Daraa reconciliation agreements just ‘ink on paper’ for journalists, White Helmets awaiting results of closed-door negotiations

Members of the Daraa Civil Defense earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Daraa Civil Defense.

AMMAN: Hundreds of Syrian Civil Defense members and journalists along the Syrian-Jordanian border are uneasily awaiting the results of closed-door negotiations between the Syrian government and rebel representatives, amid conflicting reports about who will be permitted to reconcile with Damascus—or leave altogether.

As negotiators continue to sketch out details, several journalists and Civil Defense volunteers on the ground told Syria Direct they fear moving from town to town within Daraa province—worried that they may be detained at pro-government checkpoints gradually returning to the area.

“We’re waiting to hear our fate,” Hassan, a Civil Defense volunteer in Daraa province who requested that his full name be withheld for security reasons, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “We hope it will be a kind one.”

Hassan is one of scores of Civil Defense volunteers—the group of first responders and medics often referred to as the White Helmets—who remain scattered across southwestern Syria despite an international rescue operation to evacuate hundreds of the group’s members and their relatives on Sunday.

Although Sunday’s international operation successfully evacuated 422 Civil Defense members and their families through the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights towards Jordan, hundreds of others were left behind, where they now fear government reprisals, Syria Direct reported.

With hopes fading for a second evacuation, options are limited for individuals likely wanted by the Syrian government.

A rebel negotiator told Syria Direct on Wednesday that Civil Defense members will not be permitted to reconcile their status with the Syrian government, which aims to apprehend its members and try them in court.

Syrian state-run media has frequently accused the Civil Defense of collaborating with “terrorist” groups, and President Bashar al-Assad referred to the group—which receives funding from Western states—as “a branch of al-Qaeda” in a 2017 interview with AFP.

Pro-opposition media outlets reported this week that government-run checkpoints across Daraa and neighboring Quneitra provinces are actively searching for members of the Civil Defense, medical personnel and media workers in a bid to apprehend them.

Increasingly, journalists in southern Syria also fear that they, too, could find themselves excluded from the ambiguous reconciliation process.

Syria Direct reached out to two opposition negotiators currently privy to ongoing talks with the Syrian government in Daraa province—but both gave conflicting assessments of the outcome of negotiations so far, as well as who would be eligible for reconciliation.

Syrians board government buses in Quneitra on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.

Abu Bakr al-Hasan, a former rebel commander and current negotiator in the town of Jassim in the western Daraa countryside, told Syria Direct that everyone—with the exception of hardline Islamist fighters and the Civil Defense—will have the right to reconcile with the Syrian government.

However another rebel spokesman, who is close to ongoing negotiations in the eastern Daraa town of Busra a-Sham, claimed that all Syrians in Daraa and Quneitra—save for hardline Islamist fighters from the Islamic State and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—would be eligible for reconciliation.

“Everyone in Daraa, including the Civil Defense, is eligible for reconciliation,” the spokesman, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press about the matter, said on Thursday morning.

“What you’re hearing are rumors and lies,” he added.

‘Ink on paper’

For Syrians currently excluded from reconciliation, remaining in Daraa likely means being arrested and tried in court, negotiators told Syria Direct. Their only remaining option is relocating to Syria’s rebel-held northwestern reaches to avoid detention.

For Umm Muhammad, a former journalist in her early 20s currently residing in Daraa province, threatening statements in Syrian state media have pushed her and her husband—a journalist himself—to consider heading north.

“There’s incitement against journalists and the Civil Defense,” Umm Muhammad, who requested her real name be withheld for security reasons, told Syria Direct.

At the government-run checkpoints that now span many of the roads connecting the towns and villages of Daraa provinces, soldiers stop nearly every car passing through, Umm Muhammad said.

“If they don’t know you, they stop you,” she added. “There’s no freedom of movement.”

Earlier this week, buses transported hundreds of Syrians unwilling to reconcile with the government from Quneitra province to the country’s rebel-held northwest following an agreement between the Syrian government and rebel negotiators. The evacuation followed a similar operation in Daraa city that saw an undisclosed number of rebel fighters and their families relocated to northwestern Idlib province.

Neither Syrian government officials nor rebel representatives have announced if there will be further evacuations to Idlib.

Umm Muhammad worries that even if journalists are included in reconciliation in any future political settlement in Daraa, she and her husband may still be at risk.

“What is said is one thing, what actually happens is another,” she told Syria Direct.

“These agreements are just ink on paper.”

‘The checkpoints are closed’

Syrian pro-government forces managed to recapture almost the entirety of southwestern Syria within weeks after launching a major aerial and ground campaign on rebel positions in Daraa and Quneitra provinces on June 15.

Within weeks, the Syrian army and allied militias had captured wide swathes of the southwest by force before rebel groups gradually agreed to ambiguous reconciliation deals often town by town, city by city.

The result has been a complex patchwork of localized political settlements across Daraa and Quneitra provinces as closed-door negotiations continue.

A half dozen local activists, journalists and Civil Defense members told Syria Direct that checkpoints in Daraa province prevent those whose status remains uncertain from moving around, fearful they be arrested for their previous activities.

Abu Muhannad, a Civil Defense member in Daraa, told Syria Direct that he and dozens of his colleagues are “besieged” with their families, with checkpoints manned by pro-government forces preventing them from leaving the area.

“We had someone ask if we could pay a bribe just to get through the checkpoints,” Abu Muhannad told Syria Direct on Thursday. “But we haven’t heard back yet.”

With checkpoints closed, Abu Muhannad and his family are among the hundreds of White Helmets and their family members who were unable to escape through Daraa to reach an evacuation point beside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday.

Rebel negotiator Abu Bakr dismissed Abu Muhannad and others’ claims in conversations with Syria Direct on Wednesday evening.

“How wasn’t he able to leave?” Abu Bakr said in a WhatsApp voice recording sent to Syria Direct. “The checkpoints don’t stop anyone—they don’t ask for IDs or search anyone.”

However, Abu Muhannad dismissed suggestions from rebel negotiators that stranded Civil Defense members were free to leave, adding that he and others have “been trying to get out for some time.”

“The checkpoints are closed.”

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.