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Three scenarios for the future of entities negotiating with Syrian regime in Daraa

Syrian regime forces in the eastern countryside of Daraa - 2018 (Sputnik)

Syrian regime forces in the eastern countryside of Daraa - 2018 (Sputnik)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Methods of negotiation and influence have varied in Syria’s southern province of Daraa after the so-called settlement agreement was concluded between the opposition factions and the Syrian regime under the Russian mediation in July 2018. Three entities representing three main regions in the province were formed. The first entity is represented by the Daraa al-Balad committee, which is predominantly civilian in nature. The second entity is the central committee in the western countryside of Daraa. The third entity is the “Fifth Corps”, which is established by Russia under the command of Ahmed al-Awda, a former leader in the “ Free Syrian Army (FSA).”

The treatment and its seriousness accorded by the Syrian regime and the Russians to the three entities are different. This has been clearly apparent in the following files: the release of detainees, the conduct of “settlement” agreements, the deferral of national service, and the return of public services. However, the most prominent file was the manner of dealing with assassinations; a convoy of two members of the central committee in the western countryside of Daraa has been recently attacked.

Lawyer in the Daraa al-Balad committee, Adnan Masalmeh told Enab Baladi that the formation of the committees came after the attack of the Russian- backed Syrian regime forces on the province. Besides, Daraa’s allies, including the US-led Military Operation Centers (MOC) based in Amman, Jordan, stopped providing aid, leaving Daraa to its fate. Furthermore, some leaders of the opposition military formations fled to Jordan and other places. 

The province found itself facing a situation that has resulted in forming an entity around which Daraa inhabitants would gather and support. In turn, this entity is to look for a mechanism compliant with Russians, the Syrian regime, as well as raise citizens’ demands. As a result, the entity held a meeting with the Russian negotiator, Alexander Zorin, and the representative of the Syrian regime, Kenana Hawija, to undertake this task.

According to Adnan Masalmeh, the Russians made separate agreements to prevent the unity of Daraa residents and their consolidated word, which resulted in dividing Daraa into three regions: Daraa al-Balad, the western countryside represented by the city of Tafas, and the eastern countryside represented by the “Eighth Brigade” in the Russian “Fifth Corps”, led by Ahmed al-Awda.

The committees consist of people working in the civilian field, including bodies, Tribal Sheikhs and, and FSA former leaders.

These committees were able to defer the dissent’s military service during the two years of “the settlement” agreement. Still, despite their presence, the regime arrested more than a thousand “settlement cards” holders.

Coordination between the Daraa al-Balad committee, the central committee in the western countryside and the “Fifth Corps”

The former governor of Daraa, Ali al-Salkhadi, said, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the three entities on the ground outside the regime’s control are cooperating.

Al-Salkhadi highlighted that disputes between the three entities and the Russians come to the surface now and then. Recently, cooperation has appeared between the entities. Still, simultaneously these entities have disputes with the Russians during the Syrian regime’s last threat to the city of Tafas in the western countryside of Daraa represented in the military reinforcements sent in mid-May. For his part, the leader of the “Fifth Corps,” Ahmed al-Awda, threatened that he would not remain silent if the Syrian regime forces attacked the city. 

This was confirmed by Adnan Masalmeh, who said that there is a high level of coordination with other regions regarding political and military developments, in addition to holding frequent meetings.

Elaborating on the unification of the three entities, Masalmeh stated that “The proof is in the pudding, but there are obstacles to the unity of the three parties, including the recent attack on the members of the central committee,  the regime’s excesses by placing several military checkpoints that prevented the holding of some meetings.”

The Syrian regime erected numerous military checkpoints in the vicinity of cities and towns. Different forces head these checkpoints: Fourth Armored Division, Ninth Brigade, security branches (military security forces, air force intelligence, and state security forces ), the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, and the Iranian militia. 

The functions of the three committees

The functions of the committees are summarized in asking the Syrian regime forces, and the Russian guarantor to implement the provisions of “the settlement agreement” signed in July 2018: the release of detainees, the return of the displaced people to their homes, the back of governmental institutions to work, the provision of public services, as well as “settling” the situation of dissidents, deserters and draft evaders from military service, integrating the opposition fighters into the “Fifth Corps”, and allowing government employees to return to their jobs.

