The city of Tafas, in the western Daraa countryside, 27/2/2016 (Tafas Album)
PARIS — Following military escalation in the western Daraa countryside this week, the negotiating committee in the city of Tafas reached a preliminary agreement with regime representatives. The agreement stipulates an immediate ceasefire on the condition that former opposition commanders wanted by Damascus leave the city.
The regime’s Security Committee pledged to withdraw military reinforcements it deployed outside of Tafas this week once the city’s negotiating committee—a body that includes local notables and former opposition military commanders—follows through on its side of the agreement.
As negotiations took place on Thursday morning, regime forces targeted the southern plains surrounding Tafas city with mortars, tanks and surface-to-surface missiles while reconnaissance planes flew overhead.
On Wednesday, one civilian was killed and three others injured by heavy machine gunfire and mortars launched by regime forces in the outskirts of Tafas and the nearby town of al-Yadouda.
The escalation came after the head of the regime’s Security Committee in Daraa, Major General Mufid al-Hassan, threatened on July 24 to storm Tafas, Jassim and al-Yadouda, west of Daraa city, unless individuals wanted by the regime were turned in or left the area.
At a meeting last Sunday attended by members of negotiating committees and local leaders from the three settlements on the one hand, and security branch heads, regime forces and Daraa Governor Louay Khareta on the other, al-Hassan set a 48-hour deadline to comply with his demands. The deadline expired on Tuesday morning.
The Security Committee threatened to use warplanes and heavy artillery and prevent farmers from reaching their lands if the western Daraa areas did not comply, local opposition media reported. Following the deadline’s expiration, multiple batches of military reinforcements arrived in the area, including to Tafas city, where the forces amassed in its southern plains.
Contrary to local opposition reports that the reinforcements belonged to the “Iranian current”—individuals and groups within regime military and security forces aligned with Iran—two local sources told Syria Direct the forces around Tafas belonged to the regime’s 15th Division.
A source close to the Tafas negotiating committee said no forces belonging to the Iran-backed 4th Division or Iranian militias arrived in the area. However, further expanding Damascus’s control over Daraa “serves the Iranian project in the region,” he said.
Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan has recently expressed its concern about growing Iranian activity and influence in Daraa, including drug manufacturing and cross-border trafficking.
Goal of escalation
At the July 24 meeting, the Security Committee demanded “the removal of all those wanted by the regime, other than Tafas residents,” the source close to the negotiating committee said. No list of wanted persons was provided, but the regime body “emphasized the need to remove Iyad Jaara and Obeida al-Deiri,” two former opposition commanders. The pair “left the city two days ago to an unknown location,” the source said on Thursday.
The preliminary agreement reached on Thursday to avoid further military escalation stipulates “the exit of only four people,” the same source said, adding the individuals “agreed to leave Tafas to spare it the war.” He did not specify where they went, but said they did not leave for opposition areas in northern Syria.
A former opposition commander in Daraa said the latest escalation serves to “put pressure on the region to empty it of the rebels or kill them.” He said this would allow Islamic State “cells” to spread in the region, providing a pretext for Damascus to stop operating under the summer 2018 agreement with the opposition. This would allow the regime to “storm the area and impose complete control over it” with international approval.
The Security Committee is divided into two camps, the commander said. “Military commanders such as Mufid al-Hassan and Suhail Dayoub are with the negotiation process, unlike the intelligence commanders, who are pushing towards pressure and military intervention if necessary.”
The commander characterized the stance of al-Hassan, the head of the Security Committee, as one of “courting the people of the Houran, and resolving matters through negotiation.” He said al-Hassan appears to fear “a similar fate to Major General Hussam Louka,” the former head of the Security Committee who was removed after the November 2021 settlement process that followed a regime escalation against Daraa al-Balad. Failure in a military confrontation and “being forced to negotiate would threaten his position,” he said.
In late June 2021, regime forces and Iranian militias imposed a suffocating military siege on the Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods of Daraa city. This was done under the pretext that residents were refusing to hand over their weapons and the presence of wanted individuals. Damascus demanded those individuals be expelled to opposition areas in northern Syria.
After a month-long siege, the besieging forces began to storm the city and heavily shell Daraa al-Balad. The operation stopped after the two sides reached a new agreement, known as the “second settlement,” which was later expanded to the rest of the province. The settlement focused on former opposition fighters handing over their weapons to regime forces.
What is happening today in western Daraa is “no different” from what happened last year in Daraa al-Balad, the source close to the Tafas negotiating committee said. “The regime invokes the presence of wanted individuals as a pretext to justify escalation.” In Daraa al-Balad, “the [ultimate] goal was not to deport the people who were wanted, but rather for regime officers to collect money and weapons from the Houran.”
The Tafas negotiating committee source said he expects “the regime will choose the season when the trees and crops are harvested, that is, the time when people have money, in order to blackmail them.” Last year, the Security Committee “collected hundreds of millions [of Syrian pounds] as well as weapons.”
In December 2021, sources in Daraa accused the Security Committee’s then-head Hussam Louka of extorting tribes and negotiating committees. A former Southern Front source told Syria Direct at the time that “thousands of dollars” were paid to Louka, while negotiators in Daraa said money was used to buy additional weapons to hand in to the regime in order to meet the terms of the agreement.
The Daraa al-Balad scenario?
“The regime got what it wants in Daraa al-Balad,” after the military campaign it launched last year, said Abu Muhammad, a former opposition military official. Following the siege and settlement, Damascus was able to neutralize the city and prevent it from “participating in popular protests and demonstrations,” he said. Since then, no protests have taken place in the city “except for two demonstrations lasting several minutes, demanding the release of detainees and the expulsion of Iran.”
The campaign against Daraa al-Balad may have succeeded “in the media,” said Abu Abdulhaq, a notable from Daraa al-Balad who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons. “The city was opened to other areas, and people’s movement became easier,” he said. As for demonstrations, “they stopped because people realize that they will not change anything in the general scene.”
In either case, in Abu Muhammad’s view, the regime today is trying to “repeat the Daraa al-Balad scenario in Tafas and Jassim, to show in the media that it has managed to extend its control and influence.” In theory, Tafas falls within the regime’s areas of control, he said, “but in practice, it is outside its control, and there is no regime military presence here.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.