Razan Zaitouneh and Colonel Akaidi understood how the Syrian revolution would go better than I did
I was waiting for lawyer Razan Zaitouneh to appear while the young woman in front of me smoked a cigarette and made small talk about how she constantly moved around to avoid the Syrian intelligence services, referred to as the mukhabarat. With her reddish-blond hair and jeans, I figured she was probably an older graduate student or a recent graduate of Damascus University faculty helping Zaitouneh organize the massive street protests underway almost nightly in the Damascus region. I didn’t want to be rude and ask the young woman when Razan would arrive. After all, it had been hard enough for me and my embassy colleagues that dark May night to reach the apartment without drawing a horde of Syrian secret police behind us.
We weren’t trained as CIA types. One of my State Department colleagues had driven his little car with me and two other colleagues crammed in it around Damascus before parking near a nondescript apartment building in the northeast. The sparsely furnished apartment, we later learned, was a safe house that Razan and her colleagues sometimes used. I wanted to gauge Razan quickly before the mukhabarat showed up and to understand what she and her colleagues wanted. For my part, as U.S. ambassador in Syria, I would urge the protesters to avoid violence.
As the woman lit her second cigarette, she kept speaking assuredly about how the protests would not stop despite the sweeping arrest campaign and reports of abuses in detention centers. She never once said, “I am not sure,” or “you’ll need to ask Razan.” It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that this in fact was Razan – she seemed too young and unimposing to be a driving force behind the large, determined demonstrations. Razan emphasized that the protest movement encompassed a broad array of Syrian society. She never mentioned the word “Sunni.” Accompanying Razan was Alawite activist Mazen Darwish. (Early in the uprising, other Alawites were visible in the protest movement, too. Actress Fadwa Soleimane, who died in Paris in 2017, got a lot of social media attention by joining protest rallies, and writer Samar Yazbek has detailed her marching in rallies in her book, “A Woman in the Crossfire.”) Razan insisted that the protesters wanted a liberal, tolerant system of government guided by a democratic process. She didn’t detail how this could be achieved; nobody in the Syrian opposition had been able to tell us how such a transition could happen.
I underlined the U.S. government message that the protest movement had to remain peaceful in order to enjoy Western support. I offered my own opinion advising a dialogue with the government, repressive and nasty as it was. Razan, now on her third cigarette, showed the same kind of steely grit that I had seen among political actors in the Iraqi civil war. She doubted the Assad regime would concede anything without a long fight or allow the opposition to get organized enough to become politically effective. Indeed, our efforts to pressure the regime to allow the opposition to organize were met with complete opposition from the security services, regardless of promises from the likes of Buthaina Shaaban, a political and media adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. In one incident, Shaaban had assured me the regime would allow an opposition meeting on June 11, 2011. Instead, on the night before, the intelligence services entered the suburb of Qaboun, arrested many people and closed down the community space where the meeting was to be held. I was never certain whether this reflected a genuine split within the regime or we were merely being lied to. But the takeaway was clear: there would be no negotiation without serious pressure. Razan, to her credit, and unlike other opposition figures I had met (many men my age), understood this well. She expected blood, and lots of it.
Razan added that once the Assad government was finally gone, the liberals would have to fight the Islamists for control of the government. She didn’t mention the Muslim Brotherhood by name but underlined that Islamists were almost as big a problem for the liberals she claimed to represent as the Assad government. I’d met many opposition figures and supporters over the preceding two months, but none had ever mentioned an eventual confrontation with Islamists; in fact, many attempted to downplay it. When I asked if she meant there would be two successive wars for control of Syria, she confirmed it with calm certainty.
I left the meeting still unclear about how the street protesters would talk with the government, an issue that advisers to Assad, reasonably, had raised with me. Razan didn’t presume to be able to negotiate on behalf of the protesters. She rejected being positioned as a leader of Syrian civil society. Razan evinced skepticism as I expressed hope that there could be talks between the government and the protest movement. Throughout the meeting, she never got excited or enervated. Just calm, cool analysis and clear determination.
I never saw her again. After my trip to Hama a couple of weeks later, the secret police presence around me was suffocating, and I didn’t dare meet any opposition figure not enjoying legal status lest I lead to the person’s arrest. As violence expanded in August 2011, I managed to send Razan a message through my team using virtual platforms. I remembered the steely grit when the response came to my August plea that the protest movement not use violence. The situation in Syria was not like the British standoff with Gandhi, she replied, so the Americans could not expect the opposition to act like Gandhi. I’m sure to Razan I appeared naïve. Later, she was of course near the front lines inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus in August 2013 when the Assad regime launched its sarin attack. She survived, and we managed again to trade messages. She was bitterly disappointed that the Americans never enforced Obama’s red line over the use of chemical weapons.
