‘Like a big prison’: Months into reconciliation, invisible borders still divide Syria’s southwest

A child rides his bike past a mural of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad in Daraa city in August. Photo by Andrei Borodulin/AFP.

Some nights, it’s the sound of military trucks passing by. Other times, the crack of doors breaking from their hinges—tell-tale signs of security raids on neighbors’ homes.

Either way, Abu Mahmoud rarely gets a full night’s sleep anymore.

“Sometimes, late at night, I’ll hear a door breaking in, or a scream or army trucks,” the 28-year-old  from rural Daraa province tells Syria Direct. “And I’ll know that they’ve raided a house, or they’ve arrested someone.”

Sitting up late into the night in his home in Inkhil, a town north of Daraa city that returned to Syrian government control earlier this year, Abu Mahmoud sometimes checks in by phone with family and friends scattered across his hometown to find out where the mukhabarat, or secret police, are—and who they may have taken—this time.

By day, life in Inkhil feels like it’s on hold. While the security crackdown rumbles on, the government has yet to collect trash and rubble which still litters much of the town’s streets—remnants of years of war, clashes and neglect. Abu Mahmoud jokes that the town will need “a thousand years” before it returns to its pre-war state.

Abu Mahmoud spends most of his daytimes in the nearby town of Jassim, just one kilometer down the road, where he works. He asked that Syria Direct withhold details about his work for fear of being identified by the government.

Despite how close Abu Mahmoud’s work is to his home, his daily commute involves crossing an invisible divide that now permeates much of Syria’s southwest, left behind by a myriad of reconciliation and surrender deals that saw the government retake the region and transform it into a political patchwork of different zones of influence. The result is a fractured territory where, in some cases, defeated former rebels hold scattered bastions of influence and maintain—for now—partial authority.

On one side of the divide are dozens of communities where negotiated settlements allow rebels and local officials to maintain limited leverage and autonomy in dealings with the Syrian government.

On the other are areas that were either captured militarily by force during the offensive, or surrendered—almost unconditionally—through a series of blanket reconciliation deals that granted Damascus and its allies total control over formerly opposition-held areas. There, rebels laid down their weapons and submitted.

Then, they waited.

Inkhil was one such town. With a pro-government assault bearing down on western Daraa, community leaders and local officials in Inkhil began meeting with both government and rebel commanders, finally convincing the latter to avoid bloodshed by laying down their arms.

“In areas the army took by force, the army does whatever it wants,” says one former rebel commander who reconciled and now serves in a Russian-backed, government-allied militia in Daraa province.

“Forced conscription, Shia-ization—anything it wants.”

Meanwhile in Jassim, which only surrendered to pro-government forces after lengthy negotiations that were ongoing throughout the offensive, craters from airstrikes and artillery shells still pockmark the landscape—but government bulldozers have begun clearing the streets. Municipal vehicles collect residents’ trash every week. And at night, the Syrian government and its allies rarely raid homes or make arrests.

In fact, the Syrian government has almost no presence in Jassim, where reconciled rebel fighters—and sometimes Russian military police—instead maintain order. Former rebel factions have held on to many of their operational structures and crucially, some of their arms, while negotiating in a unified fashion with the government for provision of services.

Even a small insurgent group—al-Muqawama a-Shabiya, or the “Popular Resistance”—is said to maintain a major presence in Jassim, repeatedly attacking government positions there. Just last month, two reconciled rebel commanders were assassinated in a raid claimed by Popular Resistance operatives—although little is known about the group beyond its claims of responsibility over Facebook.

But for Abu Mahmoud, moments after leaving Jassim towards home—beyond a series of checkpoints operated by the Syrian army and allied groups—gaps in services and security issues become readily apparent the moment he enters Inkhil.

“I don’t know why the difference [between Jassim and Inkhil] is so stark,” admits Abu Mahmoud. “[But] it’s like seeing the difference between life and death.”

Reconciliation versus negotiation

The Syrian army, along with its Russian and Iranian-backed allies, launched a massive aerial and ground assault on the formerly rebel-held southwestern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra in June 2018, years after both provinces eschewed Damascus’ control through protests and—later—armed clashes.

More than 200,000 Syrians were driven from their homes in the summer’s fighting—the largest population displacement in the history of the seven-year-long conflict—as the government and its allies scored a number of early victories near Busra al-Harir and al-Lajat in eastern Daraa province.

As thousands of civilians fled for the Syrian-Jordanian border or towards the demilitarized zone near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, opposition officials across much of Daraa and Quneitra were locked into negotiations with Damascus over the region’s future.

Many observers and analysts expected a long and bloody battle for control of the southwest, and yet the fighting was over in a matter of weeks. Through a series of targeted military advances, surrender agreements and a major reconciliation deal, the entirety of Daraa and Quneitra provinces returned to government control.

As part of the deal, thousands of Daraa residents and opposition fighters agreed to board government buses bound for the country’s rebel-held northwest. For those who remained behind, the government granted them six months to regularize their status with Damascus, which for many adult Syrian males meant mandatory service in the army at the end of the grace period.

Those who stayed in their homes were left to grapple with a fractured patchwork of individual, localized agreements, one that created clear divides between towns and cities that are sometimes just kilometers apart, local sources say.

“There’s a major difference in terms of arrests, house raids and the regime’s ability to move around,” one Quneitra-based former rebel commander tells Syria Direct. “In reconciliation areas, the government has total freedom—there is no resistance to it, and no one can stand in its way.”

