Ali Eid | Khaled al-Jeratli | Hassan Ibrahim
Messages etched on a corpse that did not reveal the weapon used in the Khazma battle in the southern governorate of As-Suwayda, but revealed by phrases were left with the body of Samer al-Hakim, the leader of the Anti-Terrorism Force, whose body was kidnapped from the mortuary, then thrown at the well-known Mishnaqah Square in As-Suwayda city, with a red ribbon written on it a death threat: “Wait for the next.”
The governorate bordering Daraa, with its geography connected with the Syrian Badia to the north and northeast across the countryside of Damascus, and its 65-kilometer border with Jordan, has become the focus of an international regional conflict.
A conflict governed by Iran’s desire for control and expansion, which worries the Jordanian regional neighbor, and raises the fears of the western neighbor in Daraa, while the local position, for the most part, has preferred neutrality since 2011 and ended up in a torn fabric, which is being attacked by Iranian-backed militias, with an official cover from the security services in the Syrian state.
Enab Baladi sheds light on the developments of the situation in As-Suwayda in this file and presents the perceptions of experts, analysts, and officials from the local forces about the possible outcomes.
Pro-Iran militants and the Syrian military security forces surrounded on 9 June a US-backed local faction in the town of Khazma in the southeastern countryside of As-Suwayda.
The Anti-Terrorism Force, which recently announced its alliance with the US forces and local factions in the “55km” area, or what is known as the al-Tanf garrison.
The clashes continued in the town where the group’s fighters were stationed for several hours, in which medium and heavy weapons were used, and ended with the killing of the group’s commander, Samer al-Hakim, and the withdrawal of the rest of the Anti-Terrorism Force’s members towards the As-Suwayda desert to reach the al-Tanf garrison.
The local Suwayda ANS network quoted a military source in the Anti-Terrorism Force as saying that pro-Iran foreign fighters were involved in the attack.
Enab Baladi sought to verify the identity of the party that carried out the attack, the type of weapon used, and the number of fighters. An official source in the Liwaa Party, an ally of the Anti-Terrorism Force, stated that the battle was run by Iran, and its arms and militias participated in it, including the National Defense and fighters came from the Tal Sahn area, which is a mobilization point for the Iranian forces. Also, fighters affiliated with the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and others from the Military Security Division and units of the Syrian regime army participated.
Also, armed groups affiliated with drug dealers from the Bedouins and from the Druze community participated in the attack on the Anti-Terrorism Force group.
The official, who asked not to be named, said attack drones were used in the battle.
A well-informed local source stated that more than 500 fighters of the Syrian regime, Iran, and Hezbollah participated in the attack, and that the number of the Anti-Terrorism Force forces that were attacked did not exceed 40 fighters, and that the battle ended with the killing of their leader and the captive of seven, what was confirmed by the official of Liwaa Party.
As-Suwayda: Geography, Demographics
The area of As-Suwayda is 6550 km2, where it is bordered to the south by Jordan, to the west by Daraa governorate, to the east by Badiyat al-Sham, and to the north by the Damascus countryside. It is called “Jabal al-Arab.” Its center is the city of As-Suwayda, 100 km south of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
It is based on a series of mountains and hills, and the highest mountain peaks in it reach more than 1,800 meters above sea level, and its population is about 770,000 people, according to the 2011 census.
As-Suwayda governorate is not based on a complex social, class, or sectarian mixture, given that the countryside is not far from the city and is not separated by time and service, which bridges the social gap between rural and urban areas, in view of stronger and deeper ties.
The Druze community constitutes the majority of the residents of As-Suwayda, along with a small percentage of Bedouins and Greek Orthodox Christians.
Unidentified gunmen kidnapped one of the fronts of the drug trade in southern Syria on 19 March 2018, who is Ahmed Jaafar, nicknamed “Abu Yassin.” About a week later, after his execution with a bullet to the head, his body was found lying on the Mishnaqah roundabout.
Jaafar was kidnapped on the al-Qarya-al-Afina road in the south of the As-Suwayda governorate, local networks said.
The Sheikh al-Karama Forces announced on Facebook their responsibility for killing Jaafar, “who is responsible for the largest drug network in As-Suwayda for the benefit of foreign parties,” noting his acknowledgment of the responsibility of Hezbollah and the Military Security branch and its chief, Brigadier General Wafiq Nasser, for the assassination of Sheikh Waheed Balous in an IED attack.
