Syrian regime closes in on opposition pockets in Quneitra and Daraa despite settlements

Syrian regime forces driving in Quneitra after the regime announced its re-control over the southern province - 26 July 2018 (AP)

Syrian regime forces driving in Quneitra after the regime announced its re-control over the southern province - 26 July 2018 (AP)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

The Syrian regime backed by Russia regained control over Daraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria in July 2018 under a reconciliation agreement that stipulated the deportation of former opposition fighters and civilian families to northern Syria and the “settling” of the status of compulsory military service evaders and wanted people to regime’s security apparatus.

Settlement agreements in both provinces were led by the Daraa Central Committee (DCC) and the Quneitra Reconciliation Committee (QRC) as representatives of opposition factions, under Russian auspices.

Despite the settlements, regime forces have arrested hundreds of Daraa and Quneitra residents and attempted to break into several cities and towns and already stormed Umm Batnah town and al-Sanamayn city, where residents were deported from these areas to northern Syria.

Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa contacted the DCC, which was part of the established settlement negotiations in the province, and reported that the Russians’ inconsistent positions had played a key role in the deportation decision, especially with the presence of Russia’s military arm in the region, the 8th Brigade.

Deportation from Umm Batnah and al-Sanamayn

Since early May, the QRC and the DCC mediated negotiations between residents from Umm Batnah town, central Quneitra, and the Military Security Branch in Sa’sa’ town in Quneitra. 

The negotiations ended on 20 May with the expulsion of 150 townspeople to opposition-held areas in northern Syria and the release of two male detainees from regime prisons.

Deportation was not on the negotiation table for the DCC, but the Sa’sa’ branch kept pushing towards this option and demanded mandatory service drafters to reconcile with the regime to legalize their status, particularly former Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders who joined the branch after the negotiations.

Tension first rose in Umm Batnah on 1 May, after gunmen launched an attack on a military post operated by Iranian militias in the small town of al-Duha, located somewhere at the center of the area between Tall al-Shaar, Jabah, Umm Batnah, and Mumtanah. The post’s location is close to the border fence between Syria and the territories occupied by Israel.

In retaliation to the post attack, the regime forces bombarded the town with artillery weaponry installed at Tall Shaar. The town’s residents escaped the shelling and took refuge in nearby villages.

The first deportation to take place in the southern region after a settlement agreement was in al-Sanamayn city, northern Daraa, in March 2020, following military tensions in the city.

Before conducting the settlement, regime forces besieged the city with tanks and armed elements, cut off roads to the city, and clashed with former FSA fighters.

The settlement of al-Sanamayn provided for the deportation of those who refused to reconcile to the Syrian north. As for those who chose to remain, part of them surrendered their arms and settled with the regime, while the second part headed to Busra al-Sham town and joined the 8th Brigade, a subdivision of the Russian-founded 5th Corps, under Ahmed al-Awda’s command.

Back then, 21 former FSA fighters from al-Sanamayn were deported, including three injured, to the northern Aleppo countryside.

The fighters entered Aleppo countryside through Abu al-Zendan crossing in the eastern Aleppo countryside. They were intercepted by the Syrian National Army’s affiliate-faction,  the Levant Front, and were investigated by Turkish intelligence before being released later due to lack of coordination between factions in control regarding former FSA fighters’ exit to the north.

The Quneitra deportees had to wait for more than 30 hours on the SNA roadblock at the crossing point after passing the regime’s checkpoints until they were finally allowed to cross into Idlib.

Three opposition pockets witnessed tensions but not deportations

On 24 January, the city of Tafas in western Daraa witnessed military tensions as regime forces bombed the city’s perimeter from the southwest, while they advanced towards the city’s irrigation center, which was taken as a headquarters by former FSA commander Khaldoun al-Zoubi.

Militants clashed with the advancing regime forces in the city, forcing them to retreat and withdraw after the al-Ghayth Forces of the 4th Division surrounded the city from all sides and deployed checkpoints.

The regime claimed that sleeper cells of the Islamic State (IS) existed in Tafas before building up military reinforcements around the city, which was witnessing clashes between Daraa’s two prominent clans, al-Zoubi and Kiwan, resulting in many civilian deaths. The intra-clan clashes provided another pretext to the regime to demand the handing over of light and medium weapons from the area.

During a meeting with the DCC, the Russians threatened to use warplanes from the Hamimim military airbase in Lattakia, should the Syrian regime not be able to break into some areas.

During the negotiations, the regime demanded specific names be deported to opposition areas in northern Syria or handed over to its security forces, threatening to storm the city if its demands were not answered. Nevertheless, the regime’s demands were ignored despite the regime’s extended deadlines.

The two sides to the negotiations finally agreed on excluding deportation and allowing the exit of wanted people from the western region under the protection of their clans on the condition of them staying in the province. They also agreed on allowing the 4th Division to search a number of farms to the south of Tafas in the presence of locals to ensure that no violations would be committed against civilians and their properties.

The agreement also provided for the handing over of 14.5 anti-aircraft guns, which were used in clashes between al-Zoubi and Kiwan clans, besides emptying government headquarters and handing them back to the regime.

Russia-backed 8th Brigade: all time mediator to tensions in southern Syria

In August 2020, tension rose in Jassim city, northern Daraa, when regime forces surrounded the city under the pretext of having IS sleeper cells. This campaign ended with the mediation of the 8th Brigade, which agreed with the regime’s State Security Branch to conduct joint patrols in the city.

Another mediation by the brigade occurred in November 2020, when it stopped the regime’s military campaign on al-Karak village east of Daraa.

The brigade members participated in a raid and search campaign in al-Karak in search of wanted former FSA fighters, as part of an agreement to search 17 houses in the village.

On 8 November 2020, former FSA fighters attacked an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint and held its soldiers captive with their weapons in response to a regime military campaign on Daraa al-Balad in which regime forces stormed neighborhoods, raided houses, and bombed the city with artillery shells.

Regime forces responded to the attack by deploying military reinforcements around the town, including tanks, military vehicles, and armored personnel carriers. They prevented townspeople from entering and exiting their checkpoints and demanded the release of captivated soldiers and arms.

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