“Royalties” on Daraa wealthy people; “Not paying means death”

The town of Muzayrib in southern Daraa governorate - 11 April 2022 (Enab Baladi / Halim Muhammad)

The town of Muzayrib in southern Daraa governorate - 11 April 2022 (Enab Baladi / Halim Muhammad)

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Daraa – Halim Muhammad

Many Daraa residents hoped the Syrian regime would halt the security chaos that piled up after taking control of the southern region in July 2018, but the reality was the opposite of expectations, as chaos and crimes of robbery and theft spread.

The last chapter of the chaos in Daraa is the arbitrary imposition of royalties on the financially able, which contributed to undermining the process of construction and stability.

Many of the governorate’s residents also abandoned the idea of ​​investing in development projects, and these royalties contributed to making the idea of ​​immigration an indispensable option for many of the affluent ones.

Intimidation to impose royalties

Abu Ahmed, 55, of Daraa countryside, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that a person contacted him from more than one American phone number through the WhatsApp application and asked him to pay an amount of 50,000 US dollars. He threatened to kill him or kill his son if he did not pay.

This threat “restricted my movement and the movement of my son, and we became like prisoners in our house,” Abu Ahmed added.

Enab Baladi reviewed the messages that reached Abu Ahmed, as they included a death threat in which the sender claimed that he was an Islamic State (IS) member.

Abu Ahmed told Enab Baladi that this matter was not limited to him only, as messages in the same format have reached a number of wealthy people, since the beginning of this year, in the town of Tafas and the villages of Muzayrib, Tal Shihab, Jalin, and Khirbet Qais.

Abu Ahmed did not file a complaint against these gangs, saying it was difficult to reach the perpetrators.

“The area is under the control of former leaders of the opposition,” according to his opinion, “and the regime has no real authority,” he added.

Walid, 40, a resident of the town of Tal Shihab in the western countryside of Daraa, told Enab Baladi that unknown persons asked a friend of his for 30,000 US dollars, but when he refused to pay, they opened fire on the house several times.

Walid added that there are people who respond and pay the amounts out of fear for their lives and the lives of their children, while others refuse to pay the “royalty,” as he described it.

Atmosphere “suitable” for the spread of gangs

Syrian lawyer Suleiman al-Qarfan, former head of the Free Lawyers Syndicate, told Enab Baladi that these gangs have recently been active for several reasons, the most important of which is the deliberate security chaos and the free hand of pro-regime militias and popular committees to obtain money by all means, and not to hold them accountable.

The existence of this situation in the region was reinforced by the moral decline in the societies in which drugs spread, and thus the endeavor to secure the price of these materials by any means and to punish the areas that revolted against the Syrian regime by desecrating everything in them, and turning them into administratively failed areas, according to the lawyer.

Previous intimidation incidents

An explosive device exploded in front of the house of Abu Turki al-Jamal, a wealthy person in the western countryside of Daraa after he refused to pay a financial royalty of 50,000 US dollars.

According to what one of the notables said (Enab Baladi is reticent to mention his name for security reasons), Abu Turki al-Jamal feared for his children’s lives and property, so he forced the ransom to be paid.

In another incident, the gang demanded a person from the residents of Khirbet Qais in the western countryside of Daraa to pay a royalty of 40,000 US dollars.

After he refused to pay the amount, “they kidnapped his son to pressure him, and after he continued refusing, they killed his other son to force him to pay the amount,” according to one of the notables.

In his interview with Enab Baladi, al-Qarfan distinguished the cases in which the punishment “misdeeds” and when it turns into a felony, as the crime is legally described as “extortion” as long as the action is limited to sayings only, according to Syrian law and its dealing with financial extortion crimes,

The money paid as a result of extortion is called “silencing bribery,” and this act is punishable by the penal code with imprisonment for two years, according to the lawyer.

“If the act exceeds the threat of words to actions such as robbery or kidnapping, it becomes a felony in which the offender is sentenced to at least five years in prison if extortion accompanies asking for money,” he added.

In the event of a kidnapping, the offense becomes a felony, with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, al-Qarfan said.

Lack of power

The countryside of Daraa was not subject to actual control by the Syrian regime forces but was limited to some security barriers. On the other hand, the work of the opposition’s armed factions that controlled the area ended after the regime regained control at the end of 2018, and this vacuum helped the growth of gangs working on kidnapping or openly demanding ransom. 

One of the notables of the western countryside held the former leaders in Daraa responsible for controlling security. He told Enab Baladi, “They are the alternative that enjoys popular support and have the ability to follow up and uproot these groups and hold their perpetrators accountable.”

Walid, a resident of Tel Shehab, did not rule out that these groups are linked to the security branches and work for their benefit.

Royalties’ impact on the region

Last February, a dairy and cheese merchant closed his factory near the town of Muzayrib in the western countryside of Daraa after being asked for a ransom and refusing to pay. He was subjected to two kidnapping attempts by unknown persons, and his factory was producing dairy from nearly five tons of milk per day. The closure caused a recession and decreased the price of milk.

Ibrahim, 55, one of the notables of the western countryside, told Enab Baladi that the deteriorating security situation prompted the financially able to not take risks in opening commercial projects for fear of ransom demands or armed robbery.

“These medium projects create job opportunities, and thus reduce unemployment, as well as secure food products and other industries at a lower price because transportation fees are almost non-existent if they are produced in rural areas of Daraa,” Ibrahim added.

Opens the immigration door

Mahmoud, 40, said that staying in the country under the current security conditions has become difficult.

“This country has become a jungle. Every day there are killings, displacements, and increased security restrictions. I want to travel and pull my family out of this hell,” he added.

Walid, who was interviewed by Enab Baladi, stated that imposing the royalty is an important factor that contributed to the increase in the number of immigrants because the population expects such operations to expand to include the majority of the population, as they need to search for a safe place.

Daraa governorate witnesses the exodus of dozens of its residents on a daily basis, some of them travel to Libya or Lebanon to take the sea route, some choose the smuggling route towards Turkey and some travel to Belarus.

The Syrian regime seeks to empty its areas of control of young people by forcing them to leave the country, and these practices will play a prominent role in disrupting economic life due to the lack of manpower, and the loss of confidence in any work or economic project that may expose its owner to extortion or robbery with violence, concludes lawyer Suleiman al-Qarfan.

 

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