“Abu Yassin,” of the town of Busra al-Sham, was close to the Lebanese Hezbollah, as he is one of the members of the Shiite sect, most of whom sided with the Syrian regime and clashed with the forces of the civil revolution.
Later they armed themselves under the management of officers from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards until they left the town on 25 March 2015, after a battle waged by local armed factions, led by the Shabab al-Sunnah Brigade, which later turned into the so-called Eighth Brigade led by Ahmed al-Awda.
According to local media sources and networks, including Suwayda24, Ahmed Jaafar was the father of Zaher Jaafar, described as Hezbollah and Iran’s first man in the drug smuggling file in southern Syria, and he also manages financing operations and arming pro-Iranian groups consisting of Shiites in Busra al-Sham.
Zaher Jaafar also takes the town of Jdeidet Yabous, on the Syrian-Lebanese border, as a center for operations, in addition to owning drug and weapons stores in the border town.
A source from the employees of the As-Suwayda National Hospital indicated to Enab Baladi that two militia members affiliated with Zaher Jaafar and Hezbollah pulled the body of the leader of the Anti-Terrorism Force faction, Samer al-Hakim, from the mortuary the day after the body was deposited there, and they intimidated the medical staff in the hospital.
Enab Baladi matched the source’s testimony with the official in the Liwaa Party faction, and the latter confirmed these details, considering that it was a message of revenge sent by Zaher Jaafar, as well as a warning message from Hezbollah and Iran to anyone who obstructs its plan in As-Suwayda.
The Anti-Terrorism Force is one of the factions cooperating with the Maghawir al-Thawra Army, backed by the US-led International Coalition, which is stationed at the al-Tanf military garrison near the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border triangle.
The activity of the Anti-Terrorism faction, despite its small number, arouses resentment among the drug-smuggling gangs, which are known to be run by the security services and figures with close ties to Hezbollah and Iran.
Last February, the Anti-Terrorism Force handed over what it described as a “military security agent,” Jawdat Hamza, to the US military garrison in the al-Tanf area, for his involvement in working for the benefit of the Lebanese Hezbollah in transporting and promoting drugs in the southern region.
Before that, skirmishes occurred between the Anti-Terrorism faction with Iranian-backed groups and militias.
On 12 September 2021, As-Suwayda governorate witnessed military confrontations between local factions and gangs run by the Military Intelligence Division against the backdrop of the kidnapping of a university student and a merchant by the gang led by Raji Falhout from As-Suwayda city in an attempt to force the Anti-Terrorism group to release two members of Military Intelligence, who were planning to carry out assassinations against members of the Anti-terrorism Force.
The battle of Khazma came in conjunction with frequent leaks about possible US support for factions in southern Syria to stop Iranian expansion.
On 23 February, the Anti-Terrorism Force announced a joint action agreement and security coordination with the US forces stationed at the al-Tanf garrison.
This cooperation was translated by the Anti-Terrorism Force handing over to Maghawir al-Thawra, a collaborator with the Lebanese Hezbollah, involved in drug smuggling operations in southern Syria, on 24 February, according to the media office of the Maghawir al-Thawra faction.
Coinciding with the Khazma clashes, accounts belonging to factions loyal to the regime and Iran tried to promote the attack as stopping an American plan drawn up in the region.
Before that, skirmishes occurred between the Anti-Terrorism faction with Iranian-backed groups and militias.
The Maghawir al-Thawra faction confirmed that cooperation with the Anti-Terrorism Force and the Syrian Liwaa Party is limited to coordinating in terms of combating crime, preventing the spread of the Islamic State (IS), and armed militias, and limiting drug smuggling operations.
Regarding the formula for this cooperation, Ahmed al-Khidr, a member of the media office in Maghawir al-Thawra, stated that its aim is to make the southern region clear of all forms of crime.
An official source in the Liwaa Party, in a call with Enab Baladi, denied any connection with the party’s military activity of the Anti-Terrorism Force, stressing that cooperation is limited to providing “political advice” and consultation.
On the nature of cooperation and the military aspect of it, the official stated that the aim is “civilian, non-violent.”
