The Mystery Fixer Who is Negotiating an End to the Syrian War

A nearly unknown businessman named Khaled al Ahmad became Damascus’ secret liaison to the West and has quietly been dealing Syria’s grinding war to a close, reports Rhania Khalek.

By Rania Khalek
Gray Zone Project

After seven years of grinding war, the Syrian government has achieved victory. According to current and former international officials and diplomats as well as UN officials, credit or blame for the Syrian government’s recent victories in East Ghouta and then in the south — along with the tacit acceptance these sweeping military successes received — can be placed on one man.

He is Khaled al Ahmad, a Syrian government emissary and businessman who masterminded the Syrian government’s reconciliation strategy. Al Ahmad is the secret diplomat who has exerted exceptional tolls of energy building bridges with the enemies of Damascus. Despite his central role in bringing one of the worst conflicts since World War Two to an end, he remains almost totally unknown in international media and has scarcely been discussed even among expert Syria observers.

Bashar al Assad’s victory was made clear by the middle of July of this year, when multiple Israeli outlets confirmed that Israel’s government was cooperating with Russia to facilitate the return of Syrian forces and UN observers to the pre-2011 border with the occupied Golan Heights. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself stated that he had no objection to Assad’s rule while his defense minister even allowed for the possibility of diplomatic relations between the two countries. These statements were met with embarrassed silence by the Syrian government and its allies like the Lebanese political party and militia, Hezbollah, but they marked a striking shift in Israeli policy.

Naseeb Border Crossing: Final Target (Syrian Observer)

With Russian support, Syrian armed forces initiated a march to the southern borders of Jordan and Israel this July. The operation turned out to be a cakewalk. This success followed the recapture of East Ghouta and northern Homs, easily taken compared to the grinding battles of previous years. The reassertion of Syrian government authority over the south has as its final target the reopening of the Naseeb border crossing with Jordan and full restoration of the pre-2011 situation in the south. The U.S. has not objected, and in fact, has even sent a message to its former anti-Assad proxies in Syria informing them that they were on their own. Israel and Jordan, for their part, made it clear they had no objections either, as long as the operation was strictly Syrian, with no visible Iranian or Shia militia roles in the battles.

The battles in this phase were limited and not as brutal as they have sometimes been elsewhere. Many towns or rebel groups were not involved in the fighting and others quickly agreed to deals. This may have surprised some observers unfamiliar with the events that took place on the ground in 2015 and 2016, when tens of deals were struck secretly with rebel groups in the south. These deals helped thwart the 2015 Southern Storm operation launched by rebels when one of the main factions called Ababil Horan betrayed its allies. It was through this process that al Ahmad laid the foundation for the end of Syria’s war.

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 U.S.-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. 

Wafiq Nasr with a member of the Assoud Al-Sharqiyah jihadists who government media said defected to the Syrian Arab Army in July 2017. The group said this photo was taken after an exchange of corpses.  (Photo: Al-Masdar)

Coordinated with General Wafiq Nasr, who was at the time the government’s military intelligence 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 U.S. 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.”

Set Up Visit to Damascus

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 U.S. 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.” 

Simon: Secret mission to Damascus arranged by al Ahmad.(Photo: Fordham University)

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.

The strategy 

Badran: First mentioned al Ahmad in print in the West.

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 W. 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.

Obscure Origins

Rosen: worked with al Ahmad.

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 Syrian Social Nationalist Party (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.

DiMistura: Brief by al Ahmad. (UN Photo)

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.

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.

The Damascus suburb of Hammeh. (Photo by Rania Khalek)

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 Free Syrian Army — 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.

The Problem was Sectarianism’

Founders of TEMKEEN in Hammeh, from left to right: Ebrahim Fatouh, Bakri Abdulfatah, Mohaned Abdulfatah, Ahmad.              (Photo by Rania Khalek)

The important thing about Hammeh is how organic the reconciliation process was, with locals working hard to repair the area’s social fabric through local initiatives spearheaded by young people in Hammeh, such as the children’s festival organized between Hammeh and Jebel Wurud.

