7 min read  | Daraa, Politics, Reports

Daraa negotiating committees gutted by assassinations, departures


September 1, 2022

PARIS — In the four years since the summer 2018 settlement agreement in southern Syria, Damascus has sought to marginalize and eliminate top military and civilian leadership in Daraa province. Amid relentless assassinations, many of those who remain alive have resigned from their positions or left the country.

Most recently, former opposition commander Khaldoun al-Zoubi and four of his companions were killed in an ambush near Daraa city on August 25 that injured five others. The attack came as the group returned from a meeting with Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, the head of the regime’s Military Security branch in Daraa, to complete negotiations related to an agreement reached earlier in the month to avoid military escalation in the western Daraa countryside city of Tafas. 

On August 16, Sheikh Fadi al-Asmi, a prominent former opposition commander, was shot and killed, while his son was injured, by unidentified gunmen in the central Daraa countryside city of Dael. Al-Asmi was a member of the Central Committee in the western Daraa countryside—one of the local bodies formed to negotiate the implementation of the 2018 settlement agreement. He was also a top commander who played various military and social roles in the province. 

Since the 2018 settlement was signed, nearly half of all top military and civilian leaders in Daraa province have been assassinated or left Syria. Syria Direct, in cooperation with the Horan Free League, a local media and documentation organization in Daraa, has documented the killing of 20 out of 47 local leaders with military and negotiating roles, as of the date of publication of this report.

The targeting and removal of the former opposition’s leadership has weakened negotiations with the regime, as those in the crosshairs were the bedrock of the southern province’s negotiating committees. As a result, the level of negotiations has fallen, from regional negotiations to those at the level of cities, towns or even tribes. 

Emergence of the negotiating committees

Following regime military escalation against the opposition-controlled areas of southwestern Syria in summer 2018, Damascus reached a Russian-sponsored settlement agreement with the factions of the opposition Southern Front. Under the agreement, opposition factions were allowed to remain in the south with their personal and medium weapons, while the regime’s administrative and service institutions  resumed their work. 

What the regime did not expect, however, was for much of the south to become relatively autonomous, beyond the regime’s full military and security control, during the first few years of the settlement. But over the past few years, Daraa has seen anti-Assad demonstrations and operations against regime forces and the militias that support them continue in the province. 

This would not have happened if not for the combination of a number of basic factors that set Daraa apart from other areas that entered into settlements with the regime. In East Ghouta and the northern Homs countryside, for example, opposition fighters, activists and other “hostile” demographics underwent forced population transfers to northwest Syria. The terms of the agreement were different in Daraa, and most top civilian and military leaders did not leave. The formation of the Central Committee and local negotiating committees was also a key factor. 

Three main negotiating committees were active in Daraa in 2018. Today, only one remains, with no clear role or presence on the ground: the Central Committee in the eastern Daraa countryside controlled by the former 8th Brigade of the 5th Corps under the leadership of Ahmed al-Awda. The other two, the Central Committee in Daraa city and the Central Committee in the western Daraa countryside, expanded notably at the start of the settlement, but are now defunct. Following a series of assassinations, the Daraa city committee dissolved itself in August 2021 and the western Daraa committee suspended its activities in December of the same year. 

The committees consist of three parts: a political wing that includes civilian negotiators representing segments of society on a geographical rather than tribal basis; a military wing that includes representatives of military factions as well as legal, administrative and media committees; and an armed implementing force made up of former opposition military personnel. 

Dismantling the negotiating committees

In December 2021, Sheikh Ahmad al-Baqirat, a member of the Central Committee in western Daraa, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in the western Daraa town of Tel Shehab. Although al-Baqirat was not the first member of the committee to be assassinated, his killing shook it. 

“After Sheikh Ahmad al-Baqirat’s martyrdom, the committee suspended itself, and most of its members left for several reasons,” an administrative source in the western Daraa Central Committee told Syria Direct, asking not to be named for security reasons. Al-Baqirat “was the committee’s mastermind, a consensus figure who was accepted by all parties and currents within the civil, military, legal and tribal committees.” 

