Hebaa Shahada | Ali Darwish | Taim al-Haj
Leaving his hometown Buser al-Harir, northeast Daraa, Nawaf al-Hariri headed toward As-Suwayda last March, despite reports of kidnappings and murders between both governorates. He departed from his hometown thinking that being a 74-years-old man would prevent his kidnapping or killing, without taking into account the complication of events and intertwined agendas in southern Syria where kidnapping constituted a means to an end.
Nawaf was kidnapped on his way, and his abduction led to a series of meditations, accusations, and negotiations that continued for about a month, and the kidnapping of four people in return as well as a paid ransom of about five million Syrian Pounds (3,389 USD) by his family to the kidnappers before this old man could finish his trip to the neighboring governorate.
Since the early years of the Syrian revolution and amid the spread of security chaos, there were reports about a series of abduction and killing between both governorates. Since the beginning of these events, fingers have been pointed to both “extremist” factions and Syrian regime forces.
As the peaceful movement turned into an armed conflict, many armed groups overtook the scene. They got involved in kidnapping and extortion operations to obtain funds, as well as killing operations either for personal motives or funded by the regime, which accused the opposition in Daraa for conducting abductions and assassinations against As-Suwayda inhabitants.
In this file, Enab Baladi examines the motives and reasons behind kidnapping events between Daraa and As-Suwayda governorates as well as the role of external parties. This file also sheds light on the part of leaders and civil initiatives to reach a solution.
Abduction for security and economic motives…
Will this lead to a “rupture” between As-Suwayda and Daraa?
Daraa governorate, located in the southern part of the country, witnessed the spark of the first peaceful demonstrations demanding reforms in 2011. The Syrian regime responded to these peaceful protests by mobilizing forces and tanks, and using live ammunition as well as imposing siege in order to extinguish a revolution that soon spread throughout the whole country.
To curb these uprisings, the regime used all possible means through encouraging inter-sectarian conflicts under the pretext of protecting minorities to justify its use of force against civilians as well as urging minorities to proves their loyalties through mobilizing them to fight what it called “infiltrators” who revolted against al-Assad’s reign. Back then, As-Suwayda province, known for its Druze majority, was one of the regime’s centers of interest, where the regime’s attempts to mobilize and recruit its residents ended in failure.
In conjunction with military operations, the number of kidnappings between Daraa and As-Suwayda increased even with the regime forces’ control over the province with the Russian support in July 2018, under the so-called “settlement” agreement, that forced opposition fighters to leave towards northern Syria. While the number of abductions has increased dramatically over the past two years, some ransom demands amount to more than 20 million Syrian Pounds (12,698 USD), which sometimes led to counter-kidnappings to start negotiations.
Kidnapping for the aim of kidnapping
The “Martyrs’ Documentation Office in Daraa” recorded about 15 cases of kidnapping between Daraa and Al-Suwayda in the past two months of March and April, according to statistics obtained by Enab Baladi from the office. The same statistics show that the number of mutual kidnappings between both governorates has exceeded 54 cases since May 2019, while only 27 cases have been documented so far since the beginning of the current year.
Such kidnappings targeted all social groups, including (officers, doctors, traders, and farmers…). Meanwhile, November of last year saw a rise in tensions following the kidnapping of surgeon Dr. Muhammad al-Hariri, a resident of Daraa, who works in al-Mughair Hospital in As-Suwayda governorate. The incident was followed by the killing of Dr. Iskandar Abu Zaidan, after he arrived at the Nassib crossing, in the countryside of Darra, from Saudi Arabia, to be abducted later by unknown people.
On 27 November of last year, Zafer Taroudi al-Makhoul, who serves as a general in the Syrian regime forces, was also abducted while heading to his office in Daraa from the village of Sama al-Hunaydat, west As-Suwayda. Taroudi al-Makhoul, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances on the way to al-Malihah town located in the countryside of Daraa, is one of Shahba inhabitants in As-Suwayda.