Regarding the relationship with the Americans, the official said, “We, the Syrian Liwaa Party, are close to the International Coalition and have met with the Americans, and we have no problem with that, especially since we have a clear goal in fighting IS.”
He stressed that his party is working “against the Iranian presence” in As-Suwayda, and against what he called “spreading corruption,” noting that “Iran is present in the south through drugs and corruption” and that it is militarily present in the region.
The official of Liwaa Party added that Iran seeks to control through the dismantling of society, denying that Iran is “capable of imposing the Shiite sect due to the special structure of society.
“We are close to the International Coalition and have met with the Americans, and we have no problem with that, especially since we have a clear goal in fighting IS.”
An official in the Syrian Liwa Party
Nothing new from the Americans
The attack by forces backed by the regime and Iran on the Anti-Terrorism Force group allied with the American al-Tanf garrison was followed, on 15 June, by a Russian attack on the same base, carried out by two Russian Su-35 planes and another Su-24 plane, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The two operations (Khazima and al-Tanf) come at a time when the US tends to calm down, as General Eric Corella, the commander of US Central Command (Centcom), confirmed after the attack that the US is seeking to avoid conflict with Russia in Syria.
“We seek to avoid any miscalculation or steps that would lead to unnecessary conflict, and this remains our goal,” said Corella. “But Russia’s recent actions were provocative and escalatory,” he added.
The two attacks are an indication of the intersection of interests between the Russians and the Iranians, an intersection driven by American pressure to isolate Russia and supply Ukraine with weapons on the one hand and the Israeli bombing of Iranian-run sites in Syria on the other.
The Russians and the Iranians are taking advantage of Washington’s unwillingness to escalate, says a military researcher at the Syrian Foundation for Studies and Public Opinion Research.
Captain Rashid Mahmoud Hourani believes that the American reaction is “below the required level” regarding Iran’s expansion in As-Suwayda, which is what prompts the latter to “maneuver on its influence in the region.”
Hourani considered that any new confrontation between the Americans and Iranians in the south is dependent on Iran’s escalation in enhancing its influence in the region.
Iran usually works in such circumstances to absorb the escalation by monitoring, but it will return to enhance its influence when it finds the opportunity available to it, according to the military expert.
The Jordanian side complains of a double danger of Iranian expansion in southern Syria.
The first is the drug war that its forces are waging along the 375-kilometer border, and the second danger is represented by attempts to destabilize its security after the deterioration of the impact of the Jordanian-Russian understandings, which were agreed upon in July 2018, regarding the truce, cease-fire, and prevention of the worsening of the humanitarian situation in the border area between Jordan and Syria.
The Russians’ preoccupation with their war on Ukraine and the subsequent indications provided an opportunity for Iran to reposition and strengthen its military influence in the region.
Jordanian journalist Amjad al-Absi, who covers political affairs, said that there is great concern about a large influx of Iranian militias into the areas of southern Syria.
Al-Absi added that there are estimates that there are “more than 300 criminal groups specialized in drug, hashish and weapons smuggling, operating under Iran’s command in the south, with the cover of the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad.”
The issue of drug smuggling is not new, as the Jordanian authorities seized large quantities of drugs on the border with Syria in 2020, with a market value exceeding 20 million US dollars, according to an investigation published by Enab Baladi, in association with the Syria Indicator.
During 2021, the Jordanian army thwarted 361 infiltration and smuggling attempts from Syria to Jordan and seized approximately 15.5 million drug pills and approximately 760 kilograms of hashish (cannabis).
Smuggling operations did not stop in the past months of this year, as the Jordanian armed forces thwarted major operations and developed rules of engagement with the escalation of smuggling operations, promising in a statement on 20 May that it would deal with all force and firmness with any infiltration or smuggling attempts to protect borders, and to “prevent anyone who may be tempted to tamper with Jordan’s national security.”
Al-Absi said that the new developments in the situation on the ground with regard to the penetration of Iranian militias is that “Jordan recently monitored the flow of heavy and medium weapons to these militias, as well as their reinforcement with hundreds of fighters and militants, which prompted King Abdullah II to raise these concerns in front of US institutions in Washington and before President Joe Biden.
“Jordan recently monitored the flow of heavy and medium weapons to these militias, as well as their reinforcement with hundreds of individuals and elements, which prompted King Abdullah II to raise these concerns before various institutions in Washington and President Biden.”