The first thing Temkeen did after the reconciliation went into effect was purchase a building in Hammeh, which they turned into a non-profit educational institution called Steps Education Center to help fill the gaps in schooling for kids who couldn’t attend classes during the fighting as well as job training for adults in software development, programing, website development, IT, electrical engineering and cooking. They also hope to use these educational initiatives to undo the damage from Islamist ideology spread by the armed groups.

What was most striking during my visit to Hammeh was the ratio of schools to mosques. I lost count of the number of mosques after I reached six. I asked Ebrahim how many schools were in Hammeh. He said five, but that includes just one high school. This was a noticeable pattern in areas of Syria that fell to the opposition—the mosques seemed to exceed the number of schools.

After 2000, when Bashar al Assad took over the presidency following his father’s death, he relaxed some of the country’s anti-religious laws and thousands of new mosques were built. A senior official with the ministry of public record estimated that 10,000 mosques were built under Bashar. This number does not include the Koran memorization schools the government sponsored during this time. Many of these mosques were funded by private donors from outside the country, mostly from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Ebrahim and his friends explained to me the role of the mosques in the protests that erupted in their town and later the role of foreigners. 

When the uprising began, boys would pour out of the mosques after Friday prayers to protest after being riled up by their local sheikhs, said Ebrahim.

There were never any problems in Hammeh that I can remember until 2011,” he said, explaining how the conflict in Hammeh evolved. “When the protests started here, a lot of young men went out and protested. They usually went after Friday prayer, the imams encouraged it. The problem wasn’t the protests, it was sectarianism. Hammeh is Sunni. There are neighborhoods around it that are Alawite and Shia.” 

Ebrahim continued, “In 2011 it was just harmless protests. But in 2012 it became sectarian. Within 10 days heavy weapons were coming in. In 2012, we also found foreigners here, they started fighting the Syrian army. There was a Jordanian man living in Hammeh. He fought in Iraq, then came to Syria and settled here. The Jordanian man played a role in arming the protests. Then there was the first agreement in beginning of 2013 for a truce and it lasted two years. We all left during this time, living outside Hammeh. We didn’t try coming back because it was too dangerous.”

Ebrahim fled to Lebanon, got married and then returned to Hammeh in 2015. But the situation deteriorated again. This time he stayed and joined his friends in efforts to assist his community. He spoke out against sectarianism and volunteered with charities that delivered humanitarian aid. 

His activism angered the Baraa Bin Malek brigade, one of the Islamist insurgent groups based in Hammeh. Ebrahim had posted a plea on Facebook to stop the violence and accept different religions, “so this brigade threatened me, they said I know your father, where you work.” 

Ebrahim was forced to flee to his grandfather’s house outside of Hammeh but soon grew tired of hiding out. “After a month, I thought I have to come back because we have to stop this ideology from spreading. I thought maybe I can change someone’s mind if I talk to them.”

But the conditions on the ground made his work impossible.

There were two brigades active in Hammeh throughout the conflict. In the last six months, before the reconciliation, they split into forty brigades because of infighting,” he recalled. “Each one had its own particular ideology and each one thought the other wasn’t religious enough.”

The rebel groups detained Ebrahim at the beginning of 2016 and interrogated him. “They accused me of dealing drugs and spreading an unacceptable ideology and being a kafir (infidel). I used to have long hair; they made me cut it. I stopped leaving the house and stopped all activities out of fear. My only contact was with my family,” he said. 

When they started the negotiations for reconciliation there was a military operation in Hammeh,” Ebrahim continued. “That’s when I was happy, people started to understand and say we don’t want this terrorist group here. The reason this agreement works here is because people started to protest against the rebel groups. They demanded the rebel groups leave. It was the same in Qudsaya. The armed groups realized the people don’t support them here, that’s why they said yes to the agreement. They left. After that we were safe, there’s no rebels anymore. At that time, we became active again and have been trying to convince everyone to accept other people, to be inclusive. We started out just four of us. Now there are 40 people in our organization.”

