Daraa city in August 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed.
AMMAN: Abu Mahmoud can leave his home and pass through most of the government-run checkpoints that dot the roadways connecting the towns and villages of eastern Daraa province. The fighting’s stopped.
But for the out-of-work 25-year-old, life is on hold—what he can and can’t do dictated by an opaque political process that won’t go away until he reconciles with the Syrian government. Until then, he cannot register in university or travel to most of Daraa province, let alone the rest of Syria.
“Don’t come back to Syria,” Abu Mahmoud writes in a message from his hometown in newly government-controlled Daraa province. “Don’t ever come back.”
In July, the Syrian government captured his lifelong hometown of Inkhil, 40 kilometers north of Daraa’s provincial capital. Unlike thousands of Daraa residents who refused to accept life under government control and evacuated to Syria’s rebel-held northwest, the former civil society worker chose to stay behind with his family.
But in order to remain in Daraa, Abu Mahmoud needed to regularize his status with the government—visiting a nearby registration center to begin the process of reconciliation that has been touted by Syrian officials and state media as a simple, safe process for Syrians in former opposition-held areas—including rebel fighters—to be granted amnesty.
But for many, reconciliation has been far from easy. “They told me I would need to visit more than one security branch,” Abu Mahmoud tells Syria Direct, referring to Syria’s network of security branches and detention black-sites that were notorious for forced disappearances and torture long before the conflict began.
“I’m terrified to go near them—I don’t know what they’ll do to me.”
More than half a dozen former rebel commanders, fighters and Daraa residents tell Syria Direct that, some three months since the collapse of the south and the beginning of reconciliation, the patchwork of political settlements that helped bring the region back under government control are now breaking down. Reports of security harassment and widespread arrests targeting civilians and former rebel commanders suggest that Russian and Syrian promises of amnesty, which ultimately encouraged thousands to stay behind, may have been hollow.
‘Agreements have not been upheld’
In June, the Syrian government launched a massive aerial and ground campaign on rebel positions across the country’s southern Quneitra and Daraa provinces, sparking one of the largest population displacements in the Syrian war. Nearly a quarter million civilians were driven from their homes. Tens of thousands fled towards an arid border zone with neighboring Jordan, while others headed into the mountains close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights for safety.
Many observers expected a humanitarian catastrophe, perhaps one of the worst the conflict had seen so far.
And yet, within a matter of weeks, the fighting was over.
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Russian military police in Daraa city in August 14. Photo by Andrei Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images.
Initially, the opposition’s defeat in the southwest looked like earlier government victories in East Ghouta, Aleppo and elsewhere—thousands of rebel fighters, Syria Civil Defense first responders, activists, journalists and civilians boarded government evacuation buses bound for Syria’s rebel-held northwest.
But the number of evacuees from the southwest was relatively small compared with evacuations elsewhere, a result of pragmatic negotiations between both rebels and the government that likely began well before the start of the campaign to retake Daraa. The sheer size of the area, coupled with the southern opposition’s poor relations with hardline Islamists in the northwest, necessitated a solution far more complex.
Instead, the Syrian government and its Russian allies negotiated with opposition factions to allow large numbers of rebel commanders and fighters to stay on in the southwest, brokering dozens of reconciliation and ceasefire agreements with rebel factions and local opposition leaders—often town by town, city by city.
Russian military police would act as primary guarantors for local reconciliation, intervening as a third party to ensure that terms were upheld and ex-rebels would be free to join a Moscow-backed volunteer local protection force.
The way the south was won now dictates realities on the ground. Both Daraa and Quneitra provinces were atomized, broken off bit-by-bit, meaning that pro-government forces and their Russian allies, as well as recently reconciled rebel fighters, enjoy different degrees of access and control.
“Agreements have not been fully upheld,” says Bashar a-Zoubi, a former rebel negotiator who participated in talks with the government over the summer, and who now resides in Jordan. “Violations are limited, but they are happening over and over again.”
More than a half dozen former rebel commanders from Daraa have been arrested over the past month, according to reports from local pro-opposition news outlets, while another 20 young men have reportedly been arrested by pro-government forces throughout Daraa province this week—seemingly giving credence to the fears of thousands of Daraa and Quneitra residents who chose to remain in southwestern Syria.
