Russian former military officer Yevgeny Krutikov, columnist for Vzglyad, wrote that a conflict is brewing between the Syrian special services and the Russian military police. A situation has arisen where some localities are already free from militants but have not returned to the control of Damascus: Russian experts prevent the clean-up of the local population. Krutikov said that this problem should be solved immediately; otherwise, the country is in for a severe crisis.
Below are excerpts of Krutikov’s article, titled "Overly liberal treatment of militants may lead to Syria's disintegration." (Vz.ru, May 10, 2018)
The Need To Accommodate Everybody Led To The Collapse Of The Counter-Intelligence System
"The handover process of Jihadist enclaves in Syria, with the subsequent departure of the militants and their families to Idlib, is continuing. The next in line is the Al-Rastan enclave, where everything is happening quite matter-of-factly and according to a smoothly running plan. The militants are bargaining to the end about more favorable conditions of departure, but they are essentially ready for the evacuation to 'the goblin sanctuary', so there is no serious military pressure on them.
"The situation was quite different in the former Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus, where Jihadists refused to establish contact on principle, and less radical groups set a new condition, which had never happened before. As a result, the Tahrir al-Sham militants were exchanged for the population of two large Shiite villages in Homs province. These villages had been completely surrounded for four years, defended themselves with their own militia, and had not had any contact with the government forces or with Damascus. Over the years of isolation, a special mode of life had been formed, sustained by smuggling, among other things, but removing the blockade without significant casualties would be too difficult now. It is possible that it was the Shiites themselves and not al-Sham who proposed the idea of exchange, to reduce the suffering.
"This story brings up a problem that is considered improper to discuss out loud. The thing is that the entire negotiating process about the surrender of those who are ready to give up and the resettlement to Idlib of those who are not ready for the final “pacification”, is mostly conducted by Russian negotiators. And the locals insist on the Russian military police being the only force providing the protection for their settlements after the withdrawal of militants.
"For instance, in East Ghouta, Yarmouk, Al-Rastan, and earlier in many localities in the Homs and Hama provinces, the administrative power has been or is being transferred to elected bodies from among local inhabitants with the assistance of a Syrian civil governor. The Syrian military and especially the Mukhabarat counter intelligence service and the paramilitary units like the Shabiha (which has already acquired a semi-mythical status) are excluded from the process. And the influence of civil governors mostly comes down to distributing humanitarian aid, and even that is done under control of the Russian military so no one should steal it.
"In other words, the pacification of enclaves and their inclusion in the program of demilitarization does not result in Damascus restoring its power over the territories that the militants are leaving. The population of such townships simply barricades itself from the outer world behind the checkpoints of the Russian military police and graciously receives humanitarian aid, keeping its self-government.
"At first this was explained by the fear of the Mukhabarat and the Shabiha, which had been prone to cruelty in their clean-up of the liberated localities in the first year of the counter-offensive. But during the liberation of East Aleppo, the kind and tolerant Russians put an end to those practices, which objectively contributed to the growth of trust towards both the Russians and Damascus itself on the part of the locals. But now, things are going to excess in the other direction.
"As far back as the battle of Aleppo, there was talk about the fact that there was no inspection or filtration of the locals, and in some places they had even stopped asking people for documents, to say nothing of the decisive question 'What have you been doing for the past five years?' It reached the point where anyone could say he had lost his documents, give any name – and he would immediately be given a new ID card with a Russian seal, since he and his family could not be registered to receive food rations and other aid without such a laminated card.
"Which means it was enough to trim one's beard to become an unfortunate refugee. This was an administrative dead end.
"The need to feed and accommodate everybody led to the collapse of the counter-intelligence system. 'Sleeper cells' appeared, terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage became more frequent on the home front. According to our exclusive data, there were murmurs in the ranks of the Mukhabarat. Among the reasons was the fact that the reduction in the 'field of operations' had caused its leaders to lose political weight in the Syrian government. This further exacerbated the competition between different factions in Damascus, which is very unpleasant politically.
"A situation arises when efforts to reconcile the parties have led to the de facto loss of government control over part of the liberated territory. That is, the Jihadists have left a town, but it continues to remain outside the scope of Damascus’s power. And if previously it looked like a great achievement of the peace settlement process, now it has begun to get on everybody’s nerves.
"The Russian military police, for example, does not let government forces enter the city of Douma in East Ghouta, and the local inhabitants are giving Damascus the finger, hiding behind the Russian ‘big brother.’
"It would not be that bad in itself. But the question is how to treat it in terms of our strategic outlook. During further negotiations, for instance, in Astana, the elected representatives of Douma (this is just an example) may demand autonomy from Damascus, and a thousand other localities may then want the same. This will no longer be federalization but disintegration of a state. Such a thing is unacceptable.
"Of course, nobody will allow the Mukhabarat to 'clean up' entire cities. But now is the time to work out a new mechanism of civil government over such territories and population, otherwise the process of shaping a 'new Syria' will find itself in a dead end again. Even conducting the election by the same script - throughout the entire territory of Syria will be placed in doubt.
"In East Aleppo, this issue was somehow solved in the end. Maybe there is no single blueprint for the entire territory of Syria. But, a transition in the principles for issuing an ID from 'whatever you call yourself will be your name' to some reasonable criteria, is urgently needed. At the same time, it is important to gradually restore civil government, avoiding security sweeps and excessive violence. As experience shows, solving such issues is always harder than conducting a purely military operation.
The temptation to solve everything with the help of a tank and the Shabiha has already been overcome. Now one has to use one's head. And it looks like the Russians will be doing all the thinking again."