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Mysterious assassinations, bombings as ‘security breakdown’ mires Daraa’s fragile peace

Syrian rebels ride on buses during evacuation from Daraa city in July 2018. Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

28 February 2019

AMMAN: A car sat abandoned on the side of a road, two bodies in the trunk.

Omar a-Sharif and Mansour al-Hariri were rebel commanders of two armed factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when they decided to “settle their status” with the Syrian government last year.

Pro-government forces had just seized control of Syria’s southwest in a massive aerial and ground offensive that saw the opposition crumble in a matter of weeks.

While many former rebels would ultimately join the ranks of the Syrian army or Russian-backed Fifth Corps, a-Sharif and al-Hariri joined the hundreds who signed up to one of the Syrian government’s notorious security branches.

But on a cold evening on January 4, their bodies were found curled up inside the trunk of a dusty old Kia—drenched in blood, with bullet holes to the head.

Not far up the road, winding through the farmlands along the Syrian-Jordanian border, stands a military barracks. The area—close to the town of Yaduda—is said to be dotted with checkpoints and regularly patrolled by pro-government forces.

But rumors circulating among local residents and former rebels also talk of a-Sharif and al-Hariri’s involvement in an arms trading network between ex-opposition fighters, Hezbollah and Syrian army’s elite Fourth Division. The claim is that the two men got themselves into trouble.

Still, it remains unclear who was behind the attack.

A-Sharif and al-Hariri are just two names in a growing list of reconciled rebel fighters and opposition figures assassinated amid Daraa’s chaotic, and often violent, transition back to government control.

Using information provided by former rebel commanders and opposition negotiators, local activists and the Daraa Martyrs’ Documentation Office, Syria Direct has been able to confirm at least 15 such assassinations that have taken place since July, when the Syrian government’s month-long assault on Daraa province and neighboring Quneitra gave way to a series of localized surrender and reconciliation deals across the southwest.

More than six months later, assassinations and disappearances are targeting all sides in Daraa’s fractious political landscape: not only former rebel commanders and opposition supporters, but also Syrian army officers, security forces and local officials affiliated with the Syrian government.

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Earlier this month, Yaduda mayor Mohammad Ahmad al-Mnajjar was gunned down outside his home by unknown gunmen—months after purportedly playing a prominent role in the eventual surrender agreement that handed the town back to the Syrian government and its allies.

Meanwhile, simmering anti-government sentiment has given way to scattered bombings and assaults on pro-government positions, claimed by newly formed insurgent groups likely made up of ex-rebels. The sheer range of actors operating in the area makes it extremely difficult to place responsibility for the attacks.

Most of the killings remain shrouded in mystery.

In the latest such killing—three days ago, on February 25—Sheikh Alaa a-Zoubani was gunned down in Yaduda while walking home from the local mosque after evening prayer.

A sheikh and former judge with the local opposition-run courthouse in the western Daraa town, a-Zoubani was a recognizable member of the community.

“He was a point of reference for our whole family, and for Yaduda,” one of a-Zoubani’s relatives tells Syria Direct.*

But he was also known as an outspoken critic of the Syrian government—and despite initially joining reconciliation negotiations once the southwest’s opposition began to crumble, he then abandoned the process late last year.

Long after Yaduda fell to the government and its allies, he continued to issue brazen sermons from the local mosque warning young men against joining the Syrian government’s ranks.

The first attempt on his life came in January. In the second, earlier this week, a-Zoubani’s killers reportedly shot him with a silenced pistol, then fled the scene.

‘We have everything in the south’

Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reiterated his government’s determination to retake “every inch of Syria.”

Assad has repeated the statement several times since 2016, when the Syrian army and its allies began making sweeping military gains—imposing surrender and evacuation deals on rebel-held territories before retaking Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, as well as a series of rebel- and IS-controlled pockets across the country.

The southwest was one of the last rebel territories taken. Following a massive aerial and ground offensive, myriad reconciliation and surrender deals—often brokered with the help of Russian negotiators—saw the government retake the region and transform it into a political patchwork of different zones of influence.

Officially, the southwest is now under government control. But in reality it is ruled by a multitude of different branches of the government’s security and military structures—often seemingly with little coordination between them. Russian military police maintain a limited presence in the Daraa countryside, while Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias are reportedly laying roots across the southwest.

The way the south fell last year has often dictated what forces are where, and in what capacity.

Across the province, Syrian army units and security branches maintain a presence mostly limited to both mobile and stationary checkpoints along the roads connecting towns, and by the entrances of towns themselves.

In localities taken by force, or where rebels outright surrendered, the Syrian army is allowed to enter and patrol—something that is prevented under the individualized agreements that some rebel leaders managed to reach with Russian negotiators in towns where local factions now maintain some degree of autonomy operating alongside Russian military police.

