In Daraa, “the cradle” of Syria’s revolution, peace fades between promises and reality

A young man looking at the wall that read: "Your turn is coming doctor" in the city of Daraa, in southern Syrian (2018 Anadolu Agency)

A young man looking at the wall that read: "Your turn is coming doctor" in the city of Daraa, in southern Syrian (2018 Anadolu Agency)

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Daraa – Halim Muhammad

Ten years ago, on 18 March 2011, Syrians took to the streets to call for political and social reform in Syria’s southern province of Daraa. However, these peaceful protests were put down with violence and mass arrests by the Syrian regime’s security services, causing the first deaths in the history of the Syrian peaceful revolution, which turned later into an armed conflict. Daraa, since then, has not experienced calm or stability even though it is now under the control of the Syrian regime. In fact, regime control has contributed only to inciting violence and chaos. 

Abd al-Salam al-Muhammad had never imagined that he would be in line waiting for his turn to be interviewed face-to-face by some members of military security and Air Force Intelligence to “settle” his situation with the Syrian regime. The members bombarded him with questions such as “Were you armed? (Yes, I was.)” “What was your job within the faction? And why did you defect from the Syrian army?”

“The specter of arrest, torture, or displacement is a nightmare that haunts our future,” Abd al-Salam al-Muhammad told Enab Baladi.

He added that “In the beginning, the illusion of security that the Syrian regime and the Russians talked about was mixed with the reality of the security branches that have kept a security file for everyone who opposed the regime, since 2011.”

The Syrian regime forces, backed by the Russian Air Force, launched a military campaign on 19 June 2018 to storm the southern Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. After less than a month and a half, they were able to retake control over them, thus ending six years of opposition factions’ control of the region. 

Nearly 234,000 people were displaced due to the military campaign, according to statistics issued by the United Nations (UN)in July 2018. 

The Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office estimated that about 1,500 raids and barrel bombs hit Daraa, causing the death of 209 people, including 52 women and 67 children. 

The residents of Daraa and Quneitra had to choose between being “displaced to northern Syria or staying under the control of the Syrian regime,” with Russians pledging to ensure that former opposition fighters and activists will not be subjected to arrest or reprisals. 

The security branches prepared a “settlement” agreement, including security and service promises, which the residents have so far seen nothing of.

Services decline with support cuts 

After the Syrian regime forces regained control over the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, they ignored the vital projects implemented by the opposition institutions with relief organizations’ help. These projects came in response to the humanitarian needs triggered by the siege and military campaigns carried out by the Syrian regime over the rebellious region at that time.  

In the western countryside of Daraa, the Directorate of Agriculture neglected Tell Shihab’s Plant Nursery, which in 2016 produced one million saplings, varying between olives and almonds, pomegranates and grapes.

A former member of Tell Shihab’s Plant Nursery Management, who declined to be named for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that the Directorate of Agriculture took over the nursery, which was fully equipped with greenhouses and equipment and an electric generator. It could have prompted and sustained the production process of the nursery. But, it removed the water pumps and deserted the nursery.  He said that this was an attempt to obliterate the opposition’s agricultural achievement. 

The Syrian regime’s institutions also neglected solar energy projects associated with Tell Shihab and Muzayrib’s water pumps. The pumps were used to supply the towns with drinking water, but regime neglect left them prone to theft. The same happened with the solar energy project that used to operate Tafas Hospital.

Furthermore, the field hospitals that were well-equipped with modern medical devices were overlooked by Daraa’s Health Directorate. Consequently, the residents of Daraa are no longer able to obtain free health care and medicines. The Syrian government has not compensated them for damages either; it did not rehabilitate or equip the existing public healthcare facilities to meet the residents’ health care needs.

Muhammad al-Hussein, a sixty-year-old resident of Daraa countryside, said that opposition hospitals used to receive patients around the clock and provide them with medicines free of charge. By contrast, public hospitals are now not equipped with medical staff and suffer from administrative corruption and healthcare delivery delays. Furthermore, patients have to resort to bribery to get treatment. 

Opposition establishments in the eastern region were destroyed and “looted” by the Syrian regime forces, which invaded them militarily. For instance, al-Jasem Hospital was robbed, according to a former member of a local council in the city, who spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity.

The former member also said the opposition’s local council handed the public service facilities over to the municipal council of the Syrian regime in good conditions, including cleaning equipment, well-equipped schools, farm machinery, in addition to 1,000 liters of fuel and 250 tons of flour. 

The former member of the local council pointed out that the area’s residents “used to be in a better living condition than now.” For example, bread is not available each day, as it used to be. Only half of the previous bread amounts are distributed, and every two days. Aid baskets are lacking too, distributed by the Syrian Red Crescent once every nine months, instead of six times every year. Moreover, about 950 children have lost aid, which they used to receive under the opposition’s control.

The Syrian government has been unable to restore and reoperate its institutions, such as the Cows Farm in the town of Muzayrib, “Mothers of Olives” in Yadouda, “The Bees Service,” Muzayrib University, the Agricultural Research Center, the Irrigation Directorate, and other disrupted departments. 

Although some organizations have undertaken projects to remove about 265 thousand cubic meters of rubble left by the battles, they did not cover half of the destroyed buildings, according to the former member of the local council’s assessment.