The security situation played a major role as well. During the first two years of the settlement, “the committee held its meetings and its members moved about with complete freedom, but over the past two years, the delegations faced assassinations, which succeeded a number of times,” the source said. 

The source gave himself as an example. After al-Baqirat’s assassination, he confined himself to his house for several months, “never going out.” And over the past couple of months, he has “taken measures to protect the house, such as a strong outer door to the garden and lighting the perimeter of the house well, to preserve my life and the lives of my family,” he said. 

On February 10, the Central Committee in western Daraa received another major blow with the assassination of the second most important member of the committee, Musab al-Bardan. Al-Bardan, one of the committee’s founders, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen who fired on him while he was on his way to a meeting with Brigadier General Louay al-Ali regarding service provision to Tafas city. Al-Ali was accused of being responsible for the assassination. The circumstances of al-Bardan’s killing were nearly identical to that of Khaldoun al-Zoubi on August 25. 

At its outset, the Central Committee in western Daraa had 33 members. Of them, 10 were killed and four left the country before the committee suspended its work following al-Baqirat’s assassination last December, according to data the body provided to Syria Direct.

The Central Committee in Daraa city fared no better. A number of its members were killed or faced assassination attempts, and the body struggled to negotiate between the regime and a number of local tribes, which did not respond to Damascus’ demands, a notable from Daraa city told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

As a result, the committee dissolved itself in early August 2021. The body informed the tribes of Daraa al-Balad—the longtime opposition stronghold of the city—of its decision at the time, explaining that each tribe would be responsible for negotiating with the regime itself. The same applied to the towns and villages elsewhere in the Houran region of southern Syria. 

Tribal negotiations

Since the Central Committee in Daraa city dissolved itself last summer, no alternative body has been formed. Without the committee, “each tribe is responsible for the actions of its people,” said the Daraa city notable, who participated in past negotiations outside of the committee and is familiar with its work. “In turn, the regime has started negotiating with each tribe separately,” he said. This approach “weakens the Houran’s position in facing the regime, because when a committee speaks in the name of the city or region, its position is stronger.” 

Damascus is also currently following the tribal negotiations approach in Tafas, western Daraa. “Negotiations are taking place between the regime and the al-Zoubi tribe, which the regime holds responsible for the presence of wanted ‘strangers’ as it calls them, in the houses of tribe members in the city,” the source from the Central Committee in western Daraa said. 

Without a collective negotiating body, Daraa’s towns or tribes have less leverage to push back against regime demands. After al-Asmi was assassinated in Dael on August 16, “the Military Security branch told notables and community representatives in the towns of Dael, Sheikh Miskeen, Ibtaa and Atman,” individually, “that it will deploy Air Force Intelligence to these areas after Military Security withdraws from them,” the committee source said. “None of these notables or representatives could say no to the regime.” 

Limited military impact

For years, the regime has sought to dissolve the negotiating committees and sever the ties between them. Following the regime’s renewed military campaign against Daraa al-Balad in July 2021, the eastern and western Daraa Central Committees—backed by the former opposition, or “reconciliation” factions making up the implementing force—helped ease pressure on the neighborhoods under attack by targeting regime positions and checkpoints. 

By targeting top civilian and military leaders who were the cornerstones of the negotiating committees, Damascus has successfully marginalized the Houran’s bargaining power. But “at the military level, the impact is less clear, even though most assassinations targeted military commanders,” said Abu Muhammad, a former opposition military commander. 

Abu Muhammad, who lives in northern Daraa, cited “the emergence of new military commanders who are no less experienced and brave than their predecessors who were martyred.” Remaining opposition forces are also playing a role in “guerrilla warfare and small units, carrying out their objectives and returning without a flag or faction to direct them.” 

While the negotiating committees have largely been sidelined after relentless assassinations, “the martyrdom of the top commanders increases the determination of those young men,” he said, as new commanders, “to keep fighting this regime, by any means necessary.” 

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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