Recent diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria and facilitate an end to the country’s war—ostensibly negotiated by the United States and Russia in relative isolation in Geneva, Switzerland—have had more Syrian involvement than has been previously understood or reported.

Specifically, as negotiations were ongoing, U.S. diplomats were engaging in a running dialogue with a core set of rebel factions necessary to the success of any ceasefire on the ground. This channel to armed rebels seems to have been key to lending U.S. negotiators real leverage in ceasefire talks in Geneva, and it will likely figure into the prospects for other agreements going forward.

This consultation with armed factions marks a change from previous negotiations, when rebels’ interests were mostly represented by civilians speaking on their behalf. Even though this latest ceasefire has failed, this behind-the-scenes dialogue is part of a larger, pragmatic shift on the part of the United States, as the U.S. State Department has proved increasingly willing to deal with Syrians with real power on the ground. These communications also signal the maturation of these armed opposition groups, which, after five years of war, now have leaders and political officers who can do their own talking to the outside world.

Virtuous and Vicious Cycles

Ceasefires are iterative, as Max Fisher reminded us in The New York Times earlier this month. Political science research indicates that even failed ceasefires can lay groundwork for a future settlement if they convince adversaries the other side is predictable and credible. The result is a “virtuous cycle” that enables increasingly serious talks over time.

Of course, the opposite also holds: Repeated demonstrations of bad faith or a failure to punish violations can create a “vicious cycle,” Fisher noted, one that saps combatants’ confidence in negotiations and discourages them from returning to the table.

The demonstrated failure of two nationwide “cessations of hostilities” in Syria has set in motion the latter, destructive cycle between the Syrian opposition and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as their respective backers.

Yet over the past year, a parallel, virtuous cycle has taken hold within the pro-opposition camp, as diplomats and armed rebels—represented by an increasingly professionalized class of rebel political officers—have assessed each others’ credibility and opened up lines of communication.

According to diplomatic and opposition sources, armed rebels’ direct line to diplomats and to American diplomats in particular has become increasingly relevant for consultation on ongoing diplomatic efforts. It has allowed for a frank exchange over the terms of draft agreements and practical expectations for opposition compliance, even as diplomats and rebels have continued to disagree on the overall wisdom or utility of any deal.

“AOGs [an acronym for ‘armed opposition groups’] have important political-military weight,” a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity told me over e-mail. “They and we know they have to link military means with political ends, and they will be expected to implement any agreements on the ground. That makes communication especially important in the context of a political process, negotiations, and issues connected to the [cessation of hostilities].”

To the extent that the United States in particular can enter bilateral negotiations with Russia and make semi-credible commitments about opposition buy-in for a deal, it seems to hinge on America’s relationship with these armed rebel groups.

September’s Failed Ceasefire

Expectations were low going into this new ceasefire after the collapse of an earlier agreement in February. Muhammad Beiraqdar, a political officer in rebel faction the Army of Islam, told me over the messaging app WhatsApp that rebels counted 1,500 violations by the regime during the February ceasefire, with no evident consequences. “It was as if the United Nations was just a meter to record violations,” said Beiraqdar.

The new agreement, concluded on September 9, was premised on an initial nationwide ceasefire and new humanitarian access, after which the United States and Russia would jointly target jihadist fighters excluded from the deal.

The February cessation mostly held for weeks before it definitively collapsed. The September agreement began to fray almost immediately before devolving into some of the most intense violence of the war.

It is now difficult to imagine a diplomatic push for a third cessation of hostilities, particularly after the rapid failure of this latest attempt was punctuated with a strike on a humanitarian aid convoy outside Aleppo by the regime, Russia, or both.

Rebels publicly issued a set of specific objections to the September 9 deal, but, sources told me, gave diplomats a verbal commitment to adhere to the ceasefire’s basic tenets.

U.S. diplomats had been in regular communication with these factions before, during and after the failed ceasefire. According to rebel sources, the core opposition factions with whom U.S. Special Envoy Michael Ratney has remained in contact include the Damascus-centered Army of Islam; opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham; major Aleppo-area factions Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki and the Levant Front; and several others. The short list includes factions long considered outside the bounds of U.S. support or, in the case of Nour al-Din al-Zinki, that have been cut off from U.S. backing. All of them, however, would need to be on board for a successful ceasefire.

“Besides [the] Nusra [Front], [the self-proclaimed Islamic State], and a handful of other irreconcilable AOGs, we communicate with any group of relevance,” said the State Department official. “That doesn’t mean we agree with all their views or endorse all their practices. But communication is critical, and we work within the AOG political environment and, to the extent possible, with the kinds of decision-making processes that they themselves have developed.”

