After Daraa, seeds of unrest in Homs
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The conditions of the 2018 settlement agreement in Daraa governorate, southern Syria, are very similar to that of the northern Homs countryside signed in the same year. Under the reconciliation deal of Homs’ northern countryside, the Syrian regime officially ended the armed opposition factions’ presence in the region except for some former fighters who agreed to settle their status and joined the regime’s army’s brigades and affiliated local militias.
This created a possibility for a security breakdown in the Homs’ northern countryside region, which the regime fears, particularly after Daraa’s recent developments, where local fighters are trying to impose their conditions in a new settlement.
Early in 2018, the regime backed by the Russian Air Force launched a military offensive on Homs northern countryside to force opposition fighters out to northwestern Syria. In May 2018, the regime and the region’s local fighters reached a settlement agreement under Russian auspices.
The agreement stipulated the surrender of opposition fighters of all heavy weapons and their eviction along with their families and individual weapons to northwestern Syria. Each fighter among those who refused to settle was allowed to take an automatic rifle upon eviction, while defected officers from the regime’s army were permitted to take a gun besides an automatic rifle.
After the agreement came into force, many residents of Homs countryside who chose to remain in the region started hiding weapons by burying them in farmlands for future needs.
A similar model to the Daraa settlement
One of Homs countryside’s biggest factions, the al-Tawhid Army, whose fighters were headquartered in Talbiseh city, was the only faction that maintained its military formation under Russian guarantees. The faction’s members were granted security clearances by the Russians, permitting them to possess weapons.
The faction’s leader Manhal al-Sallouh became a similar model to Ahmed al-Awda, the commander of the Russia-supported 8th Brigade in Daraa, as he started to visit the Russian airbase Hmeimim in Latakia governorate.
Six months after the settlement in Homs northern countryside, the regime accused al-Sallouh and his faction of undertaking drug smuggling operations in cooperation with drug dealers linked to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, leading to his arrest then release thanks to Russian mediation.
Six months following his release, al-Sallouh resumed his drug trafficking activity taking advantage of his Russian security clearance, which ended in him being caught in the act and losing Russian privileges.
One of the al-Tawhid Army’s leaders shared with Enab Baladi another version of al-Sallouh’s arrest story. He said, after requesting his name be withheld for security reasons, that the regime framed al-Sallouh’s charge because it wanted to get rid of a defiant military faction that has Russian privileges.
According to the source, the regime aimed at dismantling the faction, causing some of its members to join the fighting in Libya as mercenary soldiers after losing security clearances given to them by Russia and the arrest and imprisonment of a large part of the faction’s leaders in Sednaya prison.
As for al-Sallouh, he was imprisoned in the Mezzeh military prison and is still there to this day, the source said.
He also added that members of al-Tawhid Army who remained loose are operating as sleeper cells in regime-held areas, targeting regime officers and security elements in the region.
Out of resources: Syrian regime fells short in handling popular rage
Enab Baladi has received information that security detachments in Homs city and its northern countryside have increased military troops by one-third and equipment by double the number of previous supplies.
The regime’s security authorities have ordered their elements and undercover agents to take caution fearing possible targeting and to remain on alert to support security detachments when necessary.
Military and strategic affairs expert Colonel Ismail Ayoub told Enab Baladi that the regime is aware that the region’s population is boiling with anger at the poor security and living conditions; however, it is out of resources to soothe their anger.
Ayoub went further to say that the regime is likely to face a new “popular revolt,” this time in Homs, for many reasons in the near future. Some of the reasons include the difficult living conditions experienced in Homs governorate and many regime areas, the regime’s use of military force to silence its critics, and the deployment of the governorate’s youth on battlefronts.
However, the regime is unlikely to respond to tensions in Homs by clashing with the region’s locals because it realizes the sensitivity of the situation of settlement areas, Ayoub said, adding that the regime’s response would be limited to individual arrests and security investigations, without resorting to a collective punishment policy like what it did in Daraa.
Fragile stability in Homs northern countryside
After the regime recaptured Homs governorate, the security situation there was partially re-established, except for some sporadic assassinations against regime elements and writings protesting the regime on walls.
On 13 August, the regime forces held an extensive meeting in Talbiseh city to contain the security situation. The meeting included representatives of Homs’ northern countryside cities and towns and officers of the Homs Security Committee (HSC).
Enab Baladi‘s correspondent in Homs reported back then that a security meeting was held between regime officers from the HSC and dignitaries from the northern countryside of Homs. The HSC demanded the dignitaries to help them arrest the “terror” cell members responsible for executing the assassinations.
The regime’s HSC threatened to launch a wide-scale security campaign to arrest all suspects if the region’s dignitaries did not respond to its demands. Meanwhile, dignitaries close to the regime denied knowing anything about the activities of these cells or the identity of their members.
In the meeting, the HSC said that it intends to arrest 60 wanted persons suspected of carrying out assassinations.
On 12 August, a faction known under the name of the “Saraya 2011” claimed responsibility for assassinating a regime forces element, whose body was found in Talbiseh city after being kidnapped near one of the schools to the east of the city.
The faction also announced responsibility for many offensives against regime forces in Homs countryside, including the military operation that led to the killing of officer Ayoub Ayoub on 4 July in al-Rastan city.
Security alert and military reinforcements in Homs northern countryside
The regime forces have brought military reinforcements to Homs’ northern countryside in an attempt to limit assassination operations that increased during the past two months.
Enab Baladi‘s correspondent in Homs said that the regime forces have been strengthening their military posts in Homs countryside since 15 August and ordered security detachments’ elements in the cities of al-Rastan, Talbiseh, and surrounding areas to increase their readiness and stay on alert.
The correspondent added that the regime sent reinforcements, including heavily armored vehicles, tanks, and Shilka systems, to some main checkpoints in the al-Houla Plain and the cities of Talbiseh and al-Rastan.
He added that the regime summoned elements from the 18th Division stationed at the Palmyra highway and others from the Special Task Brigade positioned to the east of the al-Ghanto village and sent them to the checkpoints.
A local source from Taldo village in the al-Houla Plain told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity for security reasons that the regime forces have reinforced the main checkpoint in Kafr Laha city with a Shelka system and placed a tank and a BMP armored vehicle in the al-Bayerli checkpoint at the northern entrance of the village.
The source added that the regime has reset a checkpoint on Talbiseh city’s bridge and deployed its elements in the posts surrounding the checkpoint after bringing PTR armored vehicles and intensifying patrols in the posts’ environs.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Homs Orwah al-Mundhir contributed to this report.
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