Suicide bombing of Daraa al-Balad mixes cards, mutual accusations and ambiguous loyalties
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
Continuous clashes are taking place in the city of Daraa al-Balad, in southern Syria, between the Central Committees, which include former fighters of the opposition factions, and another group accused of belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group.
The two sides exchanged accusations of subordination to the regime and IS, while the Syrian regime preferred to be in the monitoring mood of recent events, waiting for the victories to be achieved by one of its opponents in its favor.
IS group clings to Daraa
Former opposition fighters attacked IS militants in Jasim city last October and managed to kill 45 members, including 15 leaders, in a ten-day operation, during which they blew up houses and farms where IS fighters were holed up.
The Eighth Brigade, the only faction in Daraa that possesses medium and heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weapons, participated in the battles, along with fighters from the western countryside of Daraa.
Meanwhile, the same scenario is being repeated in Daraa al-Balad with the same formula and the same attacking groups and with the same justifications.
It is noteworthy that the IS group did not comment on all the security campaigns that local factions said they had launched against it in southern Syria, nor did it claim responsibility for any targeting operation for more than two months.
Dr. Abdul-Rahman al-Haj, an expert in jihadist groups, told Enab Baladi that IS did not issue any statements about these operations, but the type of suicide attack in Daraa al-Balad indicates that it was one of its actions.
The Islamic State had previously established a Shariah court in Jasim, which prompted the fighters to fight the IS organization before the latter announced the city of Jasim as an Islamic emirate, according to what local rebel commanders of the city’s factions told Enab Baladi.
Al-Haj added that the Islamic State group in the south is linked to the Syrian regime, and it is a kind of “exchange of interests.”
The movement of IS in southern Daraa and As-Suwayda governorates is evidence of this, as it has become different from what it is in the Syrian desert.
The regime has repeatedly used the IS’ cells as an excuse to subjugate As-Suwayda, and now it wants to include it as an element in the operations to subdue Daraa, the expert added.
Regarding the accusations between the two sides of subordination to the Syrian regime, al-Haj said that the difference between the two sides is that the relationship of the Eighth Brigade with the regime through the Russians is clear, as well as the reconciliation factions, while not all the factions, which agreed on the security settlement deals, entered the regime’s service, relying on a “formal reconciliation” during which it avoided clashing with the regime.
Al-Haj believes that the Islamic State exchanges interests and is being used as a “force of oppression and subjugation” and that the opposition factions in Daraa were not used on this basis.
“It is assumed that the regime, in theory, is fighting the IS organization, but in practice, it is using it and exchanging interests against the remnants of its resistance in the region,” he added.
Various factions and affiliations
After the Daraa al-Balad fighters decided to attack those accused of belonging to the IS organization, the leaders asked the Eighth Brigade and fighters from the western countryside to participate in the military operations, and the brigade sent forces carrying anti-aircraft, in addition to reinforcements that arrived from the western countryside fighters.
As soon as the fighters of the Eighth Brigade arrived in the vicinity of Daraa al-Balad, there began to be talk about the Syrian regime’s role in it, especially since the brigade is known to be affiliated with the regime’s Military Security.
A leader in the Eighth Brigade told Enab Baladi that the brigade participated in the operations in Daraa al-Balad by an individual decision taken by its leadership to support other factions, considering that the issue of the brigade’s subordination to the Military Intelligence Division came in a “formal” context.
A second commander in the Eighth Brigade told Enab Baladi (the two leaders reserved their names for security reasons) that the difficulty of working in Daraa al-Balad lies in the “tribal tint” that protects some leaders who, in turn, protect IS members.
He considered that fighting IS is a constant goal of the Eighth Brigade because the IS sleeper cells committed assassinations that served the Syrian regime for many years.
While the local armed groups (formerly opposition factions) in the western and northern countryside of Daraa are considered to be affiliated with the Central Committees responsible for brokering the reconciliation agreement with the Syrian regime, which started the hostilities in Daraa al-Balad against groups led by two leaders nicknamed “Hafu” and “Harfoush.”