Amjad al-Absi, Jordanian journalist covering political affairs
Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned, in an interview with Hoover Institution in Washington, which aired on 18 May, that Iran and its “proxies” would fill the void that Russia would leave in southern Syria and what might result from escalating potential problems on his country’s borders.
In Hoover’s interview, King Abdullah addressed the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the geopolitics of the Middle East. The Ukraine war has diverted the Kremlin’s attention from Syria, where, Abdullah argued, the Kremlin has had a role in helping to quell violence. He fears that now, with a reduced Russian presence, the gap in support for the Assad regime will now be filled by Iran, empowering the Shiite state to be an even more destabilizing force in the region, according to the Hoover Institution.
Al-Absi believes that “there are open questions regarding the Russian role that Jordan is still betting on, even at the minimum, to control the situation in southern Syria, despite talk of repeated withdrawals from it in the interest of Iran and its militias.”
The decline in the bet on a Russian role in southern Syria has prompted Jordan increasingly to reveal fears of Iran’s moves, which explains King Abdullah II’s support for the formation of a military alliance in the Middle East similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which he revealed in an interview with the CNBC on 24 June, referring to the possibility of forming this new alliance from countries that have the same thinking, as he put it, without referring to those countries by name.
Iran’s role in the region is also a question mark for King Abdullah II.
“Nobody wants war, nobody wants conflict,” he said. But it remains to be seen whether countries in the Middle East can work toward a vision where “prosperity is the name of the game,” he added.
Tunnel diggers, Hamas is present
Enab Baladi inquired about the recent movements of forces close to Iran on the ground and obtained information from two local sources that three cargo carriers (loaders) carrying heavy machinery designated for digging tunnels entered the al-Tha’ala Military Airport, 13 kilometers west of As-Suwayda.
The Lebanese Hezbollah seized a building inside the airport that was targeted by Israel in January 2019, as media sources reported the entry of “strange” trucks under heavy guard at its entrances.
Information from the two local sources indicates that Hezbollah has established an operations room at al-Tha’ala airport, whose main task is to manage activity on the border with Jordan.
According to the sources, there is a second “mini” room that was established in an area near the airport after monitoring Hezbollah elements’ movements, and it is currently being activated with the utmost secrecy for fear of being targeted, pointing out that the role of this room is not clear, except that its activity is related to that of the operations room in al-Tha’ala air base.
An informed source close to Hezbollah in As-Suwayda said that the border area between southern As-Suwayda and Jordan witnessed, in recent weeks, the visits of a survey team, which includes experts in digging tunnels, and that an expert from the Palestinian Hamas movement was part of the team. Enab Baladi was not able to determine the name of the expert or confirm the information through another source.
The Times of Israel newspaper reported on 5 August 2014 that Hezbollah receives aid from the Palestinian Islamist group (Hamas) in tunnel digging techniques.
The Hebrew newspaper quoted Ido Hecht, a specialist in military doctrine at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, as saying, “Hamas is transmitting important information to (Hezbollah) about how to dig tunnels by using different techniques, in view of the vast experience accumulated over the past years.”
Recent months have witnessed changes in the positions of Hamas as the Islamist group decided to restore ties with the Syria regime, ten years after its leadership shunned Damascus over opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on a revolt against his rule, two sources within the group told Reuters on 21 June.
One official who asked not to be named said the two sides have held several “high-profile meetings to achieve that goal.”
A day after the official’s statements, the Secretary-General of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, met with the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, in Lebanon.
Al-Manar TV, the media arm of Hezbollah, stated on 23 June that the meeting included a review of the political and field developments in Palestine, Lebanon, and the region, the development of the “axis of resistance,” and the existing threats, challenges, and opportunities, with an emphasis on the cooperation of all parts of the axis.
Religious and popular position
The spiritual head of the Druze community, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, came out in the wake of the Khazma battle and blamed what is happening in the southern governorate on the heads of the affiliated security branches, calling for their removal from their positions after they caused “chaos and discord in the governorate,” as he said.
In an exclusive interview with the local al-Rased network on 10 June, al-Hijri refused attempts to “scratch the social heritage among the people of As-Suwayda governorate.”
