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A year after “reconciliation”: Arrests and disappearances abound in southern Syria

AMMAN- One year after the Syian government retook control of southern Syria, the promised “reconciliation process” is stumbling as the area’s security situation deteriorates due to increasing assassinations, kidnappings, and government repression.

18 July 2019

AMMAN- One year after the Syian government retook control of southern Syria, the promised “reconciliation process” is stumbling as the area’s security situation deteriorates due to increasing assassinations, kidnappings, and government repression. 

Following the government’s re-entry into the area, several Ba’ath party representatives appeared on Russian and Syrian government news channels, praising the reconciliation process and condemning the countries who supported the opposition.

 However, despite official celebrations, the reconciliation process has largely stalled in recent months. “We have not undergone reconciliation,” a member of the negotiating committee with the Syrian government and Russia from Daraa city told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. 

“The agreement has not progressed to the point of reconciliation due to the regime’s refusal to fulfill the demands of the people.”

Economic collapse

Before the government took control of the area in July 2018, southern Syria, which is made up of the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra, was under the control of internationally supported opposition militias. 

Such support allowed for international and regional aid organizations to operate in tandem with local civil society actors and ensured the flow of humanitarian aid, as well as fund, to the residents there.
Also, local security forces were created, development projects were undertaken, such as the reconstruction of destroyed schools and hospitals.

This influx of aid, as well as the related economic and development activities came to an abrupt halt when the government recaptured the area. More than 150 organizations closed in anticipation of the government’s return. 

Tens of thousands of residents who came to depend on humanitarian assistance suddenly found themselves without financial and

material support, in addition to those who were previously employed by the humanitarian organizations which left. 

Children walk past the rubble of a destroyed building in the city of Daraa, October 2, 2018 (AFP)

Consequently, civilians in southern Syria are now fighting for survival as the local economy reels from the sudden withdrawal of millions of dollars in aid. 

“Life, in general, is not okay, because of unemployment and the lack of jobs available for youth, in addition to the regime’s refusal to open markets [ the government maintains control over the goods that flow in and out of the area] and to allow employees to return to work,” the member of the negotiating committee from Daraa city said. 

For its part, the government is unable or is unwilling to repair the infrastructure or provide services to the region. Instead, the government has decided to erect a statue of the previous president, Hafez al-Assad in the city of Daraa. 

The decision, which has been met with outrage and protest from residents, has great symbolic meaning, as Daraa, known as the “cradle of the revolution,” tore down the original statue of the late president in 2011. 

Residents have had to cobble together money or ask for donations from relatives living abroad to restore basic infrastructure, such as electricity to residential areas and schools. 

Decline in security, increase in arrests

In addition to an economic downturn, southern Syria has seen a precipitous decline in security conditions since the government returned, especially in Daraa Governorate. The last year has been marred with assassinations and forced disappearances with no common culprit. Soldiers and fighters, local officials, and former opposition members have all been affected by the recent wave of violence. 

At the same time, government forces have carried out a campaign of arrest, raiding homes of former opposition leaders and setting up military and security checkpoints on the roads connecting the cities and towns of the south, as well as on the highway between Daraa governorate and Damascus. 

Approximately 650 people have been arrested in Daraa governorate by the government and its associated security apparatuses since July 2018, according to data provided to Syria Direct by The Martyrs Documentation Office of Daraa, a local organization that documents assassinations, arrest and other crimes in the province. 

“We expect that the number exceeds 1000 people, [however] documentation is difficult right now [because] many families of detainees are afraid of providing humanitarian organizations with statements,” Omar al-Hariri, an employee of the Martyrs Documentation Office said.

These numbers of detainees corresponds to data provided by another documentation organization, Houran Free League. 

“692 have been arrested since the settlement deal, most of which are holders of settlement cards [that are supposed to protect their holder from arrest],” said Oqba Mohammad of Houran Free League to Syria Direct. 

“There are 18 former opposition leaders among the arrested, in addition to 29 women. The government has since released a few of those [detainees] but has also arrested others,” he added.

Marta Hurtado, the spokesperson for the spokesperson for UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the UN Human Rights Office has received reports of “arrests or detentions of at least 380 people” between the period of July 2018 to March 2019, of which 150 were released afterwards. She added that “at least 230 people have disappeared into custody,” and that “the reasons [for arrests are] unclear, and little or no information is given to the families.” 

The Syrian government has requested that residents in former opposition-held areas visit local branches of the security apparatus, describing such visits as “simple” and for the sake of the residents’ security. State media also said that the purpose of such visits for former opposition fighters was to settle their legal status. 

The government also demanded that those “fugitives” who deserted or defected from the army and the security services turn themselves in to receive a government pardon. 

“Around 20 deserters from the army and police have turned themselves in under the settlement and pardon deal,” a former commander of an opposition-affiliated armed group from the city of Jasim told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. “This was some months ago, but they are [all] still detained until now.”  

Russian forces, whose assumed role is to make sure that the reconciliation agreements are not being violated by either side, have intervened several times to release detainees in the south. However, according to al-Hariri, the Russians, in most cases, intervene only if “the detainees have a direct connection with or are close to the Russians.” 