The Central Committee in the western countryside had previously frozen its work last May against the backdrop of the high rate of the assassination of its members, the last of whom was the commander Musab al-Bardan.
At the time, Abu Murshid al-Bardan, during the funeral of Musab al-Bardan, pointed the finger at the IS cells in the area.
The Central Committee in Daraa al-Balad dissolved itself last July after the Syrian regime demanded that “strangers” be expelled from the city, and this was not possible for the committee because of their protection by clans in the area, according to what one of Daraa al-Balad’s notables said in a previous interview with Enab Baladi.
On 24 December 2021, armed clashes erupted in the al-Sad Road neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad, which resulted in the killing of three people, including Ahmed Harfoush, brother of Muayyad Harfoush, dubbed Abu Taja, who was previously used by the Syrian regime as a pretext to besiege Daraa al-Balad.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa reported at the time that one of the former leaders of the opposition factions, nicknamed “Abu Shalash,” who is the representative of the Central Committee for the Daraa camp, surrounded Abu Taja’s house, and clashes erupted for hours, resulting in the death of three people, including one civilian.
The reasons for the dispute at that time were due to the assassinations in which Abu Taja was accused of in Daraa al-Balad, which affected figures close to the Syrian regime and others from the settlement agreement card holders.
Those clashes exported two clear blocs that were mobilized after the end of the settlements, one of which was the succession of the Central Committee negotiating with the regime, and the other affiliated with the groups that rejected the settlement led by Muayyad Harfoush, which defended Daraa al-Balad during the siege.
Mutual accusations of subordination to the regime
On 29 October, Daraa’s clans and dignitaries issued a statement calling on the city’s youth to stay away from IS cells, not to be a haven for them, and to listen to their “resonant” slogans.
The statement, seen by Enab Baladi, mentioned that “in Daraa al-Balad, there is a group of corrupt people, headed by an IS emir called Youssef al-Nabulsi. This group wreaked havoc on land as it looted, killed, and carried out suspicious agendas for the benefit of Iranian militias and Hezbollah.”
On the other hand, the leader, Mohammad al-Masalmah, dubbed: “Hafu,” told Enab Baladi that the fighters stationed in the al-Sad Road neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad are from the “opposition fighters of 2011” and have no links to the IS group as they have previously been marginalized by the factions, due to the lack of their obedience to external commands, according to Hafu.
He added that they are “domestic revolutionaries,” and their “kitchen is internal.” They did not put their hand in the hands of the regime after the settlement, as happened with the rest of the region’s factions.
Hafu accused the local commanders and groups attacking him in Daraa al-Balad of having a direct relationship with the Syrian regime, claiming that his faction was the one who stood against the regime’s storming of the city in July 2021.
Hafu has also accused the groups attacking him of having been involved in storming the area on the side of the Syrian regime in 2021 as well.
However, a former commander based in Daraa told Enab Baladi that Hafu has a history of conflict with the opposition factions in southern Syria.
He had previously blown up the warehouses of the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operations room in 2017, and after he was exposed, he was imprisoned in the city of Busra and released on tribal mediation.
“Hafu” precedents in Daraa
Through a mediator, after several attempts to communicate with him directly, Enab Baladi contacted Khaled Abazaid, the commander of the military action against IS-linked groups.
Abazaid assured that the campaign launched by the local factions targets “the gangs and bandits affiliated to IS.”
He said that those in charge of the campaign are from Daraa al-Balad and do not hold security cards, and they did not join the Syrian regime forces after the 2018 settlement deals.
Abazaid said that the campaign is supported by some local factions from the countryside of Daraa, hinting that the military campaign against IS is fully local and the Syrian regime has no role.
He added that these “gangs” not only pose a threat to Daraa al-Balad but also threaten the entire Daraa governorate with assassination and killing operations.
The commander of the anti-IS campaign, Abazaid, considered that the security campaign against Hafu and Harfoush is not directed by personal disputes but rather came as a response to the practices of these two persons’ acts of looting and subordination to IS.