There were many statements and initiatives by dignitaries in an attempt to stop these kidnappings, most of which have failed. Meantime three mutual kidnappings have been recorded following the issuance of a joint statement by dignitaries from both governorates on 4 April. In this statement, dignitaries stressed on the necessity of putting an end to the phenomenon of kidnapping. They called for a formation of a joint committee to follow up on kidnapped people’s affairs and to investigate the circumstances of hostilities that occurred near al-Qariah town in As-Suwayda on 28 last March.
This sort of “job” represented a breather for residents in both governorates, which suffer from lack of services and low standards of living, which led to public protests earlier this year.
In his talk to Enab Baladi, researcher and journalist, Mazen Ezzi, a resident of AS-Suwayda province, said that the southern region has lost most of its sources of incomes because of war, this came in conjunction with a deterioration of the value of the local currency, additionally to the emergence of an economy that depends somehow on drugs and arms trafficking and primarily on kidnapping.
The researcher explained by saying that conducting a kidnap operation does not need funding, but it requires a good knowledge of the surrounding areas, setting foreign targets in the sectarian sense or people known for their wealth to start “bidding” on them.
A means to strengthen control
Former president of the Bar Association in Daraa during the opposition factions’ control, lawyer Sulaiman al-Qarfan, told Enab Baladi, that the economic motive was not the main reason behind the kidnapping cases in southern Syria. He explained that Syrian regime forces are attempting to extend their control over both Daraa and As-Suwayda governorates through increasing the number of kidnapping cases and security chaos that led to civil unrest between residents.
He added that even though some of these kidnappings aim at making financial gains, most of them were conducted by parties linked to regime’s security apparatus and sectarian militias against citizens from both provinces, that is to say, that the “regime thugs and those linked to it, are the ones responsible for these abductions.”
According to al-Qarfan, the regime is trying to enhance sectarian unrest between Daraa and As-Suwayda to show that it is the only one capable of running the country, and portray itself before the international community as the only resort to stop Syria from “becoming a hotbed of terrorism and extremism” as al-Qarfan put it.
“Through sectarian mobilization, the regime is trying to persuade the inhabitants of each region separately to join its ranks through presenting itself as being capable of protecting them.” Meantime, the security services in the southern part of the country tried to shuffle cards once again through assassinations and kidnappings, to show that these provinces would sink in chaos in case the regime did not extend its control over all of them.
In one of his researches published by the European University Institute (EUI) under the title “How can tension be contained between Daraa and As-Suwayda?”, Mazen Ezzi pointed out that the regime, in its current situation, seems capable only of provoking chaos and using it for its benefit, “to keep these local communities busy with side conflicts, instead of dealing with the real reasons behind this severe economic and social crisis.”
Scheme for tensions to continue
Maher Sharaf al-Din, a journalist and one of As-Suwayda residents, thinks that these kidnapping gangs are being managed in many ways by the regime’s security services. Sharaf al-Din told Enab Baladi that the regime used these gangs in Daraa during the first years of the uprising to “distort the image of the Syrian revolution.” He proceeded by saying that after cessation of hostilities these kidnapping gangs settled in As-Suwayda, pointing out that “there is a huge and a dangerous project being prepared for the southern part of Syria, that we are just in the preliminary phase where the focus is on destroying historical ties dated back to centuries between al-Sahl and al-Jabal in Hauran.
The former leader in the “Free Army,” Adham al-Karrad, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the parties involved in these abductions are perpetrators and criminals whom the regime released from its prisons under the pretext of “releasing the prisoners of conscience.”
Meantime, “Hezbollah” and Iran’s arms have stretched in the area to “create unrest” between both governorates through burning crops and spreading sedition via media pages, as well as raising sectarian strife, additionally to conducting assassinations, using explosive devices, kidnappings, and systematic thefts, as al-Karrad put it.
According to al-Karrad, even with Russia’s intervention to settle these disputes, it did not have a direct impact on kidnappings “because the issue has a political nature and not a criminal one.”
Researcher and journalist Mazen Ezzi mentioned in his research that the latest delegations sent by the Russian “Reconciliation Center” to meet dignitaries from As-Suwayda and Daraa, “did not include high ranking officers as usual, which reflects Russians preoccupation with the situation in Idlib and eastern Syria, as well as their lack of desire to put an end to the matter permanently. This leaves the door open for a possible escalation between these two governorates through disclaiming the conclusions of the last meetings and failing to execute them.”