Recently reconciled fighters, speaking to Syria Direct, meanwhile suggest that even when negotiated settlements have held, residents attempting to regularize their statuses through reconciliation centers are subsequently being investigated by counter-terrorism courts or mukhabarat (intelligence) agencies.
Fearing what may come next, ex-fighters like Ahmad Muhammad are staying at home and waiting it out.
“All those promises went up in smoke,” Muhammad tells Syria Direct, requesting a pseudonym for fear of government reprisals. “Fear controls everyone.”
How the south was won
The south’s conflict map was once awash with green, reflecting the large swathes of opposition territory held by well-established, powerful rebel groups that were part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Southern Front coalition.
Smaller pockets under the control of hardline Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and Islamic State (IS) fighters in western Daraa eventually disappeared after Syrian pro-government forces started towards them following the summer’s main offensive.
Most negotiated settlements, particularly in eastern Daraa province where the influence of lynchpin rebel commander Ahmad al-Awdeh was strongest, included stipulations that Russian military police would protect reconciled fighters and civilians from the Syrian security services. Awdeh’s Shabab a-Sunnah faction was the first to capitulate to reconciliation, later encouraging other factions to join.
However, former rebel commanders and negotiators tell Syria Direct that that Russian presence is limited to satellite positions on the peripheries of Daraa and Quneitra provinces. When a problem breaks out, Russian military police move in on a city, town or village before returning to base.
Also prominent in the offensive to retake southwestern Syria, Iranian-backed militias including Lebanese Hezbollah now maintain a strong presence in areas dotted across the southwest.
The Fifth Corps
The shining set piece of the Syrian government’s reconciliation project in the south was al-Failaq al-Khamis, or Fifth Corps—a volunteer-only force designed to absorb reconciled rebels and young men into a Russian-backed adjunct of the Syrian army, without them joining the army directly. Al-Failaq al-Khamis would be manned exclusively by ex-rebels.
According to the reported terms of closed-door negotiations between opposition factions and Russian representatives, al-Failaq al-Khamis would have little interaction with the government and not participate in battles against rebels elsewhere in the country. Moreover, al-Failaq al-Khamis volunteers would be exempt from military service, and allowed to remain in the southwest as local self-defense forces.
The idea would be touted in negotiations across the southwest.
And it persuaded Muhammad, a former fighter in an FSA faction in Daraa province, to stay, initially agreeing to lay down his arms and reconcile with Damascus.
The 23-year-old never finished his high school, never mind the two years of mandatory military service required of all Syrian males by the government since before the war began.
Young men who had not completed their military service—like Muhammad—would be required to either serve in the Syrian army after six months or else join al-Failaq al-Khamis.
However, reports surfaced in late September that the Russians had dissolved al-Failaq al-Khamis, meaning the only remaining option for Muhammad and others would be enlisting in the Syrian army and potentially joining frontline troops fighting against rebels in Idlib.
The breakdown of al-Failaq al-Khamis, according to two former rebel negotiators party to talks with the Syrian government and Russian mediators at the time, came down to the Russians’ refusal to uphold a crucial term of the reconciliation agreement: that the ex-rebel force would remain in Daraa and not partake in battles in the northwest.
The government requested that al-Failaq al-Khamis volunteers sign contracts to join and later ordered recently enlisted ex-rebel fighters to travel to Idlib and participate in fighting there, one of the two former rebel negotiators tells Syria Direct, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
When most fighters refused, the force was largely disbanded.
“Al-Failaq al-Khamis is still partially present, but those who refused to go to Idlib were removed,” says former rebel negotiator a-Zoubi, who participated in talks with the Syrian government this summer.
Both anonymous negotiators meanwhile say that only a small contingent of fighters from eastern Daraa’s FSA-linked faction Shabab a-Sunnah remains with the group.
Muhammad, the 23-year-old ex-rebel, still refuses to fight. But without al-Failaq al-Khamis as an option, the only way to avoid possible detention and retribution is to serve directly in the Syrian army.
“I rebelled, and fought to defend my land and my family from the regime,” he tells Syria Direct. “It’s a matter of principle—I knew people who were killed by the regime, so how can I betray them?”
For now, Daraa residents have approximately three months to reconcile their status before they face likely legal repercussions or conscription. Though some of his friends have already registered for military service—hoping to finish as soon as possible—Muhammad intends to wait until the last minute.
“I’m trying not to think about it for as long as I can,” Muhammad says.
With additional reporting by Jodi Brignola.