In 2010, the population of Hammeh, per the census, was 25,000. The population now is believed to be even higher given the number of people who have returned in addition to the internally displaced who have moved to Hammeh.

In 2016, the main street of Hammeh was empty. Today it is bustling with cars and families pouring in and out of local shops. Four of the stores on this street are owned by women. The boys point out that when the armed groups were in charge you couldn’t find a single woman running anything. In fact, women were rarely even seen in public. Nearby, the sound of children frolicking around a newly reopened public swimming pool filled the air. Not long ago, the pool served as a base for a band of insurgents.

This article originally appeared in the Gray Zone Project. 

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist living in Beirut, Lebanon. She is the co-host of the Unauthorized Disclosure podcast.

41 comments for “The Mystery Fixer Who is Negotiating an End to the Syrian War

  1. August 6, 2018 at 20:15

    Do you think he can help get troops home from Africa and Syrea?
    It has been many months with no end in site for home coming.

  2. Hans Zandvliet
    August 6, 2018 at 14:25

    Thank you very much for this very, very good article, Rhania Khalek.
    Outstanding research and evenly balanced comments on this barely known mr. Khaled al Ahmad.
    Moreover a very interesting look from inside two reconciled suburbs. Though I’ve been following the Syrian war closely (especially since Russia stepped in), I’ve rarely read an article telling the stories of local people dealing with their local situations.
    I hope to read more from you

  3. TS
    August 6, 2018 at 10:02

    A very interesting and informative article.

    Just one little point: even she has occasionally adopted NATO Newspeak. The correct English term for what is called “the armed opposition” is “insurgents” or “rebels”…

  4. Wally
    August 6, 2018 at 07:36

    What an extraordinary piece of journalism. Thank you. Hope it is followed up by more independent jornalists.

    More please. Especially on the reportage by western mews media from the area (or not) over recent times. Especially the Syria Campaign, the now disgraceful Guardian newspaper (who or wtf is Chulov?), the phantom juvenile twitterers and equally spooky ‘doctors’ of Allepo and bs White Helmets. Please find the whistleblowers and the money lines, the corporations, civil servants and politicians involved. Let’s drag them into the light of day.

  5. August 6, 2018 at 01:49

    This is a necessary counter to the endless Amerikastani propaganda about how the people “oppressed by Assad” are “living in fear” in the areas that have “come under regime rule”. The propaganda pandering Amerikastanis and their slaves in the EU countries, of course, would never ever dare visit Syria to see for themselves what they are supposed to be writing about.

    • August 6, 2018 at 08:31

      Biswapriya Purkayastha

      Thank you for your comment.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    August 5, 2018 at 15:59

    Let’s get one thing straight: it’s crucial the international community never forget the truly greatest humanitarian intervention of the last 40 years: Russia’s intercession in Syria, which began in 2015 when Damascus was on the verge of being overrun by the sadistic and violent mercenary terrorists.

    Putin and his entire staff in the Kremlin should get the Nobel Peace Prize for winding down the Syrian war!

    If not for Putin’s intervention we would now be witnessing a totally obliterated and failed state, not unlike Iraq and Libya today, in which the black flag of ISIS would be flying over Damascus. When a forthright history is eventually written Russia’s role in thwarting this dreadful outcome will be acknowledged and praised for eternity. Putin’s 2015 intervention in Syria is on par with the last great global humanitarian intervention – Castro sending the heroic and fearless Cuban soldiers into the southern region of Africa in the ‘60s and ‘70s to fight racist rule.

    Genuine disinterested journalists on the scene in Syria such as Eva Bartlett, Patrick Heningson and Vanessa Beeley have documented that the Russian air force has done everything in its power over the last few years to minimize civilian casualties while liberating vast swaths of territory. Newly freed towns and cities in Syria cannot thank the Russian and Syrian forces enough for freeing them from the ruthless Sunni fundamentalist sociopaths.