Daraa and As-Suwayda factions amid the crisis
Would these factions take responsibility?
Despite armed clashes between local factions in Daraa and As-Suwayda, and kidnappings operations in areas under these factions’ control, researcher Firas Fahham at the “Bridge Centre for Studies’ ‘ denied the possibility that these factions could be behind these abductions. He suggested that security branches are likely behind them, pointing out to local factions’ fears in As-Suwayda of an outbreak of clan fighting between them and Daraa’s factions, thus avoiding the use of force.
Local factions in Daraa refer to factions affiliated to opposition ranks that were forced to sign a “settlement” agreement in 2018 and refused to leave for Idlib. On the other hand, As-Suwayda factions are mainly local factions that have a security role and local leaderships linked to dignitaries in the region.
The former leader in the “Free Army,” Adham al-Karrad, resembled the role of these factions to that “of doctors” when “attempting to repair the societal rift resulted from kidnappings through “appeasing outrage, controlling arms possession, preventing infighting and revenge as well as coordinating with authorities under the revolution’s cloak to contain the public’s reaction.”
Previously, al-Karrad served as the commander of the “Engineering and Missile Battalion,” he was also one of the commanders of the operations room of “al-Bonyan al-Marsous” in the southern front under the opposition factions’ control over the area before July 2018. Later, he participated as a member of “the settlement” committee along with the Russians.
However, “Men of Dignity” movement (the most prominent local factions in As-Suwayda province) faulted the “Fifth Corp,” backed by Russia, for the hostilities that took place in al-Qariah town in the western countryside of As-Suwayda, on 28 last March, in which 15 people were killed and wounded. The movement added that “the Russian forces hold full and direct responsibility for the massacre their affiliated division committed, as well as the responsibility of holding the perpetrators accountable.”
“The Fifth Corp,” was formed in late 2016 under Russian orders, which Russia considers one of its stretched arms in the region to confront the expansion of the Iranian militias and support the regime forces. This Corp is under the command of Ahmed al-Awda, who tries to recruit all armed factions, which used to fight in the ranks of the opposition, to join his ranks.
“Men of Dignity” movement, is, in fact, one of the largest local factions in As-Suwayda, while its fighters are deployed throughout the area, based on what researcher Firas Fahham mentioned in research entitled “Controlling As-Suwayda governorate between reality and the possible future.” This movement is considered a neutral faction formed for the protection of young men who refrain from mandatory military service from being arrested by security services, additionally to the protection of cities and towns inside As-Suwayda from “extremist” groups especially the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The movement was formed in 2012 by Wahid Fahd al-Balous, who was killed in 2015, and it derives its religious background from Sheikh Rakan al-Atrash and Sheikh Yahya Al-Hajjar.
The Syrian regime was accused of the killing of its founder, who said, weeks ahead of his murder, “our dignity is more valuable than Bashar al-Assad.” However, leaders in the movement have repeatedly confirmed that they are not against the “Syrian army.”
Ahmed al-Awda… Russia’s spoiled man in Southern Syria
Although he was known for his opposition to the Syrian regime and lost three of his brothers while fighting the latter in 2014, Ahmed al-Awda ended up by getting back to Russia’s arms, the regime’s biggest allies.
Al-Awda, who has a degree in English literature, became known in the past few years of the Syrian revolution for changing his political positions a couple of times and turning against anyone who supported him. These shifts shed light on his overwhelming desire to remain under spotlights through gaining influence and leadership even by changing his aims voluntarily to please those who support him.
The most prominent of these fluctuations was when he turned against “al-Nusra Front” and “Islamic Muthanna Movement” after joining their ranks to expel the regime forces from his hometown, the city of Busra al-Sham in 2015. Back then, al-Awda served as a leader of Shabab al-Sunna (“Sunni Youth”) and fought side by side with these factions; however, this did not last long before plotting a coup against them and expelling them from the city.