Razan wasn’t the only Syrian who expected more of us. We had been urging the opposition to reach out to elements of the Assad government’s support base in order to boost internal pressure on the government. We wanted Assad to accede to a transitional government as called for in the June 2012 Geneva 1 communique we had signed with Russia and the Arab League under U.N. auspices.
In late 2012 and early 2013, two Free Syrian Army commanders were notable in their assurances to the Alawite communities. In particular, Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Akaidi emphasized in audio messages inside Syria that the Free Syrian Army was not fighting Assad because he is an Alawite but instead fighting a corrupt, oppressive regime that “by coincidence” (his words in one message) is headed by an Alawite. Akaidi in Aleppo and Col. Afif Soleiman in Idlib stressed that the Free Syrian Army would protect Alawites in territories they liberated. This was especially important because the Nusra Front, then an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, was growing so strong in northern Syria that we decided to put it on the U.S. government terrorism list in December 2012 to warn the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition to avoid and even condemn it.
Commanders like Akaidi and Soleiman were competing with the Nusra Front in late 2012 and early 2013 for recruits. Our meetings with representatives from coordination committees trying to manage towns in northern Syria abandoned by the Syrian Army indicated that the Nusra Front was gaining advantage over men like Akaidi and Soleiman. Nusra had, they warned, more money and supplies. In February 2013, we finally got approval from President Barack Obama to provide non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army (through some very complicated legal justifications engineered by the administration’s lawyers).
My Syria team and I had hoped for much more. We had warned in a July 2012 memo to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and shared with the National Security Council that if the United States didn’t help arm moderates like Akaidi and Afif, Nusra would eventually capture eastern Syria and link up with its homeboys in western Iraq. The president did not want to provide arms. After he succeeded Clinton, John Kerry’s first working meeting at the State Department in 2013 was about Syria, and he agreed to take up the issue with Obama again. Kerry, to his credit, went to the mat with the president, but he could only get approval for non-lethal aid. We concluded that was better than nothing. We hoped the non-lethal aid, in particular food and medical supplies, would help commanders like Akaidi a little in their competition with the Nusra Front for fighters and influence.
I met Akaidi for the first time in March 2013 in the lobby of my hotel in Gaziantep, Turkey. He was wearing a dark civilian suit because the Turkish authorities would not allow him to wear a military uniform. With him were several other FSA officers, also in ill-fitting civilian clothes. Akaidi didn’t make small talk; he had his cigarette lit and was rattling off needs before the tea had arrived. He had come up from Aleppo to get substantial American support for his fighters. When I told him that we would begin providing truckloads of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and medical supplies, Akaidi brushed it aside. Leaning in, he exclaimed that his soldiers could “eat the leaves of the trees,” but they needed ammunition to fight back against the Syrian regime forces. I told him my orders from Washington were clear: no lethal aid of any kind. Better, I advised him, to take the food supplies, and then there would be no need to eat the leaves. He didn’t smile, and instead offered a long complaint about American indifference to Syrian suffering. I had to stick to my policy guidance.
As the less-than-merry meeting was winding down, I decided to give Akaidi my personal perspective. I suggested he should think of our meeting as a step. In American culture, I told him, a young man and a young woman first talk, and then maybe have a coffee in a café, and then maybe a movie or dinner at a restaurant, and then more occasions out together before they get married. Each step in the relationship builds on the previous steps. Akaidi immediately rejoined that in Syria the young man and woman get married before they go out for movies and meals. He did acknowledge the need to build a relationship with the Americans, however, and for this reason, he said as the meeting ended, he had come from Aleppo to meet me.
In May, I met Akaidi again on the Turkish-Syrian border, this time with seven container trucks carrying thousands of MREs. Akaidi had the good grace not to express disappointment at the absence of lethal aid. The border gate opened, and the trucks parked at the former Syrian customs building a hundred yards inside Syria at Bab al-Salamah. Akaidi asked if I would like to meet his team over tea in the building. I made a quick mental calculation. My two State Department colleagues and I didn’t have permission to enter Syria, nor did we have any American bodyguards; I just had a handler from the Turkish intelligence with me. However, if we ever did get the Syrian government and opposition to the negotiating table, we surely would have to ask the Free Syrian Army to accept concessions at some point. Building their trust meant that I had to trust them. I asked the Turk if he would mind if we went to the building, and he shrugged that it was fine.
Once seated in the building with about two dozen of his fighters, Akaidi made general remarks welcoming us and then gave the floor to the other Syrian fighters who began peppering me with questions about why the Americans were not doing more to help their cause. In the middle of that discussion, shouting erupted outside. An officer came in and pulled Akaidi outside. We then heard the louder shouting. I went to the window and saw Akaidi arguing with two young men with military coats, civilian pants and long hair and beards. (The contrast with Akaidi’s team was striking.) I couldn’t catch a word the two young men were screaming at Akaidi. One of Akaidi’s men at the window with me explained that the two young men were from Suqour al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group fighting near Aleppo. One was yelling that his brother’s position had been overrun that day and the brother killed. He was blaming Akaidi for hoarding ammunition.