    Over the last several years, what the Western supported media, NGOs, and intel agencies have been orchestrating are staged and/or false flag chemical attacks to lay the blame on Assad. They assess that the more these concocted attacks occur the less credible and more conspiratorial the analysts, activists, intellectuals and concerned citizens who question them will appear. It’s a clever propaganda strategy that does nothing but embolden the anti-Assad Washington-Israeli supported jihadists. It’s essentially a play on Hitler’s adage that it’s easier to get the public to fall for a big lie than a small one.

    • August 6, 2018 at 01:53

      It’s interesting that certain “pro-Syria” people online have launched a vicious disinformation campaign against Vanessa, Eva, Janice Kortkamp, Tim Hayward, Tim Anderson and other Western pro-Syrian voices (one of these individuals also stalked yours truly and accused me of being an “ISIS supporter”). These “pro-Syria” people, not one of whom dares set foot on Syrian soil, seem desperate to take the credit for victory now that it’s clear that the conflict against the terrorists is all but won.

    • Sunset
      August 6, 2018 at 11:35

      Drew, Didn’t you mean to say “interested,” not “disinterested” in speaking of Bartlett and Beeley above?

      And btw, BP, a couple of Americans have gone to Syria and come back with honest reports — US Rep Tulsi Gabbard and VA state Senator Richard Black.

      • David G
        August 6, 2018 at 17:16

        Sunset, Drew used “disinterested” in the sense of “without distortion or hidden agendas” – a better goal for journalists than the MSM norm, which is not *disinterested*, but rather *uninterested* in the welfare of Syria, while beholden to the malign *interests* of Western militarists.

        • David G
          August 6, 2018 at 17:40

          Sorry to go on, but writing the above brought back to mind the saga of NBC’s Richard Engel: sent to Syria to report on the heroic struggle of the freedom fighters against the butcher Assad, taken captive and held for five doubtless very uncomfortable days by the ostensible “good guy” rebels, and then after his release he participated in the fiction that it was the Syrian government that had done it.

          That – just for the record – is *not* disinterested journalism.

    • FB
      August 6, 2018 at 14:11

      This is a great comment…the analogy with Cuba’s intervention in Africa is tremendous and poignant…

      Yes, what you have said is the main reason that the Syria nightmare is today winding down…I would also give President Trump due credit also as he has gone along with the Russian plan on Syria despite overwhelming pressure from the unelected but incredibly powerful deep state…

      This is a very good article from Ms Khalek, an exceptional journalist, but all this progress on reconciliation must be placed in the context that it was Russia that has been the driver behind this…Mr al Ahmad has played a vital diplomatic role behind the scenes in getting the West to go along…or at least not oppose it too vigorously as Ms Khalek avers…

      Still it must be said that the role of this man, or even his existence, as completely unknown to me, and I’m sure many others…well done to Consortium News for running this…

    • David G
      August 6, 2018 at 17:28

      Well said.

      I do think Rania Khalek may have gone a little overboard with: “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 …”

      Still, the Syrian government has been an active and independent participant in its own salvation, and I take this piece as a window into another aspect of what continues to be an extremely complex situation.

    • notlurking
      August 8, 2018 at 11:01

      That is what I call giving credit were credit is due…….

  7. Eddie
    August 5, 2018 at 10:44

    Good article that helps one appreciate the complexities and ‘shades of gray’ of the Syrian conflict from a relatively humanistic, anti-war perspective, as opposed to the ill-disguised militarism & nationalism of the MSM.

  8. Sam F
    August 4, 2018 at 19:00

    A remarkable story of diplomacy, to “normalize the idea of de-escalation, reconciliation, local ceasefires, and decentralization” although presumably external factors enabled this. It is difficult to believe that one man persuaded raging irrational foreign oligarchs to be nice, unless their interests fortuitously coincided.

