Would Deir Ezzor be next on Syrian regime’s list of failed settlements?
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
Since early November, the Syrian regime forces have started promoting security settlement operations in Deir Ezzor governorate, eastern Syria, through the al-Ba’ath Party divisions and branches there. The party cadres held an organizational meeting on 9 November, during which Ba’athist seniors spoke of what they called a “blessing from President Bashar al-Assad,” who ordered general settlement and national reconciliation processes for the residents of Deir Ezzor, including compulsory military service evaders and those wanted by the Syrian authorities.
The settlement procedures started in Deir Ezzor governorate, which has a clannish nature similar to that of Daraa governorate, have brought to mind the settlements carried out by the regime in Daraa, which failed to stop the security chaos and assassinations in the southern Syrian governorate.
In Deir Ezzor, the regime’s security forces arrested a number of Deir Ezzor residents who came to the city’s Sports Hall to settle their status, reflecting the regime’s real intentions contrary to the reconciliation concept it strives to advertise.
In this report, Enab Baladi sheds light on the settlement experience in Daraa governorate and its gains, encouraging the regime to apply the same procedure in Deir Ezzor governorate, which has American and Iranian forces, unlike the southern region of Syria.
Did the settlement agreements prove successful in Daraa?
Despite the established settlements in Daraa, assassinations continued to occur and affect elements and figures linked to the regime’s forces after the regime withdrew its forces from the security checkpoints as part of what the state media called a “return to normal life in Daraa governorate.
The assassination and targeting operations were not limited to those willing to settle their security situations and former opposition fighters but also affected patrols for the Russian military police, the guarantor of settlements in Daraa.
Former opposition leader Lieutenant Naji al-Majarish told Enab Baladi that the Daraa governorate security settlements were doomed to fail since their setting, just like the 2018 settlement agreement.
Al-Majarish added that the current settlement, established last September, had backfired on the regime, as there had been no improvement on the security level, with assassinations increasing at a rapid and intense pace and thefts and insecurity prevailing in the governorate.
According to al-Majarish, the regime’s sole objective of the Daraa settlements was to withdraw arms from locals so as to deny them the possibility of defending themselves in future security crackdowns.
In addition, the regime sought through the settlements to change the demographics of Daraa governorate, where it facilitated the migration of young people to empty the southern region of its population, making it easier to maintain its security grip on the region.
Regarding the similarities between the Daraa settlements and those the regime trying to implement in Deir Ezzor, Anas Shawakh, a Syrian researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that regime forces, with the full support of the Russian side, are working on the model of “individual settlements,” instead of settling with entire factions and brigades, to prevent them from maintaining their unity after signing the settlements.
According to Shawakh, the regime forces are trying to apply this model of “individual settlements” in areas controlled by the regime and Iranian-backed militias, and the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that also have forces from the International Coalition Forces (ICF).
A similar social structure
Both Daraa and Deir Ezzor governorates have a clan-based community structure. During the regime’s military escalation on Daraa, the city and countryside residents took a united stand thanks to tribal ties.
The clannish structure in Daraa made possible the formation of a committee by tribe dignitaries to negotiate with the regime to end the military offensive on besieged areas of Daraa governorate between last June and September.
The clans’ common stand stood out in many situations where negotiations with the regime faltered, and military operations were resumed in Daraa governorate. On 28 June, locals in Daraa al-Balad demanded to be evicted to safe areas following the siege imposed by regime forces and the military escalation on the area. The demands received no implicit or expressed objection from Daraa’s other regions, but the situation was eventually settled down, and settlements with the regime were signed in early September.
Meanwhile, in Deir Ezzor, the regime tried to invest in the region’s tribal structure for the past few years by winning over some clans’ leaders or dignitaries, according to Shawakh.
Shawakh explained that the regime had attempted to utilize clans leaders to consolidate its control over Deir Ezzor through launching a comprehensive settlement a while ago in the governorate.
The Russian side also relied on the same policy and tried to invest in several clans’ leaders and dignitaries by presenting them as guarantors of the settlement agreement to convince members of their clans of the seriousness and commitment of the regime in this process. However, this investment failed for many reasons, most notably of which the clans’ dignitaries’ loss of social weight and status among their clans, particularly after a significant part of them got involved with the Iranian militias active in Deir Ezzor governorate, according to Shawakh.
What about the international community’s stance on settlements in Daraa and Deir Ezzor?
The international community remained silent towards what was happening in Daraa al-Balad city, even after the regime besieged it for over a month and increased hostilities against its residents through regular bombing operations.
Human rights organizations and influential actors in the Syrian file did not issue any statement to condemn the regime’s atrocities in Daraa al-Balad not until the end of last July, over a month after the regime besieged the city and tried to storm it.
On 28 August, several days before the end of the military clashes in Daraa al-Balad, some international organizations released statements calling on the regime to stop the violence in the region. Amnesty International demanded the Syrian regime to lift the two-month siege of Daraa al-Balad and allow unrestricted humanitarian aid into the area, where some 20,000 people live.
However, with the end of military action and the introduction of settlements in Daraa governorate, the international community returned to its passive position, namely the United States (US) and Israel, which have long denounced the Iranian forces’ presence close to the Israeli borders in southern Syria.
The situation was similar in Deir Ezzor, as neither the international community nor the US commented on the settlements carried out in the governorate, tens of kilometers away from the US military bases.
The US did not address the regime’s promotion of settlements in areas outside of its control in Deir Ezzor governorate. Meanwhile, the US local ally in northeast Syria, the SDF, adopted the same approach, except for a single denouncing decision by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)’s Legislative Council of Deir Ezzor.
Moreover, the unofficial internal crossings between the SDF areas and those of the Syrian regime in Deir Ezzor governorate continued to operate normally during the settlement process without any interruption or disruption by the SDF.
Shawakh told Enab Baladi that the US is not likely to take a stand against the regime’s settlements in its controlled areas in Deir Ezzor.
As the settlement process was launched in Deir Ezzor city’s Sports Hall building on 14 November, regime forces arrested some of those wishing to fill a settlement application under which applicants receive a card acquitting them of the charges of carrying weapons or defecting from regime forces, according to the local Deir Ezzor 24 news website.
Civilians told Enab Baladi that “the settlement measure shields them from the regime,” should the control in Deir Ezzor governorate get shifted, either through military battles or within understandings between the regime and the SDF.
However, some residents denounced the settlements fearing the regime’s recapture of their regions. Several popular protests were held in different parts of Deir Ezzor, rejecting any presence of the regime or Russian forces in the governorate.
Last October, a Russian column heading to Raqqa was intercepted by locals and dignitaries from the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, who told Russian leaders and soldiers, “You killed our children. We do not want you in our cities and villages.”
On this matter, Shawakh commented that the broad popular rejection of the Syrian regime’s return to power in certain parts of Deir Ezzor currently under the control of the SDF is inevitable. The residents protested the presence of Russian forces because it would be a prelude to the return of regime forces to their regions, and this is why they intercepted Russian columns twice, the last of which was on 19 November.
Hussam Luka: The settlement agreements designer
The regime’s security settlements in different parts of Syria were led by Major General Hussam Luka, including Daraa and Deir Ezzor governorates.
Syrian regime-affiliated media outlets circulated images showing Luka in Deir Ezzor governorate running the settlement procedures without providing details on his role or the nature of the settlements.
The settlement agreements in Daraa governorate were shaped by the regime’s Security Committee (SC), headed by Major General Hussam Luka. The committee used the same intimidating approach used by the regime in all Syrian governorates.
The security powers granted to Luka in Daraa governorate have enabled him to achieve significant gains for the Syrian regime, as he supervised the handing over of the largest quantity of weapons kept by locals after the 2018 settlement agreement.
Luka is originally from Khanaser town in Aleppo’s southern countryside. As a senior official, Luka was appointed head of the Political Security Branch as a successor to Major-General Mohammad Khaled al-Rahmoun, who served as the Interior Minister in the regime’s government.
Luka’s service to the regime was not limited to the southern region’s boundaries, as he had a primary role in controlling the al-Waer neighborhood in Homs city in 2017. Luka was part of a settlement agreement that stipulated the eviction of former fighters and residents to northern Syria under Russian auspices.
In April 2012, Luka was named the head of the Political Security Branch in Homs, succeeding Brigadier-General Nasr al-Ali, and was known for using force against the city’s first peaceful protests against the Syrian regime.
In 2012, the European Union (EU) designated Luka on its sanctions list for his involvement in torturing protestors and civilians in areas where he served as a security arm to the regime.
Luka was also among 17 names listed on the United States Treasury’s sanctions within the framework of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act.
In 2019, Luka took over the management of the Security Committee (SC) in Daraa governorate, succeeding Major-General Qahtan Khalil.
Luka was responsible for recruiting mercenaries to assassinate opponents of the settlement agreement, the local news agency Nabaa reported.
Luka gave orders to bomb al-Sanamayn city, leaving many deaths and injuries. He also facilitated drug trafficking in southern Syria, the agency said.
Since Luka took over the management of the regime’s SC in Daraa, he gave additional powers to military elements on security barriers, who arbitrarily arrested hundreds of civilians in Daraa governorate.
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