Adnan Masalmeh pointed out that the Syrian regime forces did not withdraw from all the agreed areas, and the file of the detainees is still pending, adding that the committees succeeded in exerting pressure on the regime in cases of arrest and detention of some people. 

The tribes of Daraa city and the commissions of elders united to turn into a reference to the city’s decisions, in an effort to pressure the regime to fulfill the popular demands, not to ensure the irreversibility of the ongoing “settlement” agreements, and to work on peaceful solutions to reach a final deal.

The former governor of Daraa, Ali al-Salkhadi stressed that the committees “are not mediation ones, but these committees are composed of people and rebels, some of whom are former leaders in the Free Syrian Army, others are political leaders  [… ]  some still carry arms and a section that does not negotiate but demands the Russians to implement their pledges and agreed reforms.”

In a study done by Abdullah al-Jabassini, the specialist in the dynamics of southern Syria and the researcher at the European University Institute and the Middle East Institute, al-Jabassini attributed the inefficiency of the central negotiating committees in the city of Daraa to two reasons.

First, the Syrian regime aims to undermine the committees’ legitimacy in the eyes of the local population and to break the links between the two sides by attracting former opposition fighters to join the Syrian regime’s military and security forces. This has been working out somehow; for example, a former opposition leader, Mustafa Masalmeh, nicknamed “al-Kassem,” joined the security forces.

Second, the committees are generally ineffective as mediators, given lack of actual Russian support, especially since the committees have active members in local politics who do not gain Russia’s trust due to their behavior during the “settlement” negotiations in July 2018, like Adham al-Krad, a former leader in the FSA. 

The effectiveness of military mediators in Daraa outweighs the effectiveness of civilian mediators. 

The opposition fighting groups are likely to obtain a mediating military role in the post-fighting phase if they merge with the “Fifth Corps.”

In such cases, the Russians would give them their support. Subsequently, they would be able to bargain, representing the local population on issues related to governance and security in the post-conflict phase.

As a result, the “Eighth Brigade”- held areas enjoy better security services and conditions than those in which the residents find themselves before ineffective negotiating committees or without any mediators at all, according to the study.

The central committee in the western countryside of Daraa did not join the “Fifth Corps,” nor the Syrian regime’s security forces. The committee is endowed with somewhat independence, but the security situation is tenser in its area than in the rest of Daraa, according to al-Salkhadi.

Three scenarios

In an interview with Enab Baladi, researcher Abdullah al-Jabassini indicated that the committees have three options if no special concessions are made in the western countryside. The first scenario is that a fight would break out against the Syrian regime forces in the city of al-Sanamayn, but the opposition military forces in the western Daraa countryside would prolong the fighting and cause the Syrian regime higher losses, something the Russians and the regime do not want. The second scenario is that “the Fifth Corps” led by  Ahmed al-Awda could enter other regions, and the fighters of these regions might join it, which gives al-Awda more military power. At the same time, the committees will run civil affairs.

 The weaker scenario is the proliferation of the Syrian regime’s roadblocks around the cities and villages, which is considered a solution for civilians more than for the military.  

Who is behind the targeting of the Western Daraa Countryside Committee?

The so-called Islamic State (IS) was accused of being behind an ambush that targeted a convoy that included two members of the central committee in the western countryside of Daraa: a former opposition commander and member of the central committee Mahmoud al-Bardan and a leader in “the Fifth Corps” were wounded. In addition to these, three people who were within the convoy were killed. However, the IS did not claim responsibility.

The former governor of Daraa, Ali al-Salkhadi, suggested that the forces of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah would stand behind this attack because the IS elements cannot carry out an organized military attack like this, for it needs large and organized forces.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Sulaiman al-Qarfan, the bâtonnier of the former Bar Association in Daraa, said that the reason behind this attack on the convoy is due to the increased coordination between the three entities: the Western Daraa Countryside Committee, the Daraa al-Balad committee, and the “Fifth Corps.” They refused the positioning of more troops from the Syrian regime, Iranian militias, and air force intelligence in the south.

Al-Qarfan indicated that the attack came a few hours after the entities met with the regime forces. During the meeting, they refused to place more checkpoints occupied by “the Fourth Armored Division,” requiring that former members of the FSA should operate the checkpoints. 

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