Between Russia and Iran: Daraa under fire 

A military vehicle transporting Syrian regime forces in Daraa (AFP)

A military vehicle transporting Syrian regime forces in Daraa (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Daraa governorate has been a scene for military and security developments following its residents’ refusal to participate in the Syrian regime’s presidential elections held last May, which ended by re-electing Bashar al-Assad for a fourth seven-year term. 

Several regions in Daraa witnessed arrest campaigns, siege, and bombardment, but the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad city at the center of the governorate had the biggest share of Syrian regime’s security and military operations.

The regime-affiliated 4th Division that is close to Iran and led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, was the primary force responsible for storming the city and shelling it, alongside the 9th Division and the regime security services (the Air Force and Military Intelligence services). 

These military formations had their checkpoints stationed in the environs of Daraa city and Daraa’s western countryside. As for the eastern countryside of the governorate, it remains under Russian influence, with the presence of the 8th Brigade, a subdivision of the Russian-founded 5th Corps led by Ahmed al-Awda.   

As the city of Daraa was being bombed, the regime’s Security Committee and Daraa Central Committee (DCC) were negotiating over the situation in Daraa, and while Iran was trying to obstruct any agreement, Russia was the central element in the negotiation process, despite being militarily absent on the ground.

Russian-Iranian conflict in Daraa 

Ali al-Salkhadi, Daraa governorate’s former governor during the opposition factions’ control period, told Enab Baladi that the situation on the ground in Daraa is best described as a conflict of Russian-Iranian interests.  

Al-Salkhadi added, at the beginning of the latest events in Daraa, the DCC was negotiating with the head of the regime’s Security Committee, Hussam Luka, and the commander of the 5th Division in Daraa and As-Suwayda, General Mufeed Hassan.    

The two sides of the negotiations agreed on setting three security checkpoints, the surrender of 60 firearms, and settling wanted locals’ status. However, in the second round of negotiations, Luka and Hassan changed their demands to setting nine posts, four of which as security posts and five as military points, in addition to the surrender of 160 firearms and the eviction of some people to northern Syria. 

Security checkpoints are run by military elements equipped with medium and light weapons, while military checkpoints include heavy armaments.

Later on, the negotiation parties agreed on deploying five checkpoints (three security barriers and two military posts), besides the surrender of 160 firearms.  

Nevertheless, the negotiations were disrupted by a 4th Division’s attack from the western side of Daraa supported by the 9th Division, in addition to a security forces’ attack from the eastern side without prior coordination with the regime’s Security Committee, according to information obtained by the DCC from Luka.  

This twist of events in Daraa, according to al-Salkhadi, has exposed the Russian-Iranian conflict in the region, as Russia rushed to provide bigger support to the 8th Brigade, worked on establishing new brigades, and contacted some figures for this purpose.   

It is worth mentioning that the regime forces have been cordoning Daraa al-Balad’s neighborhood for over 60 days and have denied the city residents access to water, electric power, and flour amid a complete collapse for the health sector in besieged neighborhoods.

On 15 August, the Russian delegation in Daraa al-Balad proposed a roadmap to the regime and opposition’s negotiations committees. The roadmap included the implementation plan on the regime’s side and its security services and the procedures that will be applied against local opposition fighters refusing to settle their status, who will be evicted to northern Syria after surrendering their weapons.  

The Russian delegation’s representative presented lists for those who settled their status, former local fighters unwilling to settle, defectors and evaders of the regime’s compulsory military service, and locals exiting the region through the Saraya barrier.  

Enab Baladi obtained a copy of the Russian roadmap, in which it was mentioned that the Saraya barrier would be considered a humanitarian corridor to those wishing to leave the region, to be open later to those entering and exiting the region in the coming days.  

The locals rejected the Russian roadmap and one of Daraa’s dignitaries, named Abu Ali Mahameed, told Enab Baladi that locals of Daraa al-Balad would not accept the proposed roadmap in its current form, and even if they do, the roadmap cannot be applied on the ground due to many obstacles. 

One of these obstacles, according to Mahameed, is the Russian demand for locals to hand over their weapons despite the presence of Iran-affiliated militias and regime forces surrounding the city from all sides. He added, the lack of any guarantee that these militias will not storm the city hampers the implementation of the Russian proposed roadmap.   

For its part, the DCC demanded a return to the 2018 settlement agreement in Daraa which stipulated the release of all detainees and the withdrawal of security and military forces from the region. 

As for regime forces, they continued to target Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians, ignoring the Russian roadmap proposal that aimed to end the escalation in Daraa. 

Moreover, the regime’s forces brought additional reinforcements to the perimeter of Daraa al-Balad, including military vehicles carrying rocket launchers belonging to the 4th Division.  

A former leader in the dissipated Free Syrian Army (FSA) told Enab Baladi after requesting not to mention his name for security reasons that the regime has two objectives behind the military reinforcements in Daraa. 

The first objective is to intimidate locals and the negotiations committee, which became evident when regime-affiliated media outlets published images and video recordings of the reinforcements to raise fear. 

The second objective is to strengthen the regime’s defenses on the al-Naimah and Umm al-Mayathen towns on Daraa’s eastern side against any counterattack. 

Joint coordination and cooperation efforts

Military expert Brigadier General Abdullah al-Asaad said that the situation in Daraa is far from being a Russian-Iranian conflict; on the contrary, there is a consensus between Iran and Russia regarding Daraa. Plans are coming from Damascus under Russian advisers’ supervision, and the 4th Division’s reinforcements to Daraa was a Russian decision with the blessing of Russian officers and advisers.  

Al-Assad added that the Russians are the decision-makers in Daraa, while Iranian militias and affiliated foreign elements serving the 4th Division are Russia’s hired guns.

The Russians are going after geopolitical gains in southern Syria, while Iran is working on spreading the Shiite doctrine and recruiting mercenaries there. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is just hoping to keep its elements in the Daraa region, according to al-Assad. 

The military expert also said that Russia did not use its air force in Daraa for several reasons, including “tactical” ones like the region’s small area. Another reason is the agreement between the United States, Russia, Israel, and Jordan that required Daraa to have a special situation preventing the presence of fighting elements there because Israel wanted to guarantee the security of its borders with Syria.

Since 2018, the regime has not been able to introduce heavy military equipment to brigades positioned in areas near Israel, where hostilities are prohibited for being close to Jordan and Israel.

Still, the concentration points of Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani militias led by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), besides the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, have more than doubled. In August 2018, there were 40 security and military points, but in this August, the number increased to 88, according to a study published by the Jussor for Studies Center.

The study mentioned that the Russian auspices established by international understanding on Daraa and Quneitra should prohibit any demographic changes and keep IRGC and Hezbollah elements 85 kilometers away from the Golan Heights and prevent their expansion in southern Syria. 

However, the settlement reached between the regime and opposition factions in southern Syria (Daraa and Quneitra) in July 2018 allowed the presence of IRGC and Hezbollah elements in the region under Russian, American, Israeli, and Jordanian understanding and with Russian auspices. 

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