Photo published by Syrian presidency on August 8, 2018, announcing the Syrian 'First Lady' was fighting a breast cancer. Picture by Balkis Press/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. In the past few weeks, much has changed in Syria. The people of Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian revolution, used to look up and see regime warplanes; now they see the regime’s red, white, and black flag fluttering triumphantly over their city for the first time in seven years.
The victory was swiftly followed by promises to take back Idlib by negotiations and diplomacy or any means necessary. Syrian representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari declared, drunk on victory: “If Idlib returns via reconciliation, this is well and good. And if it does not, the Syrian army has the right to restore control over Idlib by force.” The regime is willing to bomb Idlib street by street in their quest to achieve another victory for Syria’s ‘sovereignty.’
Feeling empowered, Assad now feels secure enough to deal with the issue of thousands of enforced disappearances that have taken place since 2011. The regime has recently issued an unprecedented number of ‘death notices’ - declarations that detainees in its prisons have died. Assad had kept the uncertain fate of these thousands of Syrians as a bargaining chip in the Astana and Geneva negotiations that were already tilted in his favour. Now, certain that any backlash to the sheer number of deaths in detention can be managed, he has revealed their grim fate.
Syrians, as they have done wearily for decades before, tried to decipher the message Assad was sending by releasing these death notices and the time he chose to do so. The message is in fact simple: the regime is back, scared of no one, and will rule on as if the revolution never happened.
Public relations renaissance
Meanwhile, a vigorous public relations campaign is underway. A recent photo of Assad holding his wife Asma’s hand in a military hospital after her diagnosis with breast cancer shows that the regime’s PR machine is stumbling no more, and is now roaring back into action. The PR campaign isn’t limited to the first couple but extends to their family as well. Images of Assad’s family visiting the villages of fallen regime soldiers went viral not too long ago.
But as all this is happening front and centre of the public’s eye, there is something more dangerous afoot that is being given scant attention: the PR campaign to polish the image of regime figures that until now had kept to the shadows – waiting for the right time to unveil themselves.
Khaled al-Ahmad is one such figure.
A few days ago, a friend emailed me an article entitled “Meet the Mystery Fixer Who Negotiated Syria out of Seven Years of War”, I thought this is interesting until I started reading it. It was scary. The report is in essence a puff piece for a businessman named Khaled al-Ahmad, a man known less for his entrepreneurial acumen than for his ties to the regime. His most high-profile foray into the public sphere until now had come in 2012, when his name appeared in leaked emails belonging to Assad.
The propaganda piece was written by a pro-Assad journalist who said it was part of a two-part series on the ‘reconciliation process’ in Syria. With crushing predictability, the article was published and republished again by various western media outlets, all of which dub themselves ‘alternative,’ and claim to be standing up against the ‘mainstream media’ narrative of the coverage of the Syrian war;all of which support Assad the anti-imperialist in his war against the decadent west and puritan Islamists.
The article starts off by introducing al-Ahmad in modest terms, crediting him for having “a central role in bringing one of the worst conflicts since World War Two to an end.” He was also credited for the regime’s recent victories in East Ghouta and on the southern front. The focus of the article, however, was on crediting him on being the mastermind behind the government’s so-called ‘reconciliation strategy,’ if such a thing even exists.
The word reconciliation was used many times in the article to show the prowess of al-Ahmad and the regime’s conflict resolution skills. The piece takes Hammeh in rural Damascus as a sole example of a successful reconciliation deal. The article also quotes local people who spoke about the sectarian uprising that started there and the negative role of the mosques in the revolution. A cliché narrative that services the purpose of the article, which can be summarised in two points: exalting reconciliations offered by the regime and crediting Al Ahmad for it.
And while the word reconciliation outside Syria implies an agreement between two parties or more, the case in Syria remains different. The reconciliations they are talking about are not dignifying and certainly not optional. Rather, they are merely one out of an arsenal of coercive tools the regime uses in order to take back areas and communities that slipped out of its grasp.
The reconciliations that are happening in Syria under the eye of the international community are mainly achieved by creating siege environments on the targeted area accompanied almost all the times by aerial bombardment. These dystopian conditions encourage the local community within the besieged area to pressure their leaders to reach an agreement – any agreement – with the government to end their misery. The government, in turn, evacuates most of the local population, if not all of it, and then restores state control over what is left.
The man, the myth, the playmaker
But why would this long-anonymous, 30-something-year-old businessman suddenly have an in-depth article published about him, detailing his role, revealing his relation to the American journalist Nir Rosen, and giving him enough credit that he be called the “fixer” who negotiated Syria out of its war?
The answer is that the regime intentionally kept people like al-Ahmad away from the political sphere in order to keep them ‘clean,’ and in turn use them as liaisons with the west – just as the article showed as being the case. Al-Ahmad served the regime sincerely, but managed to keep his ties to it known by so few people that he was never placed on the sanctions list, unlike other regime-linked businessmen in Syria.
Al-Ahmad was kept in the shadows until the right time came for him to step forward into the light – when Assad was placing the final touches on his painting by tying up one loose end after another; from seizing southern revolutionary cities like Daraa to finalizing the deaths of those killed in prison long ago.
The next phase in Syria’s brutal modern history will likely see more al-Ahmad type figures propagated by the regime, repackaged and sold in western media as ‘fixers,’ despite having played a part in the breaking of their country. Al-Ahmad will not be last of his kind, and as for the man himself – only time will tell what his future role will be.