    Perhaps withdrawal of foreign support, due to international chemistry yet unknown.
    Perhaps a Trump decision, masked by raging at Iran, to remove their cause to be in Syria.
    Perhaps Yemen was a step too far for KSA and UAE, chastened at last by NATO/US.

    • Sam F
      August 4, 2018 at 21:19

      On RT today, Russia criticizes US leak of its mid-July proposal to join efforts in Syria.
      Idlib will be the test of diplomacy: perhaps jihadis can be exported against Israel.

  9. mrtmbrnmn
    August 4, 2018 at 18:19

    Excellent reporting, Rania!! This is what real journalism used to be but now rarely is. Robert Parry would be pleased to see this piece published on the ConsortiumNews site. Americans are about as ignorant as Martians when it comes to the Middle East (or the Muslim World in general). Regarding Syria, we have been fed drivel and lies for years by the White Helmet propaganda arm of the US/Saudi/Jihadi/Israeli Axis of Evil and their uninformed western MSM stenographers and cheerleaders. It is enlightening and encouraging to read something on Syria by someone who actually knows and comprehends what she is writing about. Thnx!

  10. uncle tungsten
    August 4, 2018 at 17:57

    Thank you Rania for an excellent investigation and a story of promis and peace. al Ahmad is a mighy peace warrior and the world needs more of them. I trust that Syrians can assert control over their mosques and install preachers of tolerance and peace. Indonesia is in dire need of similar intedvention before the preaching fanatics shatter that country further.

  11. Jane
    August 4, 2018 at 17:02

    It is great that the Syrian war seems finally to be winding down. It would have wound down years ago if it hadn’t had foreign support and what I would like to know is, are the French and the British and the Americans and the Saudis and Israel just going to get away with it? We wanted regime change, it didn’t work out, too bad, it was worth a try, let’s pretend nothing happened and go back to where we were. France for example has apparently sent some humanitarian aid to Damascus. It’s like, we’ve been trying to destroy your country for the past seven years, but hey, no hard feelings. Hollande, Cameron, Obama, and the rest of them should be up before the beak.

    • August 6, 2018 at 01:56

      “…..Hollande, Cameron, Obama, and the rest of them should be up before the firing squad”.

      Fixed that for you.

  12. August 4, 2018 at 16:45

    Very interesting character, this mystery emissary, one wonders what strange unfolding may follow now after the US bloodbath in Syria. My guess on the Chinese military being invited in for the mopping-up operation is China’s BRI plan that sees Syria as a critical link in that project. I remember an article some while back probably from Engdahl on New Eastern Outlook stating that. Also, geopolitical events seem to me to have reached a turning point due to the world reaction to Washington’s disastrous regime change operations, and China is rising while America is declining fiscally and socially even as Trump would like to do MAGA. China sees and seizes an opportunity in Syria, assisted by Russia. The US and NATO regime change operations since Yugoslavia and then Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Syria have acted as a vaccine, if you will, to innoculate people with antibodies against the US lies of “bringers of democracy”.

    If there is any regime needing changing, it is the neocon/democon USA. We need to be careful to make statements about how Assad has treated his people, since we are not in Syria to witness firsthand. He was demonized from the start for political purposes. I would say that the US regime (and it is one) has not exactly treated its people very well, unless they’re in the 1%.

    It is no wonder that Syrians might be in a daze after those disastrous years; they are suffering from PTSD. I wish them godspeed in recovery.

  13. Sally Snyder
    August 4, 2018 at 12:45

    Here are some fascinating excerpts from a recent interview with Bashar al-Assad about the situation in Syria:

    While there is little doubt that the Assad regime has treated some of its citizens badly, the United States has demonstrated that its plans for regime change and the imposition of “Democracy, Western-Style” have been a complete failure in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. As well, there is little to suggest that replacing Bashar al-Assad with a hand-picked pro-American successor will prove successful, particularly for the Syrian people.