Following this, al-Awda started organizing the public facilities and services in the city, and established a police service, including traffic police by the support of “MOC chamber” and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), using his kinship with the former Vice President of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Khalid al-Mahamid, residing in the UAE, to obtain financial support.
“The Military Operations Centre” (MOC)
MOC is a foreign military chamber used for coordinating and issuing orders, run by the United States, France, Britain, and Jordan, additionally to some Gulf states. It was formed in 2013 and began to develop in 2014 and included opposition factions affiliated with the “Free Army” in Daraa, Quneitra, Damascus Countryside, and the northern countryside of Aleppo.
In 2016, a split took place inside al-Awda faction when ammunition depots and heavy weapons were controlled. Back then, al-Awda fled Busra to come back later to retake control over the city and its faction with the support of the “Southern Front.”
This stability did not last long either, in 2017, with rising clashes between two of the biggest factions in the eastern region of Daraa, namely “Sunni Youth” and “Yarmouk” under the command of Bashar al-Zoubi, leading to deaths from both sides.
After the regime’s control over al-Lajat and Buser al-Harir in mid-2018, various negotiations were held under the Russian sponsorship in Busra al-Sham, while the regime continued invading most towns in the eastern regions except for Busra al-Sham where al-Awda is based.
Meantime, and with the regime’s arrival in Busra city, there were “settlement” agreements sponsored by Ahmed al-Awda, which provided the regime’s control over the southern region of Syria.
During these agreements, al-Awda handed over the remaining heavy weapons and joined “the Fifth Corps” directly managed by Russians, who rewarded him by giving him the Corps command in the southern region.
In his turn, and as a thank you, al-Awda sent some fighters to the northern part of Syria to support the regime in its campaigns against opposition factions. The gesture was received in great joy by Russians, making him more trustworthy for them.
Al-Awda reviving “settlement agreements”
At the beginning of last March, regime forces launched attacks on As-Sanamayn city using tanks and artillery for the first time since the so-called “settlement” agreement in the southern region in July 2018 and clashed with fighters who refused these “settlement” agreements and preferred to stay in Daraa instead.
Back then, the regime forces imposed a siege on the western neighborhoods of the city, until the “Fifth Corps” intervened under the command of al-Awda to broke the conflict and impose a truce, which ended by deporting fighters toward the Syrian north and “settling” the situations of those wishing to stay on the condition of surrendering their arms.
The role of the corps was not only limited to mediation but exceeded it to pulling out the regime forces’ dead bodies after an attack on a checkpoint at Masaken Glen area on 18 last March. This came in conjunction with the corps imposing a “settlement” agreement on Nahtah town, that ended by surrendering 20 different pieces of weapons in exchange for releasing some detainees by the regime, as well as “settling” the situation of youth in this town.
Al-Awda in As-Suwayda…as a fighter and as “peacemaker”
The story of al-Awda fighting As-Suwayda factions started on 28 last March, as a response for kidnapping two young men from his hometown, working in the cow trade, from al-Qariah town in the countryside of As-Suwayda.
Back then, young men from Busra tried to infiltrate into al-Qariah town to kidnap young men to start negotiations on releasing some people who were kidnapped from Busra.
In the infiltration attempt, members from the local factions clashed with the intruders, and one of them was killed. Later, factions from As-Suwayda started combing the whole area, which led to a clash between these factions and al-Awda’s near Busra. These clashes have resulted in killings in the ranks of As-Suwayda factions, amounting to 16 deaths.
Following the incident, dignitaries from As-Suwayda and Daraa stepped in to contain the tension between both parties. In the meantime, Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa has pointed to a Russian intervention by sending a delegation from the Russian “Reconciliation Centre” to Busra al-Sham to resolve the matter.
Fighting is not only what brings As-Suwayda inhabitants face to face with al-Awda together. Early this month, al-Awda played a critical role in securing Kharba Christian residents’ return to their town after being displaced in 2014.
The city was once inhabited by bedouin tribes, which supported al-Awda, who was able to convince them to leave it.
Leaderships ineffective role
Would it solve the As-Suwayda-Daraa crisis?