After a couple of minutes, Akaidi calmed them down and came back in. He offered his excuses, saying it was hard to control all the young men. Maybe it was all a show for us, but I’ve never met in my decades in the Middle East someone with the social status of a colonel who purposely arranged to have his dignity impugned before a large audience of foreigners and local people. When I returned to Washington, I relayed the story, underlining that the young men had transgressed notable cultural norms, ignoring Akaidi’s higher status in Syrian society as a colonel and his higher status as the older, more experienced man. Not for nothing, I warned, did the Syrians call their uprising a revolution. I concluded that commanders like Akaidi might not last long if we didn’t help them more in this contest for influence within the armed opposition. The only formal reaction I got was an admonition from the State Department’s security office that I had broken State Department guidance by entering Syria without an American security officer.
That spring, Washington was not ready for a bigger commitment to the Syrian conflict. The armed opposition suffered a serious blow when Hezbollah captured the rebel-held town of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border in May 2013. During that desperate fighting, Nusra fighters had hung back and captured from the FSA several crossings along the Turkish border so that they could tax incoming trucks and ensure a steady revenue stream. Akaidi and his fighters stabilized a fighting line against the Syrian Army in Aleppo and maintained the months-long siege of Menagh airbase near Aleppo. One morning in early August, I came to the office at the State Department to see reports that Menagh had finally fallen and pictures of Akaidi standing next to ISIS field commander Abu Jandal al-Masri celebrating the capture of the base. We were struggling to get a negotiation underway between the opposition and the government. Cooperation between our friends in the Free Syrian Army and al Qaeda and its offshoots would damage those efforts, and the pictures were damning. I got Akaidi on the phone in Aleppo and told him this kind of cooperation would severely harm the reputation of the Free Syrian Army in Washington and elsewhere.
Akaidi exploded in expletives that must have amused the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers listening in. My Arabic was not good enough to capture every detail about body parts and their potential functionality, but I did understand his blunt admonition that he was in a desperate fight against powerful regime forces and the Americans were doing nothing to help. MREs didn’t count even a little. He told me directly that if the Americans weren’t going to do more, we should shut up. He was trying to survive, he underlined. I remembered his warning when I later saw videos of Akaidi praising Nusra and ISIS. Akaidi was no Islamist radical, and such messaging was his attempt to stave off an extremist attack on his forces that were focused on fighting the regime. It failed. The jihadists with their superior resources would eventually overpower him and all the like-minded FSA officers.
The United States had been concerned that small arms provided to Akaidi’s fighters would fall into extremist hands in the heat of battle and had held back substantial aid for that reason. Yet by denying people like Akaidi significant support, we created a self-fulfilling prophecy. By late 2015, such leaders and their fighters had been overshadowed and eventually eliminated by groups spouting sectarian agendas and dismissing political negotiations out of hand, helped along by Turkey, Qatar, and the Syrian regime itself.
Akaidi and Soleiman now are refugees in Turkey. They are luckier than Razan, who stayed in the Eastern Ghouta and who along with three colleagues was kidnapped in December 2013 by Islamist militants – the very foes she had predicted she’d eventually have to fight. All four disappeared, and more than two years after the regime recaptured Eastern Ghouta, where they had sought refuge, their bodies have not been found. Razan shared the hopes of millions of Syrians in 2011 for a better Syria, and she shared the fate of tens of thousands of other civilians abducted and “disappeared” in the war. She was one of the toughest, and most prescient, people I met in 30 years in the region.
Revisionists are already trying to rewrite the history of the Syrian uprising that started in 2011. They charge that the protest movement had a strong sectarian tint from the start and that the Americans instigated the protests in order to overthrow Assad. This revisionism is wrong and denies agency to remarkable, often brave Syrians confronting one of the most brutal regimes in the post-World War era. Some say it would have been better for the Americans to avoid any expression of support for the Syrian protest movement and opposition. I understand the sentiment, and we certainly didn’t help them much in their cause. But this is akin to saying Americans like me should have kept our mouths shut while the regime butchered tens or hundreds of thousands of decent Syrians. Saying that there should have been negotiations with the Assad government is a total cop-out; Syrian oppositionists and the United States tried for years, including bringing everybody, including the Iranians, to Geneva in January and February 2014 where the Assad government made clear there would be no political negotiation. Those who presume superior political wisdom or morality should at least be honest about the ramifications of their preferred stance.