    • Anony
      August 6, 2018 at 11:41

      Whenever I see a sentence begin with “While there is little doubt that…” my antennas go up! I have great doubt that Assad has ever been up to no good!

      • Rob Roy
        August 6, 2018 at 20:26

        Thank you, Anony, I felt the same when I read those words. Assad has never used chemical weapons on the Syrians, for example, as has been proven each time he’s been accused. Yet, people still throw in that line as if it were established truth. He has always been a good man.

  14. August 4, 2018 at 08:36

    Yea, I’m a bit confused. You have Assad as in a need to manipulate the Russians, who are suppose to be his ally? That’s a troubling thought. I mean I’ve had my own wonders as to what Russia’s main goal was here as it is. Outside the obvious, a sense of resources and power standing of course. But I’ve often wondered if Putin wasn’t merely a double agent for the oligarchy keeping Assad from advancing and controlling the situation quicker. Seriously, with the power Russia is to have, the Israeli’s and western forces have been able to just fly in and bomb sites at will with virtually no resistance. That isn’t much of an ally that’s suppose to be such a military might technology wise when this is allowed on his citizens. Then you have this al Ahmad guy working with the US as far back as Kerry while all I mentioned above is going on also, and them some, I getting another sense of double agent. I’m developing a sense that Assad may have just made a deal to return to being a western stooge again!?! Another troubling thought! Because now I’m wondering if this whole Syrian quagmire wasn’t just a killing field for the all the military complexes around the globe to rid themselves of their stock piles of arms and bombs to making billions manufacturing a new stock pile. Maybe we should take another look at Yemen’s real purpose on the stage!

    • Realist
      August 4, 2018 at 17:35

      Excellent questions.

    • uncle tungsten
      August 4, 2018 at 18:05

      Thank you for those thoughts William. After the obscene battle in Chechnya and the multiple slaughter of innocents in the Russian Federation hou can be sure Putin will go to great lengths to remove fertile soil for terrorists to flourish in. Syria cannot fail as those murderous fanatics will be coming to Moscow or somewhere next. The closer Russia is to the nursery of these killers, the better to deal with them. Saudi Arabia is the source and its neighbors actively connive in this global infestation.

      Strategic issues are surely important too but there ix a vital global need to not pussy foot around with religious nazism.

      • Sam F
        August 5, 2018 at 14:44

        Russia seems to know that in Syria “the closer Russia is to the nursery of these killers, the better to deal with them.” One wishes that they would use a Gaza relief protection operation to establish a base in Gaza and put KSA and Israel on notice that there may well be defenders of their victims. This would earn Russia much support in the West, putting Gaza in the light Israel has falsely claimed, of the small victim of fascist aggression.

    • Dave P.
      August 4, 2018 at 19:44

      William –

      You have made some good points. But I would like to add that this narrative (in the article) is just by one Journalist. One has to look at the whole picture. When Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, I was surprised that they have staked their neck out there with no body to back them, not even China at that time. But I understood that Russia has to do it or these Jihadists which West is arming are going to head to Russia after this regime change operation is completed.

      Russia is a European Nation and is completely isolated from the rest of European Countries. Imagine your home with twenty five bandits sitting there outside the house with latest machine guns and you are defending it alone with some old model machine gun. There is no match. Russia has to tread very carefully.

      It is not 1950’s when Nonaligned Nations movement with all these leaders Soekarno, Nasser, Nehru, Tito . . . was very strong; and Soviet Union was big, militarily strong, and was counted. When Nasser nationalized Suez Canal in 1956, and U.K. and France attacked Egypt, there was uproar and demonstrations in New Delhi, Jakarta, Belgrade, Beijing, and many other Capitols in third World Countries. And even Eisenhower was forced to condemn the attack. When Vietnam conflict started heating up in 1965, there were demonstrations in those Capitols, and so on. It was the scene throughout 1950’s into the 60’s on many occasions when The West tried to intervene in the Third World Countries for regime change type operations. Soviet Union/ Russia had Non-Alligned Countries support in many of the standoffs.