Military factions’ leaders in both governorates have emerged with new social roles; however, they could not abandon their traditional ones, according to researcher Mazer Ezzi, who told Enab Baladi, that the nature of tribal society in the region imposes the survival of traditional ties.
The recent conflict between both governorates revealed the need for traditional leaderships, who issued multiple statements condemning the kidnappings between Daraa and As-Suwayda, let alone what these known and credible figures represent compared to the new ones, such as Ahmed al-Awda in Daraa, amid the absence of a similar prominent figure in As-Suwayda, according to Ezzi.
Ahmed al-Awda resorted to traditional leaders to intervene and resolve al-Qariah conflict, where dignitaries from both governorates gathered and issued a statement of “good neighboring” on 4 last April. This statement stipulated that “sedition serves no one; instead, its consequences will affect both sides for a long time.” The statement described those who conducted abductions by “rogue gangs,” which represent neither al-Sahl nor al-Jabal.
Enab Baladi’s readers have reflected their opinions on a poll published on Facebook, about the ability of dignitaries, Sheikhs, and intellectuals from both governorates to stop kidnapping cases between them. Most of the participants, who were 400, doubted their success, with 78 percent thinking that these leaders will not be able to stop abduction cases. In contrast, only 22 percent voted yes, confirming their ability to do so.
هل يتمكن مشايخ ووجهاء ومثقفو درعا والسويداء من إيقاف حالات الخطف بين المحافظتين؟ ولماذا؟
Lawyer Adnan al-Masalmeh, a member of the Central Negotiations Committee in Daraa and one of the participants in the “good neighboring” statement, thinks that Sheikhs and factions’ leader in Daraa have the ability and capabilities to deter kidnappers, according to what he told Enab Baladi.
He proceeded, explaining that this could be achieved through depriving these gangs of a “secure environment” and using force to deter them if necessary. Additionally, this can be done through raising society’s awareness of the danger of these acts on civil peace and security in the region, tampered by some security services and Iranian militias as well as “Hezbollah” through inciting sedition.
Since 2011, dignitaries from both governorates had agreed to form joint committees to resolve kidnapping cases and the escalating tension between Daraa and As-Suwayda. Meantime, on 19 last April, leaders in Daraa have announced their readiness to form a joint committee, according to what Dr. Musa al-Zoubi, who joined those in charge of the “good neighboring” statement, told Enab Baladi.
Al-Zoubi added that committees in As-Suwayda have not been formed yet, which stands in the way of finding a solution to this phenomenon. He pointed out that he heard, from different sources, of the existence of disputes and divisions between al-Jabal (As-Suwayda) parties, and that there is a third party aiming at inciting strife to prevent meetings between these committees.
According to al-Zoubi’s sources, some figures affiliated to the opposition are calling for resolving the al-Qariah file without considering the issue of kidnapped people as a whole.
Al-Zoubi thinks that in case these committees remain stalled, amid al-Jabal dignitaries’ unreadiness to form them, the phenomenon of kidnapping and counter-kidnapping will remain the perfect solution for inhabitants, aside from ransoms, without bringing justice to all and punishing kidnappers.
For his part, journalist Maher Sharaf al-Din said that talks about As-Suwayda leaders’ and sheiks’ delay to form committees are “inaccurate,” pointing out to the issuance of many statements to condemn kidnapping as well as efforts to hold meetings. Sharaf al-Din said that the problem is related to the “effectiveness” of these statements because “these security gangs, which have neglected all traditions and moral norms, cannot be deterred by condemnation and denunciation statements.
Research and journalist Mazen Ezzi mentioned in his research, “how can tension be contained between Daraa and As-Suwayda?” that forming joint committees to investigate and reconcile to prevent a sharp deterioration of the current crisis will stand in the way of a sectarian and regional fight between both governorates.
In the event these committees received support and empowerment, they will be able to meditate to free those kidnapped and compensate them as well morally and financially. Consequently, they will stand in the way of inciting inter-sectarian conflicts, and encourage residents in both governorates to reject gangs’ deeds. According to Ezzi, these committees may, in the future, be able to enhance civil peace and stimulate cooperation as well as economic and commercial integration between al-Sahl and al-Jabal.
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