The rubble of destroyed homes is still unremoved from Daraa al-Balad, the Sadd Road neighborhood, and Daraa’s Camp. Hussam, 45 years old, a resident of Daraa’s Camp, said, “The rubble left from the destruction caused by the battles is still piled up, and some of the people have returned to live next to the rubble of their homes.”

The lack of public services and worsening living conditions prompted the people of Daraa to hold new demonstrations and protests against the Syrian regime; similar to the ones that took place in 2011. However, the Syrian government responded to the demonstrations using violence, intimidation, and arrest campaigns, the same old methods that turned the peaceful demonstrations into an armed conflict.   

Syrian regime’s military actions in its areas of control

The Syrian regime forces constantly destabilize the people of Daraa by threatening to storm their cities and towns; the Syrian regime has already stormed some cities, even though it declared its control over the area. For example, last February, the Syrian regime forces surrounded the city of Tafas in the western countryside of Daraa, threatening to wage a fierce war against its people.

However, there have been negotiations between the Syrian regime and the Central Committee of Daraa’s western countryside, which ended with the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces from Tafas. In return, the Syrian regime also demanded that a list of six names be sent to northern Syria. Later, the Syrian regime also waived this demand. 

A resident of Tafas, who requested anonymity, told Enab Baladi that since the Syrian regime retook control over the southern region, the regime “has not abandoned its harsh security mindset, threatening and brandishing with its military force, in order to make people obey its orders and restore its old control as it was before 2011.”

The Syrian regime stormed the city of al-Sanamayn in March 2020 and imposed on the residents a new settlement agreement. According to the new agreement, 13 opponents were deported to northern Syria under the Russian-supported Eighth Brigade’s guarantee. Then, the Russia-founded Fifth Corps made a military advance in the village of Jillin in the western countryside of Daraa and killed two former commanders of the armed opposition groups. Simultaneously, the Syrian regime bombed the village, causing the death of eight civilians.

On 10 August 2020, the Syrian regime forces cordoned off the city of al-Jasem in the northern countryside of Daraa. They issued a list of people’s names, demanding to turn them in under the pretext of their affiliation with the Islamic State (IS). The military campaign conducted by the Syrian regime ended after the intervention of the Eighth Brigade. The brigade also conducted joint patrols with the state security forces. Two months later, and with a similar scenario, the regime ended its siege on the eastern town of Kerak, following an attack on a checkpoint belonging to its forces near the area. 

Security measures prioritized 

Wissam al-Hussein, 33 years old, did not choose to leave for northern Syria due to the challenging living situation there. Taking his family with him to northern Syria did not sound like a good idea, neither was leaving them in southern Syria on their own, because he would not be able to support them remotely. Therefore, he decided to stay in southern Syria with his family. However, it turned out that “Staying in southern Syria was like making the decision to commit suicide, with the decision put on hold for a while.” 

Wissam found himself obliged to join the Fourth Armored Division’s ranks to protect himself from being arrested at the security checkpoints. He also wanted to perform his military service in his region.

Following the military operations, a new settlement agreement was concluded in Daraa, according to which the factions handed over heavy weapons (tanks and vehicles) and medium weapons. However, a struggle broke out among the Syrian regime forces to control the southern region by attracting former members of the opposition factions to join their side.

The Syrian regime “exploits” the need of young people of Daraa for protection against arrest, some young men told Enab Baladi

Once it controlled the area, the regime opened the door for enrolling in the Fourth Division, Military Security, and Air Force Intelligence.

On the other hand, Russia has sought to establish its footing in the south by forming the Eighth Brigade, attached to the Fifth Corps, to be auxiliary forces for the regime forces.

The Fourth Armored Division took control of the western countryside, while the Eighth Brigade took control of the city of Busra in the eastern countryside of Daraa. Some groups affiliated with Air Force Intelligence and Military Security were formed in separate areas of the governorate.

Muhammad al-Hussein, 65 years old, told Enab Baladi that there is no difference between the regime’s and the opposition’s control, “the same elements are at the checkpoints, but the flag is different.”

Ultimately, the end of the military confrontation between the Syrian regime-affiliated groups and former opposition factions did not lead to security and calm. Instead, it authorized the start of assassinations by unknown perpetrators.

According to Enab Baladi‘s statistics from the reports of the Martyrs Documentation Office in Daraa, 543 people were killed after the settlement agreement in mid-2018.

In 2019, the death toll reached 208. In 2020, nearly 296 people were killed, in addition to 39 people who died during the two months of January and February 2021.

The assassinations varied between direct targeting and detonation of IEDs. Commanders and former members of the Syrian Free Army, collaborators with the security services, and state employees were among the most targeted.

 Enab Baladi documented the killing of ten employees of the Syrian regime during the settlement period. Most of them were the mayors of municipalities, mukhtars (governors of neighborhoods), and officials of the Baath ruling party.

Seven members of the Central Committees, formed in June 2018 to negotiate the terms of the settlement agreement with the Syrian regime and the Russians, were targeted, including intellectuals and notables in the governorate.

Even though the Central Committees concluded the settlement agreement—which provided for the release of detainees, the settlement of defectors’ status from compulsory military services, and the return of dismissed employees to their jobs in state departments— they have not yet achieved any tangible gains. 

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