      Those days are gone. Neo-Globalism under The West’s command rules in most of the countries; and the leaders and Elite in those countries have their mansions and properties in the Western Countries. And there is all this fifth columnist Neo-Globalists in Russia.
      Russia has too many forces arrayed against it. They took care of just three or four of those Jewish Oligarchs, and there is uproar still going on in the West about that. Khodorovsky is on BBC, and other European Channels; there was this article of his interview on Der Spiegel recently. There is always this talk in Western circles wanting to return him to Russia and make him President of Russia.

      The World is a NeoGlobalist jungle now. Russia still has not set up proper institutions for a Capitalistic Economy, and many of its political institutions are still very fragile and can crack under West’s pressure. And Russia cannot return to Socialism, they have tried it already.

      Russia has been able to survive and reorganize itself again because of very deft diplomacy of its top leadership, especially Putin and Lavrov. And in Syria, Russia has been very careful not to antagonize any of the other parties involved in that conflict because of its very skillful diplomacy.

      • Realist
        August 5, 2018 at 02:55

        Excellent analysis… and recounted from personal memories! I remember those events but, born in the 40’s, was still just a kid when they happened in the 50’s and can only fully understand them in retrospect.

    • backwardsevolution
      August 4, 2018 at 22:21

      William – Who the heck knows what’s going on, William, but I definitely think you’re on to something with this as well: “Because now I’m wondering if this whole Syrian quagmire wasn’t just a killing field for all the military complexes around the globe to rid themselves of their stock piles of arms and bombs to making billions manufacturing a new stock pile. Maybe we should take another look at Yemen’s real purpose on the stage!”

      If you don’t go along with allowing the West in (in which case the elites make billions off banking and industry), you get bombed off the face of the earth (in which case the elites make billions off armaments). For the elites, it’s a win/win either way. And then when your country is leveled and you have nothing left, in comes banking and industry, anyway.

      I was listening to an old video by Anthony Sutton, a British technology researcher who became an American citizen. He was a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute when he began to notice that the Americans were selling arms and missile technology to the Soviets during the Cold War. He did more research and found that these same companies had been arming and supplying technology to Hitler as well. He’s written many books, but had a hard time getting published (because they didn’t want to touch such a touchy subject), and the mainstream media totally ignored his work (I wonder why).

      40-minute interview from 1980 entitled “The Best Enemies Money Can Buy – Soviet Russia and Na*i Germany – Professor Anthony C. Sutton”:

      He explains at 5:40 how “Germany could not have gone to war in 1939 without tetraethyl. You need tetraethyl to raise the octane value of aviation gasoline. Germany had no means of doing that. This was developed in the ethyl laboratories in the United States and transferred to the Germans.”

      To the Soviet Union the U.S. shipped heavy water, aluminum tubes and graphite. During the 70’s, the Soviets didn’t have the capability to MIRV (a ballistic missile payload containing several thermonuclear warheads, each capable of being aimed to hit a different target) their missiles.

      Sutton says, “In particular, they lacked the ability to produce the very precision, micro miniature ball bearings that are needed for the control systems. There was only one company in the world, Bryant Chucking Grinder, which could make the machinery which machines the races within which these ball bearings run, and without those races, you just cannot make MIRV’d missiles in any quantity. You can make one of, but not in quantity. Bryant Chucking Grinder was allowed to ship to the Soviet Union 45 of these machines at a time when we only had 33 in the United States.”

    • Ken
      August 6, 2018 at 00:27

      It is confusing – above all, the change in alliances. Israel in accordance with the Assad gov’t? The US standing down?
      We obviously know little of what is transpiring behind the curtain…

    • August 6, 2018 at 20:38

      Poppycock. You can’t draw accurate conclusions when you begin with false premises. Why is Russia in Syria?
      For the simple fact that he was invited by Bashar al Assad who asked Putin for help. The only two legitimate groups in Syria are Assad’s government and Russia. All the rest are illegals.
      As for Assad making “a deal to return to being a western stooge again,” where on earth do you get that? Assad has never been a “western stooge.” Why do you think Hillary said, “Assad must go”? He’s no more of a western puppet than his dad was. Never happened. Never will.