Prior to the September 9 deal, these factions had already been in direct communications with Ratney, the United Nations and other diplomats over an agreement on humanitarian access to Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern neighborhoods. Those negotiations then merged with the broader, nationwide deal negotiated bilaterally between the United States and Russia. Until the official release of the full U.S.-Russian agreement on September 22, the most complete accounting of the deal and its conditions was a set of two letters sent by Ratney to these factions—and subsequently leaked to the press—as well as a separate letter sent by the Central Intelligence Agency specifically to smaller U.S.-backed rebel brigades.

U.S. Special Envoy Michael Ratney meets with civilian representatives of Syrian opposition." Source: National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Source:
U.S. Special Envoy Michael Ratney meets with civilian representatives of Syrian opposition.”
Source: National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Source: Etilaf

“Mr. Ratney’s message included a number of points we had discussed,” Yasser al-Youssef, a Nour al-Din al-Zinki political officer, told me over WhatsApp about Ratney’s first letter. The letter outlined an initial deal that was scuttled after a Russian-backed regime offensive on a rebel supply line.

“We had agreed amongst ourselves on how to implement some measures and on the steps to secure these humanitarian corridors in Aleppo, in addition to strengthening the principle of cooperation and mutual trust with the American side,” Youssef said. “But this message was only given hours before the Russians blew it up.”

The opposition’s unifying “High Negotiations Committee” (HNC)—in which some of these factions are represented—was more actively involved in negotiations on the original February cessation of hostilities as the Geneva peace talks were ongoing. In September, however, Ratney mainly coordinated directly with these key rebel groups.

“In this case, the major armed groups were the ones able to deliberate on the renewed [cessation of hostilities] proposal and would ultimately have to play the major role in implementation,” the State Department official said.

“Ratney looked for the ones who could implement the agreement—the factions,” the Army of Islam’s Beiraqdar told me.

Syria’s Rebels Evolve

This dialogue is the result of the political evolution of Syria’s most influential rebel factions. These brigades have both been integrated into opposition political bodies like the HNC and taken on their own independent political character, often through a new class of permanent political officers. These officers frequently operate as combination spokespeople-diplomatic liaisons. While some seem to have only a tangential relationship to their respective factions, others can now be trusted to credibly participate in negotiations and make commitments considered binding for fighters on the ground.

“The last year has seen much thicker ties among opposition groups, armed and civilian, and the strengthening of armed groups’ capacity to engage politically and be informed by the political track,” said another Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity over e-mail.

Those rebels, for their part, said they appreciated a constructive dialogue with Ratney, even as they were vocal about their objections to the actual content of the negotiated agreement.

“He’s communicated the picture in a consultative fashion, not as if things are being imposed,” the Army of Islam’s Muhammad Beiraqdar told me. (Beiraqdar said the deal itself was “unjust and in favor of the regime.”)

“We aim to have productive and respectful conversations with the opposition, and we appreciate their positive engagement with our efforts,” said the State Department official.

Nour al-Din al-Zinki fighters pray on the banks of the Sajour River after expelling the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Nour al-Din al-Zinki was among the factions in contact with the U.S. State Department during ceasefire negotiations. Source:
Nour al-Din al-Zinki fighters pray on the banks of the Sajour River after expelling the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Nour al-Din al-Zinki was among the factions in contact with the U.S. State Department during ceasefire negotiations. Source: Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki.

The political and diplomatic empowerment of Syria’s armed rebels seems likely to be a fixture of Syria diplomacy going forward, if only as a concession to reality. Rebels, by this point, no longer have to depend on a few Western experts and other gatekeepers to reach Western officials. They have their own political affairs officers, and their own lines to foreign government officials. Those officials, in turn, may reinforce some unhealthy civilian-military dynamics within the opposition by engaging armed factions directly and further marginalizing civilian political actors in the opposition. But even civilian opposition bodies’ weight has mostly been measured in terms of their influence on armed groups on the ground, and now diplomats can use these armed contacts to at least engage in meaningful negotiations.

There are limits to how much common ground rebels will find with Western diplomats; their respective visions for an eventual settlement to the war and a postwar political order are probably irreconcilable. And without an encompassing deal to end the war, the overall direction of the conflict tends towards entropy.

“Time, as a factor, isn’t in anyone’s favor,” Nour al-Din al-Zinki’s Yasser al-Youssef told me. “Not the revolutionaries, not the Americans, and not the international community.”

But the regime and its backers are apparently convinced otherwise: that with enough time, they can win, even if it means turning much of Syria into an ash heap. Without a shift in regime thinking, discussion of a political resolution to the Syrian war is, at this point, almost purely hypothetical.

In the here and now, though, lines of communication between diplomats and rebels may be an opening for small-ball, enforceable deals that could help mitigate the war’s effects on the ground. The conflict overall is likely to get worse. But by working together, diplomats and rebels may be able to negotiate some real, if limited, progress around the edges.

Cover Photo: Army of Islam fighter poses with armored vehicle captured from Syrian regime forces. The Army of Islam was among the factions in contact with the U.S. State Department during ceasefire negotiations. Source: Army of Islam Twitter.