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Russian efforts to make gains in the Syrian south .. Will it succeed in Quneitra?

Some fighters of al-Assad forces at Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan (AFP)

Some fighters of al-Assad forces at Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan (AFP)

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Exclusive – Enab Baladi

Russia seeks to make gains in the territories of southern Syria (Daraa, As-Suwayda, and Quneitra) and obtain the status of a friend instead of the enemy, through many political, military, and service moves. 

On 6 July, a Russain delegation held a meeting with the governor of As-Suwayda, members of the  Syrian regime affiliated-“security committee,” several representatives of the armed factions in As-Suwayda. This is the second meeting with the Russians following the demonstrations in the province last June, which recently declined. 

Enab Baladi’s correspondent in As-Suwayda reported that the factions of the city, who attended the second meeting with the Russians after the security forces arrested several activists, are factions of “Fazaa Fakhr,” and “Baath Brigades.”

The first meeting took place at a time when a group of activists held a sit-in near the provincial building to demand the release of the detainees after a decision was released to transfer them to Damascus, on 22 June. After the meeting, the detainees were released. 

On 15 May, the commander of the Russian forces in southern Syria, organized a meeting in Daraa with the “Central Committee,” that was established after the Syrian regime’s takeover of the southern region, composed of civilian figures and former leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose task is to negotiate and represent the people as well as transfer their demands to the regime and the Russians.

Adnan al-Masalmeh, the spokesperson of the “Central Committee,” told Enab Baladi at that time, that the Russian side assured the committee that it is working seriously and intensively to prevent any accidents or any military action in the region, justifying the build-up of the Syrian regime forces are intended for other military reasons not to storm the area.

Attempts to bring Quneitra into “Fifth Corps”

Russia has not failed to lobby some members of local committees and former opposition elements in the city of Quneitra, and show its proximity to the population by distributing aid and receiving complaints. Besides, Russia indirectly supported the popular uprising organized by the “central committees” against the regime and its ally Iran, as monitored by Enab Baladi’s correspondent in the province.

A media activist and a member of the Central Committee in southern Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Enab Baladi, that Russia concluded real negotiations with Israel in mid-2018 on the Syrian regime’s re-control of southern Syria. The negotiations provided that the Russians guarantee the removal of Iranian militias, 100 km away from “the Syrian-Israel borders” and the borders with the Israeli-occupied Golan and Jordan. 

With the implementation of the agreement⁠—the Syrian regime re-captured control over southern Syria, and the opposition factions were subjected to the s0-called settlement agreement—Russia’s “Eighth Brigade” and “the Fifth Corps” were formed, to include hundreds of former opposition elements. Their goal is to prevent the spread of Iranian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah in the south. Still, they controlled the most critical points without taking any serious actions against them, according to the activist.

Al-Assad’s forces and the Russian ally managed to control the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra in July 2018, according to the “settlement” agreements, after several days of heavy bombing and military reinforcements, amid Russian guarantees to families and opposition factions.

The correspondent of Enab Baladi assured through private sources which attended one of the meetings that took place in Quneitra to discuss the issue of the city’s accession to the “Fifth Corps,” or “the Military Branch 220” known as the “Sasa’a” branch that some military and civilian leaders wanted to foil the Russian project and sperate Quneitra from Daraa by joining the Syrian regime. 

This meeting, which was held on 4 July in the northern countryside of Quneitra, was attended by the former chairperson of the “Free” Quneitra provincial council, Dirar Al-Bashir, and some faction leaders such as “Abu Jaafar Mumtana,” “Abu Mujahid,” and “Abu Muhammad al-Akhtaboot.”

Al-Bashir, known as the godfather of reconciliations with the Syrian regime, said in his speech at the meeting: “We, Syrians, must stick together, and fight the Russian and Iranian occupiers. We have to stand together against their project and form a military force headed by the “Sasa’a branch” with the residents of Quneitra.” The residents of Quneitra agreed with him, saying that “We will not be a tool in the hands of the Russians, Iran, nor the Syrian regime-linked military branches, which follow Iran and Hezbollah secretly,” according to the sources. 

They affirmed that they will remain neutral and will not join any military formation, explaining that those who abandoned the Syrian revolution and claimed that they are a friend of the Syrian people are not excluded from leaving them if the parties concerned such as the regime, Russia, Iran, and neighboring countries agree. They also refused to be a tool or fuel for this war.

In turn, “Abu Jaafar Mumtana” began to place barriers on the areas connected between Daraa and Quneitra and on the secondary roads, to prevent people of Daraa from reaching Quneitra, and joining the “Fifth Corps”, according to the sources.

Since the Syrian regime forces retook control of the southern region under “settlement” agreements with the factions of “the Free Syrian Army/FSA” in 2018, Russia has opened the door for the “reconciliation elements” to join the “Fifth Corps,” and handed over its command to Ahmed al-Awda, a former FSA leader.

Many of the “settlement” elements, who were affiliated with the opposition factions, preferred to join the ranks of the “Fifth Corps,” as a better option among the available ones represented by leaving the province for northern Syria or joining the Syrian regime forces and their military formations, especially the Fourth Armored Division, an elite combat unit of the Syrian regime forces. 

The corps is trying to expand its influence in the southern region, with the decline of other parties’ role, especially the central committees, which carried out negotiations with the Syrian regime forces with a Russia guarantee. As a result, they got warranties within the “settlement agreement” in July 2018.

“Bloodstained hands”

Brigadier General Hassan Taha, a defector from the Syrian regime forces in Quneitra, who was in the southern region and is currently moving between Turkey and the Syrian north, confirmed in an interview with Enab Baladi that Russia will not be able to change its character because “its hand is stained with blood.”

According to his description, some of the “small-minded persons and political hangers-on said that Russia is the only solution for us to topple the regime and expel Iran,” but in his opinion, Russia will not change and “whoever thinks it has changed is wrong, despite its actual success in winning some leaders and blocs in the south for its side, and the recruitment of many young men within the Fifth Corps.”

The “Fifth Corps,” which is considered the military arm of the Russians in Syria, has come once again to the forefront in the last few weeks, through its attempts to expand its influence in southern Syria or by carrying out attacks against its forces by unknown persons.

Russia is trying to grant “the Fifth Corps” extensive powers in order to coordinate and control security arrangements in the areas of its influence, in addition to preventing the incursion of other military forces, including the Syrian regime forces in southern Syria.  Furthermore, Russia is also attempting to gain a large military force in southern Syria under one command in Daraa and Quneitra, and stop the Iranian penetration in the region.  

Since the start of the “settlement agreement,” Russia has entered as a guarantor to curb and contain the ascendancy of the Syrian regime at the security level, as well as stop the arrests of its opponents. However, the arrests are still taking place in the two governorates, as well as the compulsory military service and security incidents, which reduced the success of Russian assurances in convincing a part of the people of the south.

 

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