      • Dave P.
        August 7, 2018 at 03:10

        I completely agree with you.

        There is nothing confusing about what is going on there in Syria. Syrian Government and Russians are trying to preserve infrastructure and cities of whatever is left in this carnage and destruction brought about by the Western armed and supported Jihadists in Syria, with all these deconflicting zones, negotiations with the armed groups, and carefully selecting the bombing targets.

        Bashar Assad is U.K. educated opthamologist, is mild mannered, and is different from his father in this respect.
        His sunni muslim wife Asma is U.K. born and educated and was headed to Harvard business School for MBA when she met Bashar Assad. They are very Western oriented couple, are secular. They are not stooges ; they love their country. Syria has to survive under very difficult circumstances.

        It seems like Russians are trying to get Assad to make peace with Israel, may be Israel will return the Golan Heights. AIPAC/ Israel practically runs U.S. and E.U. foreign policy, and to some extent domestic policy too. West is very strong. So is Israel. Russia very much knows it. Russia wants peace and wants to develop and better the lives of it’s people after the collapse, and plunder of its economy. Russia’s main objective is to have stability in ME, U.S./West’s objective is opposite of it.

        No country has democracy in ME. Egypt tried it; Muslim Brotherhood won. It was not to West’s taste, and dictatorship was installed again. Syria is the most diverse country in ME with all these religions, sects, and nationalities. it needs secular government. Assad and his wife is the best Syria can have. If he is toppled by these Jihadist head choppers supported and armed by the West, KSA, and Gulf Monarchies, there is going to be bloodshed and utter chaos in that region.

  15. jo6pac
    August 4, 2018 at 08:07

    Thanks for the insight. May the war on the Syrian People end soon.

  16. August 4, 2018 at 08:00

    “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.”

    Did this lady write this article or did Khaled-al-Ahmad? The guy must be superman.

    I agree with realist about the US presence, and we are petty enough to keep the war going to deny Russia its victory. Fragmenting and destabilizing Iraq and Syria has been our long term policy on behalf of our Middle Eastern allies and I think the leaders of those countries and the Russians see that clearly.

    Back to Khaled al Ahmad, whatever roll he played what did result is impressive: the way Assad went about dealing with reasonable opposition groups.

  17. Realist
    August 4, 2018 at 05:03

    I surely hope this 7-year long American-facilitated blood fest is truly coming to an end, but I just read elsewhere that Assad has invited in the Chinese military because the final conquest of Idlib province (harboring 40,000 fanatical jihadists amongst 2 million civilians) is anticipated to be a hard slog, the same or perhaps worse than the re-taking of Aleppo.

    And after that, what about all the American-held territory in the North? Can’t envisage Washington quietly skulking away when they’ve still got so many “assets” there, not when they can continue to cause trouble for Assad and Putin for only the price of their already sunk costs. Not unless Trump really got a deal from Putin not to interfere with the glorious war we have planned in Iran, which does nothing for Putin’s credibility.

    It ain’t over till the U.S. special forces are being rapidly evacuated and their bases are being dismantled. Then I’ll believe the war in Syria is over.

    • Dave P.
      August 4, 2018 at 20:37

      It ain’t over yet. You are right on that. Given the record of the powers in London, Paris, Washington, and Jerusalem, it is difficult to predict what lies in the future for Syria.

    • John wilson
      August 5, 2018 at 03:11

      Your last paragraph, Realist, sums up everything written here, including article and all comments. When the Americans and other foreign players have gone, then Assad can really reclaim his country.

    • August 6, 2018 at 20:42

      Sorry, Putin knows a war in Iran will be just as wrong as the war in Syria. He wouldn’t make such a deal.

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