Uprooting ISIS may not stop Daraa assassinations

Local fighters during an attempt to storm the Tariq al-Sad neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad - 31 October 2022 (modified by Enab Baladi)

Local fighters during an attempt to storm the Tariq al-Sad neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad - 31 October 2022 (modified by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The pace of escalating assassinations in the southern governorate of Daraa was among the most prominent reasons for the attack by local factions on groups accused of belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group stationed in the city of Daraa al-Balad.

Among the assassinations allegedly committed by groups led by Mohammad al-Masalmah, known as “Hafu,” along with Muayyad Harfoush, known as “Abu Taja,” were the targeting of members of the Central Committee and former leaders of the opposition factions.

The most recent was a suicide attack on the house of the former leader of the opposition factions, Ghassan Abazaid, on 29 October, that left four people dead and others wounded, including the leader Abazaid.

Uprooting ISIS did not stop assassinations

Military and security operations against groups accused of belonging to the IS group have taken place in Daraa governorate since last August, including the city of Jasim, al-Yadudah, and areas of the western countryside, preceded by regime forces’ siege on cities and areas that witnessed confrontations, demanding the departure of wanted persons from these areas.

Jasim city was one of the key areas that witnessed battles against the IS’ sleeper cells in northern Daraa countryside, but soon after the military operations ended there, unidentified armed men targeted a young man in one of its main streets, according to the local Daraa 24 website.

The news website stated that the young man was shot in the public square in the city center by unknown persons and was taken to Jasim Hospital on 15 November.

A day later, two targeting operations followed in Daraa al-Balad, immediately after the local factions, backed by the Russia-backed Eighth Brigade, took control of the Tariq al-Sad neighborhood, and expelled the “Hafu” and “Harfoush” groups from the neighborhood.

What does ISIS want?

In the midst of the military confrontations between local groups and the Islamic State cells in the western countryside of Daraa, on 9 August, “Abu Salem al-Iraqi,” one of the Islamic State emirs in southern Syria, was killed after being ambushed by the factions.

Then, on the 15th of the same month, farmers in the vicinity of the city of Tafas found a body belonging to a leader in the Islamic State organization, Mahmoud al-Hallaq, dubbed: Abu Omar Jababi, with traces of gunfire in western Daraa countryside.

While there is not much information available about the IS commanders, many notables of Tafas city told Enab Baladi that “al-Iraqi” and “Jababi” were prominent figures in ISIS during the period of control of the opposition factions over the area.

Dr. Abdul-Rahman al-Haj, expert in the jihadist groups, told Enab Baladi that the assassinations are carried out by the regime’s security services and IS cells, targeting key leaders in southern Syria.

A large number of these leaders constitute an “obstacle” to the group’s return to southern Syria, according to al-Haj.

While the chances of responsibility for these operations are equal between ISIS and the Syrian regime, part of it may be the regime’s desire to point the “fingers of responsibility” at ISIS.

The expert added that in the absence of any evidence about ISIS’s responsibility for the attacks, and while no party has claimed responsibility for them, “the two possibilities are equal” about this responsibility.

At the same time, it cannot be ignored that the assassinations of the commanders of local factions create a favorable condition for ISIS to revive again in southern Syria, according to al-Haj.

“The sense of injustice, resentment, and lack of fairness in the south, and the escalating desire for revenge, create a complex and insecure environment.” It is an environment that ISIS can exploit.

At the same time, it can be considered that the motives for creating an “environment of return and control” over the south are shared by the regime and ISIS for the same goal.

Will calm in Daraa finally prevail?

The state of security chaos that the governorate suffers from is not new to it, as its roots go back to the moment when the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, took control of southern Syria in July 2018. Since then, the governorate has been witnessing almost daily targeting.

Daraa did not witness a state of stability, not even for a few days, despite the field changes that have afflicted it over the past four years, from military confrontations with the regime and others with the remaining IS cells.

Assistant researcher at the Omran Center for Studies, Fadel Khanji, told Enab Baladi that the involvement of the IS cells in assassinations does not mean that they are solely responsible for them.

Therefore, ending the existence of these cells, even if it was real, will not end the state of security chaos in the governorate, especially since the regime is mainly responsible for it, in addition to the spread of “revenge tendencies” on the other hand.

According to Khanji, it is very difficult to talk about the return of stability in Daraa as it was before, especially since the complex security map is the cause of everything that is happening there, in addition to the crowding out of actors in southern Syria, led by Russia, Iran, and Jordan.

The researcher believes that the association of groups affiliated with ISIS may also not be an actual organic connection, especially since the presence of ISIS has turned into a state of armed cells scattered here and there rather than an effective geographic control on the ground.

Meanwhile, the researcher and political activist Ahmed Abazaid, who is from Daraa al-Balad, believes that the continuation of targeting operations in the southern governorate is a clear indication of the possibility of renewed clashes and battles between the same parties.

He pointed out that “Hafu” and “Harfoush” sought refuge with some clans’ notables in the region after the battles ended with the loss of their areas of concentration in Daraa al-Balad, while the residents fear that the conflict will take on a “tribal background.”

Abazaid added that what is required today from the governorate’s notables is to find a way out for “Hafu” and “Harfoush” completely in order to avoid escalation in it.

On 15 November, the local factions backed by the Eighth Brigade took control of the entire neighborhood of Tariq al-Sad after “Hafu” and “Harfoush,” accused of belonging to ISIS, withdrew from the neighborhood, but their whereabouts are still unknown.

Sudden disappearance

After the regime tightened its control over the Yarmouk Basin and pursued members and princes of the Khalid Army group, the fate of many of them remained unknown, as the official and unofficial Syrian media outlets reported at that time an agreement concluded with a number of ISIS commanders and fighters to remove them to the As-Suwayda desert area.

An investigation prepared by the local Daraa 24 Network in 2019 indicated that IS cells continue to exist in the western region of Daraa, but the members of those cells settle in areas where the regime forces do not deploy, and the auxiliary forces of the Fifth Corps or Security Intelligence are military deployed.”

“Daraa 24” stated that officers from Branch 215, affiliated with the Military Intelligence branch, met a year after the regime took control of southern Syria with a group that had given up working in favor of ISIS, and the majority of its members joined the Military Security.

During that period of time, the group’s smuggling operations from the As-Suwayda desert to return them to Daraa governorate were active, with the help of officers from the security branches, especially after the regime imposed its control over large areas in the As-Suwayda desert.


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