He noted that the roots of this dispute go back to the years of opposition factions’ control over southern Syria, when Hafu blew up a camp for the Islam Army faction, killing 30 fighters.
Hafu also blew up a warehouse belonging to the al-Bunyan al-Marsous operations room during the battle of “Death Rather Than Humiliation” between the opposition factions and the Syrian regime.
The bombing at that time led to the loss of five tanks of the opposition factions, and five fighters were killed.
Abazaid concluded by saying that the leader, Youssef al-Nabulsi, who was holding the position of IS security officer in southern Syria, is under the protection of Hafu and his group, who are stationed in the al-Sad Road neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad.
Mohammad al-Masalmah (Hafu) hails from Daraa al-Balad, and he is a former leader in the Syria Revolutionaries Front faction affiliated with the former Free Syrian Army in the southern sector of Syria.
After the Front was attacked in the north by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Al-Nusra Front at the time), the faction maintained its formations in the south and was receiving its support from the International Support Coordination Room (MOC), which was organizing support for the Syrian opposition based in Jordan.
While the Syrian regime accuses Mohammad al-Masalmah of being affiliated with the Islamic State group, al-Masalmah did not work with any faction except for the Syria Revolutionaries Front until the regime forces entered the city and extended their control over it.
With the regime’s attack on Daraa al-Balad, in July 2021, al-Masalmah fortified with local fighters on the outskirts of Daraa al-Balad, which are the points that were subjected to a concentrated attack by the regime forces, and the battles continued for more than a month between the two parties, ending with a settlement imposed by the regime in the entire Daraa governorate.
Since the first hours of the beginning of the military operations in the area against the Hafu and Harfoush groups, the Syrian regime’s media began to promote these operations as between settlement groups and armed men accused of belonging to the Islamic State group.
Meanwhile, the correspondent of Sama channel in Daraa, Firas al-Ahmad, spoke about what is happening in Daraa al-Balad as a “limited military operation” launched by the regime’s security services, accompanied by local fighters against IS cells in the region.
For their part, the local factions, as well as the Eighth Brigade, refused the participation of the faction of the leader, Mustafa al-Masalmah, nicknamed “al-Kassem,” because of his direct relationship with the Military Security, especially since al-Kassem was involved in storming Daraa al-Balad in July 2021.
A military leader participating in the hostilities in Daraa said that the participation of al-Kassem is rejected because of his absolute subordination to the Syrian regime, and if he participates, most of the fighters will withdraw from the fronts.
He added, “Even the leaders of the region refused to set up a security barrier between Daraa al-Balad and the station to arrest any fugitive from the groups accused of pledging allegiance to the IS organization,” in reference to a complete refusal to deal with the Syrian regime and its factions.
On 29 July 2021, Daraa al-Balad witnessed battles between local fighters holed up in it and the regime forces that lasted for 80 days, while the regime forces attempted to storm the city with artillery and rockets, coinciding with a complete cut off of water, electricity, flour and medical services from the city.
What happened in Daraa al-Balad?
On the 28th of last October, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the house of the leader Ghassan al-Abazaid, killing four people and wounding others, including the al-Abazaid himself, and soon there was talk in the area that the perpetrator was “Abu Hamza Sbeinah,” a member of the terrorist organization. IS, who was residing in the area under the protection of Muayyad Harfoush, according to what al-Abazaid said, through a video recording that surfaced on social media.
While Muayyad Harfoush and his ally al-Masalmah, nicknamed “Hafu,” said in audio recordings via local newsrooms that one of those present at the scene of the explosion was preparing an explosive device and it exploded, while local sources from Daraa al-Balad told Enab Baladi that those in the house are of civilians.
The accusations between the two sides developed until the start of military operations against Hafu and a supporter of Harfoush by the former opposition factions in Daraa, backed by the Eighth Brigade, in the al-Sad Road neighborhood, east of Daraa city.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa Halim Muhammad contributed to this report.
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