Russian military police in the Daraa town of Tafas on July 11. Photo courtesy of Daraa Now.
AMMAN: Freelance journalist Samira a-Darawwi doesn’t sleep in the same place for more than a few nights at a time. After Syrian pro-government forces took total control of most of the country’s southwest last month, moving freely through her town is a risk she is no longer willing to take.
“Every couple of days, we move to a different house,” a-Darawwi tells Syria Direct, speaking from an undisclosed location in Daraa province. She requested that her name and location not be published, fearing arrest by pro-government forces.
“We try to avoid being followed or tracked by the regime,” she says.
Along with scores of other Syrian media workers and activists currently unable to leave the country’s southwest, a-Darawwi fears that her work with local and international news outlets may have placed her in the crosshairs of the government’s security forces.
“We’re a target,” a-Darawwi tells Syria Direct, referring to herself and others working in journalism. “We’ve seen most of the regime’s crimes—they want to arrest us.”
A-Darawwi is one of roughly 50 journalists, activists and media workers who remain stranded in Syria’s southwest after a Damascus-led aerial and ground campaign beginning in June saw the entire region recaptured by pro-government forces, according to the France-based Syrian Journalists Association (SJA).
Although the Syrian government permitted an undisclosed number of rebel fighters and Daraa residents to leave the province in evacuation buses bound for the country’s rebel-held north—including several dozen journalists—those who are unable or unwilling to flee the newly government-controlled south must reconcile their status with Damascus.
In recent weeks, contradictory statements by Syrian state media and rebel negotiators over who is and is not eligible for reconciliation with the government have only added to fears that journalists could face arrest and torture in government prisons.
Since last month’s offensive, the provinces of Daraa and neighboring Quneitra have effectively been partitioned by reconciliation agreements whose terms differ from place to place. Although Syrian army units fully control a substantial section of the region, some cities and towns are administered either by recently reconciled local rebel fighters or Russian military police—and sometimes a combination of both.
The result is a patchwork of localized deals and agreements that see different actors operating from town to town, while “hundreds” of checkpoints now dotting the landscape between the region’s towns and villages mean journalists risk “arrest or harassment,” according to a-Darawwi.
Out of the dozens of journalists still stranded across Daraa, “you can count the women on one hand,” a-Darawwi says, suggesting that the relative scarcity of female journalists in the area could make them far easier to track and identify than their male colleagues.
For a-Darawwi, the only solution is to leave Syria—an unlikely prospect should she remain in southwest Syria.
An internationally backed evacuation from Quneitra province late last month saw more than 400 members of the Syrian Civil Defense, the group of first responders often known as the White Helmets, as well as their families, relocated to Jordan via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Though the international rescue operation was largely celebrated as a success, nearly 400 other White Helmets members and relatives slated for evacuation could not reach Quneitra in time to be rescued. A second operation to rescue trapped Civil Defense members and media workers appears increasingly unlikely.
Another alternative for a-Darawwi and others scattered across Daraa province is forced displacement to Syria’s rebel-held Idlib, as several government brokered evacuations have taken place across the province over the past month. But unlike other formerly rebel-held areas in Aleppo and East Ghouta, those wishing to leave Daraa must cross broad swathes of politically complicated terrain—and navigate checkpoints along the way—to reach pre-agreed departure points. The prospect of further evacuations remains, but the Syrian government is yet to announce them.
“I’m one of those people who refused to evacuate to the north,” a-Darawwi tells Syria Direct. A-Darawwi also refuses to submit to reconciliation—unwilling to return to life under government control and the uncertain guarantees proffered by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.
A recent wave of arrests in Daraa province has only amplified a-Darawwi and others’ fears that they soon could be targeted by Syrian security forces.
In a-Lajat, a rocky region some 50 kilometers northeast of Daraa’s provincial capital recaptured by pro-government forces in June, security forces have arrested scores of local residents in a major wave of arrests that began earlier this week, according to pro-opposition media outlets.
Syria Direct asked two local rebel officials about ongoing talks between opposition and government negotiators—and whether or not certain groups will be barred from reconciliation.
Although as recently as last month those same rebel officials appeared divided on the results of ongoing talks with the Syrian government, both agreed on one detail on Tuesday morning: that all those willing to reconcile—with the exception of hardline Islamist militants—would be permitted to regularize their status with Damascus.
One rebel official in the formerly rebel-controlled town of Busra a-Sham, where negotiations between opposition factions and the government are ongoing, told Syria Direct on Tuesday that all will be accepted for reconciliation.
However, the same official admitted that arrests were ongoing in the a-Lajat region of Daraa province and “no one knows why.”
“Maybe there are people [in a-Lajat] who are with Daesh,” the anonymous official suggested, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS). “But for most of those arrested, the accusations are baseless.”
One opposition activist originally from a-Lajat placed the number of detainees at 118. The activist, who asked that his name and location be withheld in this report, has been in hiding for more than a week, he told Syria Direct on Tuesday morning.
“They’re searching for journalists and Civil Defense workers, but have yet to arrest a single one so far,” the activist said, adding that pro-government forces were still “spread out” across a-Lajat.
‘The ugliest of crimes’
Whenever Suleiman Ibrahim travels in Daraa province, he stays off the road. Cutting through the orchards and farmland that make up much of his home province, the freelance journalist and media activist only travels at night—fearful that he may pass through a checkpoint or roadblock and wind up in detention.
“I only go out after 9pm,” Ibrahim tells Syria Direct. “There are checkpoints in every neighborhood.”
Ibrahim participated in a Syria Direct training session in Amman, Jordan in the spring before voluntarily returning to his native Syria earlier this year. Before pro-government forces launched a campaign to retake rebel positions in Syria’s southwest in June, he continued his work in media.
For Ibrahim, there are only two possible solutions: either to be evacuated to a neighboring country or to remain in Daraa with international guarantees for his safety.
But the likelihood of such an international effort appears less and less likely with the passage of time.
According to Sakher Idrees, an SJA administrator, “there is still hope” that an evacuation to a neighboring country could still take place. However, he says, that will depend on how the Syrian government decides to deal with perceived dissidents who find themselves in newly government-controlled territory.
“The fate of those trapped in Syria is directly linked to the Assad regime and its allies,” Idrees tells Syria Direct. “They are the ones laying siege to the area.”
Currently, the SJA is working to secure safe refuge for the trapped journalists in the southwest while putting pressure on the international community to secure their evacuation.
Nonetheless, Ibrahim’s fears grow with the passing of time.
“I worry that I could be arrested, that I could be killed or that I could disappear in prison like thousands of other Syrians,” Ibrahim tells Syria Direct. “I fear they could go after my family to pressure them to turn me in.”
“If we don’t get evacuated,” Ibrahim warns, “the ugliest of crimes will be committed against us.”