qudsaya and Hammeh. Ultimately the siege tactics imposed by the government on these areas worked. Nobody was forced to leave, they were given the choice of either remaining in the Syria of President Assad or leaving to insurgent-held areas in the north.
An estimated 300 insurgents, some 30 percent of the rebel fighters in Hammeh, as well as some of the civilian elements of the insurgency political administration, chose to stay and receive amnesty from the Syrian government in exchange for handing over their weapons. For those who stayed, checkpoints were removed and life was normalized, including for the men who were given amnesties.
Residents in Hammeh say that those given amnesty were able to return to their ordinary lives and now they come and go as they please. While they are looked upon with suspicion by some locals, there haven’t been any problems except for one verbal skirmish during Ramadan. The government got involved and mediated and those involved promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Compared to other areas that came under opposition control, Hammeh endured little physical damage. On the way into Hammeh, I drove by what used to be the Barada beer factory. It was in ruins, destroyed by Al Nusra, which deems alcohol to be anti-Islamic. All that remained were mounds of broken green beer bottles. There were some damaged residential buildings strategically located at the top of the mountain that overlooks Hammeh, which insurgents had captured in an effort to control the entire town. Bullet holes from sniper fire could be spotted on the exterior of some homes and shops. But for the most part the town was still in good shape. And reconstruction on the damaged buildings had already begun when I was visiting.
Hammeh had been reintegrated into the city suburbs, so people and commerce flowed freely. There was a checkpoint at the entrance to the town to check for weapons and car bombs, but it was relaxed and easy to move back and forth. The men in charge of the checkpoints were locals from Hammeh who were hand selected by the local reconciliation committee, demonstrating some of the local autonomy that exists in Hammeh due to compromises by the government.
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