By Maher al-Hamdan and Hadia Al Bugha
AMMAN— Despite years of fighting in southern Syria between the government forces and its allied Iranian-backed militias, on the one hand, and the opposition factions on the other, Abu Hassan al-Jolani's house survived the destruction. However, the house has been pummeled into rubble a year after the end of hostilities which resulted in government forces taking control of the entire area in July 2018.
In 2017, Abu Hassan returned from Saudi Arabia to his village in the Quneitra province, close to the 1967 Syrian-Israeli armistice line. He assumed he would be gradually returning to routine in his hometown but was shocked to find his home seized by the Lebanese Hezbollah militias, which forced him to move to his father's house.
Even though the house was almost completely destroyed as a result of an Israeli air strike earlier this month, Hezbollah still refuses to evacuate Abu Hassan’s property, claiming that the adjacent area constitutes a Hezbollah-controlled "security zone," he told Syria Direct.
Redeployment between civilians
Israeli military strikes have continuously targeted Syrian government forces and allied militia positions inside Syria over the last several years. Thus, the Israeli bombing early this month represents a significant development, as it included civilian targets, and led, according to both pro-Syrian government and opposition media outlets, to the death of four civilians and injury of many others.
Residents in the so-called "Triangle of Death," which represents a node between the provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Damascus countryside, told Syria Direct that the latest developments can be explained by the deployment of Hezbollah members among civilians in the villages of Danaji, Habbariya, Sabsaba and Sultana.
Contrary to media reports that Hezbollah had withdrawn its forces secretly from Damascus, its countryside and southern Syria, an eyewitness from the area told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons, that "Hezbollah units deployed in civilian homes in the area after they withdrew from the surrounding military barracks, which have been subject to Israeli bombardment more than once." He pointed out that the Lebanese militia “transformed some houses into security posts.”
This was also confirmed by a member of the opposition-affiliated negotiating committee with the Syrian government and Russian officers in the "Triangle of Death."
The reconciliation agreement signed with the regime last year included a clause pertaining to "evacuating the villages from Iranian forces,” he said. The military presence was to be limited to regular Syrian government forces on the outskirts of the villages.”
“But this did not happen," he added.
At the beginning of the agreement, Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias withdrew from some houses and retained a number of habitable houses, he explained. But since the middle of 2019, these forces and militias have increased deployment among civilians after their bases and military barracks were bombed by Israel.
The supreme power
Hezbollah units and other Iranian-backed militias are maintaining their presence among civilians through taking over people’s homes in the area. One example is the case of Abu Wael who returned to his village in the countryside of Quneitra after five years of asylum in Lebanon to find that his home became the residence of one of Hezbollah’s leaders in the area. He was unable to live in it again.
"I asked Hezbollah to evacuate my house, but they refused under the pretext of being in the house for security reasons. I reiterated my request, but it was denied again and I was warned [of repeating the request]," he told Syria Direct.
He contacted a member of the negotiating committee but was told "you can't force Hezbollah’s fighters out. What you can do is to inform the Russians and the command of the Seventh Division [of the Syrian Army] to provide assistance."
So he did, but received no response.
The member of the negotiating committee admitted that "the committee no longer plays a role in the region after the regime took control of and tightened their security grip on it."
He clarified that the crisis of civilians in the “Triangle of Death” escalated after the regime forced displaced people from the region to evacuate the border areas in Brega and Bir Ajam towns, in Quneitra’s countryside, and return to their original villages, where Hezbollah has taken over their houses and refused to give them back.
According to Abu Wael, who lives in a town inhabited by no more than 3,000 people before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, there are "15 houses in the town taken by members of Hezbollah and military forces of the 90th Brigade."
Hezbollah's invasion and seizure of civilian homes-turned-military-posts has terrified residents because of the danger posed to them as "Israeli raids strike the area and its surroundings almost every two weeks," the witness said.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan's Direct Aid Program.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh.