Does Syrian regime benefit from IS activity in Daraa?
Enab Baladi – Halim Muhammad
Although the frequency of unidentified killings has continued to rise in southern Syria, especially in Daraa governorate, since the beginning of this year, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for a limited part of these operations.
The targeting operations in Daraa, which IS officially adopted through its digital accounts, did not exceed three operations, the most recent of which was the targeting of regime army officers and soldiers in early July.
Notables of the region considered that claiming responsibility by IS at this time was “not spontaneous,” and it is in the regime’s interest in one way or another, especially with the Syrian regime’s continued threats to the southern towns with security operations to pursue IS sleeper cells.
The most recent of these threats was in Jasim, northwest of Daraa, as the regime threatened to storm the town if its residents did not fight the presence of the radical group there, which activists considered as pretexts to storm some areas of Daraa.
Who runs IS in Daraa?
Daraa activists denied in a statement seen by Enab Baladi the existence of any IS cells in southern Syria, especially in Daraa.
“And If these cells are found, they belong to Iran, which has an interest in its existence in the first place,” adds the statement which was released under the banner of “Revolutionaries and Free People of the Syrian South.”
Daraa-based media activist Hussein Qanbas told Enab Baladi that the threat to the existence of IS or extremist groups had been nothing but a “hatstand” by the regime since the first day of the Syrians’ revolution in 2011.
The activist pointed out that the unidentified people who killed Kinan al-Eid, a former leader of the opposition factions in Jasim town, stood in the town center and chanted religious slogans for five minutes without taking into account the presence of the Syrian regime forces near the site.
Until the moment of editing this news, the organization had not announced its adoption of the operation to target Kinan al-Eid through its official accounts.
An army defected officer, who is familiar with the field situation in Daraa, told Enab Baladi that the regime is seeking, through IS’ adoption of some assassination incidents, to legitimize its war on the region, which was not stopped by its control over the south and the imposing of “reconciliation settlements” since 2018.
The regime aims, through a major emergence of the Islamic State in southern Syria, to put pressure on Jordan, which has become constantly disturbed by the regime’s behavior in drug smuggling operations into its territory.
It is also trying to send a signal to Israel of the possibility of turning southern Syria into an area filled with IS’ black banners, which might threaten its security, according to the defected officer, whose name he withheld for security reasons.
The officer questioned the reality of the group’s existence or even its ability to carry out targeting operations in security areas where the regime has a heavy presence.
He considered that the security cells, which are currently present on the ground in Daraa, receive orders and funding from Iranian militias, even if they carry out operations against the regime itself.
Regime benefits from IS
Since the beginning of July, the Syrian regime forces began military movements in the vicinity of Jasim, which included reinforcements to their military points and warned farmers who own agricultural lands north of the town of the necessity of evacuating their farms under the pretext of the spread of IS cells in the area.
The regime’s army also intensified its reconnaissance and monitoring operations in the vicinity of the town and reinforced the northern side of it on 7 July with two tanks, a vehicle carrying anti-aircraft, and an additional number of soldiers.
A former leader of the opposition factions told Enab Baladi that Brig. Gen Louay al-Ali, head of the Military Security Branch, threatened to storm Jasim town if its people did not fight the cells of the IS organization.
Each region or city in Daraa has local fighting groups from the remnants of the armed opposition factions, holders of “security settlement” cards, and who kept their individual or medium weapons.
The former rebel commander, whose name Enab Baladi withheld for security reasons, pointed out that IS claiming responsibility for the attacks in Daraa is a serious excuse for the regime to siege and storm the area it wants.
Previously, when the opposition factions controlled large areas of southern Syria, they were the first to fight the Islamic State with “high efficiency,” whether in the Lajat region or in the Yarmouk Basin area, he adds.
The expert on jihadist groups, Abdullah al-Haj, downplayed the importance of IS’s presence in Daraa, considering that if IS cells were the ones that carried out some operations in Daraa, they are not that important, as they targeted individuals in the lower ranks of the regime’s forces and security services.
He also pointed out that the presence of IS in southern Syria, if it is not large and has the effect of “qualitative operations targeting the regime and its areas of influence,” will not have any effect on the course of events in it, nor will be able to change the regime’s current policies and strategy in Daraa.
The researcher explained that IS’ operations are low in their level and impact compared to its operations in the Syrian Badia, which indicates that its “capabilities are limited” and that its former network in Daraa, which was mainly represented by the remnants of the Yarmouk Army, has completely eroded.
The Yarmouk Army faction in Daraa governorate, prior to 2018, represented one of the pillars of the Islamic State in Daraa and was based in the Yarmouk Basin area in the west of the governorate as a stronghold.
However, a number of battles waged by IS against the opposition factions in Daraa, followed by the regime’s security campaign launched in southern Syria in 2018, ended its presence in the area.
Al-Haj did not deny the group’s work to rebuild a new network of fighters loyal to it. He also did not rule out the exploitation of the Islamic State of “escalating discontent” in Daraa, especially in the “reconciliation” areas after the massive assassinations and arrests carried out by the regime forces in the past year.
This is according to the researcher because the environment in which chaos and discontent spread is the most suitable for IS growth, in addition to the strategic location of Daraa giving IS importance on the borders with three countries (Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon) and it has a special sensitivity, which makes IS give it special importance.
But at the same time, it cannot be overlooked that the presence of the Islamic State in Daraa is beneficial to the Syrian regime, which regulates drug smuggling operations across the border, and has become the main source of its funds.
IS priority is Syrian Badia
Daraa is not a priority for IS, which is working today to stay in the Badia regions in southeastern Syria, which represents “the appropriate natural and social environment for it,” and it is more feasible militarily and politically for it in the current circumstances, al-Haj says.
He added that the group’s operations serve its ideology, but everyone can exploit it, especially the Syrian regime, which will try to benefit from these operations as much as possible.
But the regime’s pretexts, whether with or without IS exist and the threat to storm other cities and towns have been taking place over the past period under various pretexts.
Regime security cells
Daraa governorate witnessed clashes on 4 May between the local Eighth Brigade and an armed group run by the Air Force Intelligence in the town of Saida, in the eastern countryside of Daraa.
The Eighth Brigade raided the group’s headquarters in retaliation for targeting its leaders, according to Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa.
Nidal al-Shaabin, one of the commanders of the Intelligence-run group, was killed in the clashes, Enab Baladi reported at the time.
In turn, Horan Free League, a local media group, published a video recording that it said was one of the confessions of one of the sleeper cell members who had been arrested by the Eighth Brigade in Saida.
He admitted that he and his group had received financial support and weapons from an officer in Air Force Intelligence who was close to the Iranian militias in Daraa.
The southern governorate has been in a state of security chaos, represented by assassinations, kidnappings, and repeated armed robberies since the imposition of the security settlement in 2018.
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