Yet in communities like Jassim, Busra a-Sham, Tafas, Daraa al-Balad, Naseeb and dozens of others, local opposition officials formed committees to negotiate with Russian military officials for individualized terms—which in many cases included limiting the government’s ability to enter their communities and for rebels to stay in possession of their light weapons.

The result is that in towns and villages across Daraa and Quneitra provinces, former rebel fighters retain a certain degree of autonomy in local governance and internal affairs, manning checkpoints and providing local security.

“For now, at least, these areas still contain the same opposition...they are areas that wield power,” says one rebel commander based in western Daraa province, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Some opposition groups have maintained their organizational structures and hierarchies and—although titles have changed and allegiances nominally shifted to the Syrian government—they still essentially govern territory and prevent the Syrian army and its allies from overstepping into areas under their influence.

“The revolutionary feeling still lives on in some of these areas—neither security forces nor the regime can enter without informing local authorities there,” the commander adds.

Busra a-Sham: ‘No raids, no arrests, no violations’

In many cases, the committees that opposition officials formed earlier this year are still operational and remain in constant contact with the Russians as well as Damascus, several former rebel officials tell Syria Direct.

According to former rebel officials and negotiators, when it comes to negotiating for provision of basic services—collecting trash, clearing rubble and reinstating electricity supplies—communities with established negotiations committees are in a stronger position to do so.

The town of Busra a-Sham in southeastern Daraa province was of the first communities in Syria’s south to negotiate with the Syrian government as the offensive rumbled on outside. It was also one of the first areas visited by Russian military police negotiating on behalf of Damascus, Syria Direct reported in July.

At the time, aerial bombardments and ground assaults by pro-government forces threatened communities across the province.

With the government assault looming, one prominent rebel faction quietly took the initiative to sidestep a direct confrontation. The specific details about how it happened are scarce. But rebel leader Ahmad al-Awdeh and the faction he commanded, Shabab a-Sunnah, negotiated on behalf of Busra a-Sham and areas of eastern Daraa—securing special privileges for life after surrender, but also sparing the area from airstrikes and armed clashes.

Al-Awdeh is a controversial Syrian opposition figure, accused of corruption and numerous human rights violations during his time as a rebel commander. His swift turn to negotiate with the government—and his current elevated status with Damascus—have earned him ire from other opposition forces.

“Busra a-Sham is a Russian-backed scheme that benefits Ahmad al-Awdeh,” says the former rebel commander who reconciled and now serves in a Russian-backed, government-allied militia in Daraa province. “But he’s a king without a people.”

Despite questions over al-Awdeh’s leadership, as well as the prospects for long-term sustainability in areas within his sphere of influence, security conditions in Busra a-Sham remain relatively stable.

“In Busra a-Sham, there’s no raids, no arrests, no violations—there’s not even army checkpoints,” says Hashem Khalil, a local commander in the Fifth Corps, a volunteer-only force that was originally designed to absorb reconciled rebels and young men into a Russian-backed adjunct of the Syrian army, without them joining the army directly.

Khalil, who asked that his real name be withheld in this report, reconciled his status with the government earlier this year.

Khalil says that pro-government forces cannot enter the city without coordinating with local officials first, and despite a limited state law enforcement presence in the form of a single police station, they do not interfere with the town’s affairs.

Responsibility for maintaining security falls solely to the Fifth Corps.

‘A big prison’

A number of former opposition negotiators list four areas in particular where negotiations were centered: Busra a-Sham; Daraa al-Balad, south of the provincial capital’s center; Naseeb near the Syrian border; and the city of Tafas in Daraa’s western countryside.

In all four areas, the situation is “even better than okay,” Khalil explains, describing how, there, a delicate balance of power has been maintained that keeps former rebels in positions of authority in the southwest.

“It depends on the strength that a given region wields. It depends whether a region is strong enough to defend itself or not.”

It’s an idea that has been tested at points in the last several months. The anonymous Fifth Corps commander recalls a recent standoff near the western Daraa town of al-Muzayrib, when the government attempted to forcefully serve wanted civilians conscription notices meaning they’d be legally bound to the conscription process.

“They wanted to get into people’s homes there,” he tells Syria Direct. “So, we stopped them.”

Still, even in areas enjoying negotiated terms with the Syrian government, residents tell Syria Direct that the situation—while maybe better than elsewhere—is far from ideal. And in some areas, like Daraa city’s decimated southern neighborhoods, the relative openness of towns like Jassim is nowhere to be found.

“It’s like a big prison,” says Aseen, a resident in Daraa al-Balad, which comprises some of the battered neighbourhoods of southern Daraa city. “You can’t just move around however you want to.”

The agreement over the fate of the area appears to have kept the Syrian army outside for now—the exception being a 15-minute visit by military forces in late July to raise a flag in Daraa’s southern neighborhoods for a photo-op. The flag was taken down shortly afterwards.

In the Palestinian refugee camp just hundreds of meters from Aseen’s home, government civil authorities are clearing rubble from the main roads and tearing down the irreparable apartment buildings and businesses scattered throughout the camp.

But there’s no water in the camp, and the roads leading out towards eastern Daraa province are currently closed, 28-year-old camp resident Abdelrahman a-Saeed tells Syria Direct.

“I don’t know a lot about what’s happening outside right now—but it’s not like it used to be.”

Occasionally, news filters through to a-Saeed via his friends elsewhere in Daraa. The eastern sections of the city are ruined by years of fighting and incessant airstrikes, and services have yet to reach many of the scattered villages in the countryside.

“We don’t yet know what’s going to happen to us,” a-Saeed says.

“Even then, people say we’re better off than elsewhere.”

This report is part of Syria Direct’s Advanced Investigative Journalism Training and Reporting Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.