“Arrests are being made for [different] reasons, among which are complaints that were not [withdrawn] by affected parties, despite the reconciliation agreement, in addition to fraudulent allegations, reports, and schemes,” the member of the negotiating committee from city of Daraa said. 

The former military commander from Jasim said that those in the negotiating committee were trying to “[return] life back to normalcy,” by negotiating with Russia and the Syrian government to “allow the delay [of the draft] for students whose [university] studies were interrupted, and the return of dismissed staff to their jobs.” 

“The latest meetings with security officials [included] promises of large steps that the people of the governorate will benefit from soon,” they added.

Arrests of activists and relief workers once again

The shaky security situation has also allowed the government security apparatus to go after activists, aid workers and those involved in civil society groups under the guise of different legal charges. In addition, several people involved in those activities have been kidnapped with no claim of responsibility given by any party. However, opposition members have accused the government of being behind such kidnappings.

Such claims of government violence towards former opposition activists are notable, as retaliation against former opposition members is a violation of the spirit of the “reconciliation deal.” 

Among those arrested was Rateb al-Jabawi, the former head of Jasim local council during the opposition rule. In September 2018, al-Jabawi was taken from his home and arrested by a security service patrol in the city of Jasim. “[His arrest] is one of the most important violations of the settlement deal,” said the former military commander.” 

Security and military patrols have also been conducting raids and searches on houses of civilians in the town of Rasm al-Halabi, a village in the countryside of al-Quneitra, and have specifically targeted former members of the Civil Defense (The White Helmets). They have recently arrested two brothers who formerly worked with the White Helmets, Bilal and Ala’a Shubat. 

A week before the arrest of the Shubat brothers, three former members of the Civil Defense from the village of Saidah al-Joulan, near the Golan Heights, were kidnapped while traveling between the city of al-Sheikh Maskin and Nawa in the Daraa governorate. Local media outlets accused the Syrian government security forces of being behind the kidnappings.

Mohammad al-Ahmad (a pseudonym), a member of the Civil Defense who was displaced from al-Quneitra to Idlib, said that he had nine Civil Defense colleagues working in al-Quneitra. 

“Some of them have disguised themselves, as they’re still wanted by the regime. Other [members] are paying money to officers in the regime to ensure that they are not pursued and that they’re protected from arrest.” 

Al-Ahmad’s house was raided after he was relocated to Idlib. His brother was at the house at the time and was arrested and taken to an unknown location, while his family was evicted from the home. Security forces also confiscated his cars, farmland, and family possessions. 

Al-Ahmad is not the only member of the White Helmets that has faced arrest, expropriation and the detainment of family members at the hands of security services, who have repeatedly accused the group of working with terrorists. He has heard similar stories of White Helmet members and their families being pursued by security services. 

Though many members of the group fled the south before the government retook the area, others were unable to make it to the specified spot in time to be “evacuated”.

In July 2018, 400 members of the White Helmets and their families crossed through the Occupied Golan Heights to reach Jordan, after which they were granted refuge in Britain, Germany, and Canada. 

After the completion of the evacuation operations, the government campaign against the White Helmets intensified. The Syrian government accused them not only of working with terrorists but also of being Israeli agents.’ The remaining members became wanted by the government, especially in al-Quneitra.

Furthermore, the Syrian government threat seems not to be confined to the Syrian territories. 

Mohammad, a former activist speaking under a pseudonym, was one of those who were able to go to Lebanon via smuggling routes eight months ago.

After arriving in Beirut, he was surprised to find that his application for protection with UNHCR in Beirut was denied. An employee with UNHCR told Mohammad that he had been working with a “terrorist organization.”

Mohammad fears that if he were to be sent back to Syria, he would meet the same fate as his colleagues detained by the government, especially after the raid on his home and subsequent arrest of his brother.

The situation of activists, like Mohammad and al-Ahmad, in southern Syria, seems to be a result of the ambiguity of the reconciliation deal; however, given that the articles of the reconciliation deal have never been published, it is impossible to say the exact effects of the deal. 

Reconciliation: A process shrouded in mystery

A year ago, Abu Bakr al-Hassan, a former opposition-leader turned negotiator for the city of Jasim, told Syria Direct that all members of opposition factions, apart from Islamic extremists and Civil Defense members, would be able to engage in the reconciliation process with the Syrian government. 

Conversely, another leader in the opposition told Syria Direct, at the same time, that members of the Civil Defense would be able to engage in the reconciliation process and that the only people disqualified from the process were fighters of IS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). 

The confusion and conflicting accounts expressed to Syria Direct about the deal exemplifies the opaque nature of the reconciliation process. According to Omar al-Hariri, the mystery surrounding the reconciliation deal is a “violation” of the process and the “full disclosure of [its] secret articles is required”.

His opinion is shared by the spokesperson for the UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights who expressed concerns about the deal in a statement on May 2019, almost ten months after the ‘reconciliation,’ saying that “the deals may not have been in full conformity with international law and that civilians did not have access to information on the terms of the deal prior to decisions being taken about them.”

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