The noose is tightening around Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- and he's beginning to realize it. After a week that saw the opposition's National Coalition win widespread international recognition and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sign orders to dispatch Patriot missiles to the Turkey-Syria border, the regime in Damascus gave the first sign that it was looking for a way out.
On Dec. 17, the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar published an interview with Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, where he said that neither the regime nor the rebels could win militarily and called for a "historic settlement" between the warring parties. Iran, Assad's staunchest ally, also released a six-point plan that it said would promote national reconciliation.
There is reason to believe that the United States would look sympathetically on a negotiated transition. Washington faces a problem: It is looking to prevent extremists from filling the power vacuum in Syria -- it designated the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah as a terrorist organization last week -- and a political settlement could be a step in that direction. But a deal cut in Damascus is no cure-all for Syria's ills: Even if an agreement is reached, most rebels groups are not about to let the Syrian army roll back into their towns.
The sprawling eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a larger rural region bordering Iraq, provides a case study in how armed groups -- even extremist ones -- work to establish a foothold in an area. In the case of jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra, it also provides some hints for how they could be forced out. Jabhat al-Nusra's cadres currently coexist with local tribal leaders, who have taken up responsibility for maintaining law and order in the absence of the state. In the long run, however, there is no guarantee that these groups share the same ideology or long-term interests.
Even as fighting rages elsewhere in Syria, the war against Assad has already been won in much of Deir Ezzor, where I grew up. On Nov. 17, the regime's forces were squeezed out of the district of Abu Kamal, near the Iraqi border, after the rebels successfully attacked Hamdan Air Base, the last bastion of the regime there. Rebels from various villages and towns then joined forces and overran an army base in the city of al-Mayadeen, seizing stockpiles of artillery. People are now going about the hard work of laying the groundwork for future governance.
Jabhat al-Nusra currently controls most of the vital sectors in Deir Ezzor, including oil, gas, sugar, and flour. Its source of funding is unclear, although I was told by residents that Gulf nationals with tribal links to the region support most of the fighting groups in the province. According to residents, the group's local emirs are typically foreigners, while the majority of the rank-and-file are Syrians from the region. Many people are drawn to the group by virtue of its effectiveness in fighting the regime and delivering public services.
Deir Ezzor is mostly an agricultural area, with few urban centers, and the regime's forces are mostly based inside the cities. Because of this, rebels in the province tend to fight the regime through hit-and-run operations rather than full-blown battles: Fighters from the villages join forces, attack the regime, and then retreat to their homes. Thus a small group of committed fighters can have an outsized influence, earning widespread prestige.
Jabhat al-Nusra is also cultivating links with local communities. It maintains a relief program that works to win hearts and minds among the population, in tandem with its military operations. Its fighters also have a reputation for professionalism: While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) tends to accept volunteers regardless of their personal merits, Jabhat al-Nusra's cadres are perceived to be more disciplined and concerned with local communities' needs.