On 11 June, through a video recording of his meeting with local delegations in solidarity with the statements he made after the clashes, al-Hijri stressed the need to activate the role of the people of the region in the face of “wrong actions” aimed at dispersing “national cohesion and the social fabric,” pointing to the existence of strife that seeks to create disputes among the people and families of the area.
The new position of the leader of the Druze spiritual sect did not address the role of Iran and its arms in As-Suwayda, but it carried indications that could disrupt the plan to increase tension and abolish the various forces opposed to the regime that reject the Iranian presence in the province.
According to what was leaked from information confirmed by local sources to Enab Baladi, it was supposed that the military operation would extend to some western villages in As-Suwayda, especially in the vicinity of Salkhad, to end the presence of the Anti-Terrorism Force that owns separate groups in a number of these villages.
Civil activist Youssef Nour El-Din told Enab Baladi that the position of al-Hijri, which was relatively well-received, was described by some residents of As-Suwayda as unclear.
Nour El-Din added that the position of the Druze clerics regarding the battle of Khazma is to calm more than declaring a clear position.
He referred to the permanent accusations against the Mashayekh al-Aql (influential religious men) of complicity with the regime and their failure to take a “courageous” stance, referring to the advanced positions of the “young clerics” led by Suleiman Abdel Baqi.
The “young clerics” issued a statement condemning the attack of the so-called “Popular Resistance,” run by the Military Security and Iranian commanders, on the town of Khazma, and its crimes against the residents and the arrest of a group of its youth.
The civil activist confirmed a state of unanimity among the religious clerics in As-Suwayda to condemn the Iranian expansion, although the condemnation is the weakest reaction, doubting the success of the Iranian expansion in the southern region, as public opinion is aware of Iran’s malicious intentions in Syria and in the region.
As-Suwayda-based media activist, Fadi al-Jabal, said the position of the clergymen has declined among the majority of the Druze community because they have taken positions that contradict the general position of the people of the governorate.
The official in the Liwaa Party considered that the position expressed by Sheikh al-Hijri is very important.
“Al-Hijri spoke with awareness and understanding of what is happening, which has not happened before,” he added.
To Daraa, again
A political activist from As-Suwayda governorate spoke of understandings between local forces in the western countryside of the governorate, with others in the eastern countryside of Daraa governorate, with the aim of de-escalation through local efforts.
The activist, who asked not to be named, believes that these efforts between the people of the two governorates anger the militia backed by the regime and Iran, as attempts have been made to sow discord and fighting between the two parties.
The activist stated that the town of Busra al-Sham, in particular, as a stronghold of the formerly Russia-backed Eighth Brigade, was concerned with its surroundings from the eastern villages in Daraa, with the message that was left on the corpse of the leader of the Anti-Terrorism Force at the Mishnaqah roundabout in As-Suwayda.
He added that the forces backed by Hezbollah and Iran are active in As-Suwayda and set their sights on Busra al-Sham in the next step.
A commander in the Eighth Brigade, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Iranian-backed groups were affected after the withdrawal of the Fourth Division from Daraa governorate, the end of the Daraa al-Balad battle in September 2021, and the Syrian regime’s implementation of the concept of security settlements, as their presence was limited to a security office in the Daraa suburb.
The commander added that “with this withdrawal, Iran has lost one of its most important arms in the south” and has turned to rely on local groups that work secretly with Hezbollah under the protection of Air Force Intelligence.
The commander referred to a war being waged by the Eighth Brigade against secret groups operating under cover of Air Force Intelligence to carry out assassinations in Daraa.
On 5 May, the Eighth Brigade raided the security headquarters of a secret group working for the Air Force Intelligence in the town of Sidon in the southern central countryside of the governorate, accusing it of planning to carry out assassinations against leading figures affiliated with the Liwaa Party.
The commander in the Eighth Brigade confirmed to Enab Baladi that there are secret groups recruited for the benefit of Iran and Hezbollah that are exempted from the reconciliation settlement and carry security badges whose work is supervised by the Iranian-backed Haj Ali al-Khalil.
The activity of these groups is concentrated in the eastern countryside of Daraa and on the borders of As-Suwayda governorate.
The decline in the Russian role in supporting the Eighth Brigade contributed to the increase in the activity of these groups that are working hard to penetrate southern Syria to impose them as a fait accompli in the region, with Iran’s desire to be a party to any future negotiations, the commander concludes.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa Halim Muhammad contributed to this report.
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