“We have everything in the south,” says former FSA commander Salim Muhammad, from the town of Um Walad in Daraa’s eastern countryside, reeling off a growing list of pro-government actors now with a stake in the south. Air Force Intelligence and the army’s elite Fourth Division, Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias, the Russians.

According to Abu Muhammed, a former commander of a faction affiliated with the US-backed Southern Front coalition, the sheer number of different pro-government actors in the south is one of the reasons behind what he calls a “security breakdown.”

“There is not just competition between the regime and its allies,” he tells Syria Direct from Jordan, where he sought refuge during fighting last summer. “There’s competition between the different branches of the regime as well.”  

As government actors and allies wrestle for influence, sometimes at the expense of former rebels and civilians, new pockets of opposition have started simmering below the surface.

In November, a group calling themselves the “Popular Resistance,” formed and has since then claimed responsibility for a handful of bombings and other attacks. Very little is known about them, or their members.

Using hit-and-run tactics, the attacks claimed by the group range from targeted assassinations to bombings of government intelligence facilities.

Analysts suggest the group has recently escalated its operations. On February 6, the group claimed responsibility for a bombing targeting a pro-government checkpoint in the western Daraa countryside. In a grainy video posted online—the group’s first—what appear to be two pro-government fighters mill around a sandbag barrier, a double-starred Syrian flag visible in the background.

Shortly afterwards, the soldiers return to their posts before disappearing into the brown-grey cloud of a bomb blast.  

Another anti-government insurgent group has since emerged.

After an explosion targeting a Baath Party office in eastern Daraa’s Um Walad earlier this month, another—until then unknown—group named Saraya al-Janoub announced its formation, claiming responsibility for the attack as a “final warning” and threatening to target other government facilities in the future.

According to one spokesperson from the group, speaking on strict condition of anonymity, the purpose of the attack was to “send a message” to the Syrian government to “stay away from civilians.”

And while there is currently no coordination between Saraya al-Janoub and the Popular Resistance, he says, both groups have expressed a commitment to the goal of “toppling the regime.”

Even so, the motives behind insurgent attacks—let alone those responsible—remain the subject of speculation and rumor.

According to the Saraya al-Janoub spokesperson, the group does not always publicly claim responsibility for the attacks they carry out, in order to protect the identities of the perpetrators.

However, he adds, not all assassinations and bombings that have taken place in Daraa recently can be traced back to Saraya al-Janoub and the Popular Resistance.

‘Weapons are pointless’

Daraa’s transition to government control has been marred by reports of forced conscription, disappearances, security raids and arbitrary arrests—particularly in towns where rebels did not manage to negotiate for individual settlement deals.

Meanwhile, signs of bubbling discontent among residents themselves have emerged to the surface in the form of anti-government graffiti, demonstrations and civilian complaints to the Russian military police.

Some analysts suggest that the assassinations and bombings are yet another sign of growing discontent with the Syrian government’s violations of the settlement and reconciliation agreements that brought in Daraa back under its control.

“Spoilers emerge…when one of the negotiating parties feels deceived and that the reached agreement is not completely fulfilled,” Abdullah Al-Jabassini, a European University Institute researcher specialized in the dynamics of Syria’s post-reconciliation southwest, tells Syria Direct.

“As long as the vast majority of the Russian promises offered to Daraa inhabitants during the negotiations are not completely fulfilled yet, peace and stability in southern Syria is threatened,” he adds.

And according to Al-Jabassini, the origins of groups like the Popular Resistance and Saraya al-Janoub can likely be traced back to the losers in last summer’s negotiations.

“Often, negotiations produce losers, and leaders who feel that their power is threatened may decide to undermine the emerging order by employing violence,” he says.

Although analysts and rebel commanders agree that post-reconciliation violence—and insurgent tactics—are not enough to upturn the status quo in the southwest, together they create a self-perpetuating dynamic of revenge.

Daraa residents, meanwhile, seem to have accepted the new reality for what it is. Syria Direct spoke to multiple sources in Daraa who submitted themselves for military service claiming that “things are fine,” although they appeared hesitant to discuss their lives post-reconciliation in any detail.

For Muhammed, the former faction leader from Um Walad, the security situation is not his most immediate concern.

“The cold is intense and life is bitter,” he says, adding that he’s been living off of ready-made food for more than three days.

Muhammed is dejected, trying to move on after years fighting for an opposition that ultimately capitaluted.

“People might not like this,” he says, “but the opposition had tanks and thousands of fighters and they still couldn’t assert themselves.”

“Weapons are pointless now.”

*Syria Direct has changed the names of all sources within Syria to protect their safety.

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