A woman reads the Quran near a relative's tomb in the opposition-held southern Syrian city of Daraa on the first day of Eid al-Adha on August 21, 2018. Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.
AMMAN: Ahmad Abu Mansour* and his friend Munther had known each other for three years, a friendship forged in wartime.
“Our relationship was strong—one hundred percent,” he says.
At the time, Abu Mansour, a resident of Daraa province’s eastern countryside, worked with the Syrian Civil Defense, the group of first responders often known as the White Helmets. The two first met when a pro-government airstrike hit Munther’s house and Abu Mansour was among the people who came to take him to the hospital.
For the next two months, Abo Mansour checked in on Munther regularly to change his bandages and take him to the doctor. Over time, the two became friends. They would go out together and sometimes share sahrah gatherings late into the evenings—a staple of social life in Syria and other Arab countries.
Pro-government forces took control over Daraa and neighboring Quneitra province last summer, after a nearly month-long aerial and ground campaign gave way to reconciliation and ceasefire deals as the southwest’s opposition crumbled.
Once that happened, Abu Mansour says, his friend “changed completely.”
First, Munther stopped answering Abu Mansour’s calls. And after several failed attempts to contact him, followed by a block on WhatsApp, Abu Mansour one day saw his friend on the street.
“He looked at me and turned his head away, as if he didn’t know me,” he remembers.
Shortly after, Abu Mansour was paid a visit by Munther’s brother telling him to stop trying to get in touch.
“‘Forget him’,” he remembers the brother saying. “‘The situation has changed’.”
The two men haven’t spoken in months.
Munther is just one of many friends and relatives who, according to Abu Mansour, cut him off after the Syrian government seized control over the province—some without prior warning, others telling him that they wanted to “forget everything and start fresh.”
According to several current and displaced residents from Syria’s southwest, the government’s takeover has given way to a fraying social fabric in communities increasingly marred by fear, mistrust and social isolation as residents find different ways of navigating the new political and security environment.
Amid underlying fears of arrest, property seizures and harassment, some say that fear and shifting political allegiances have driven a wedge between close friends and even relatives.
Some, like Abu Mansour, have been suddenly cut out of social circles as members of the local community—in many cases—seemingly try to adjust to life under the Syrian government by playing up their pro-government sentiments or even “joining the ranks” of the government. Other displaced Daraa residents say they have received outright threats for maintaining pro-opposition standpoints and criticizing those who have purportedly changed sides.
“Relationships are marred by coldness,” says Ammar a-Daraawi, from the town of Jassim in the western Daraa countryside.
Once a prominent figure in one of the many opposition-run local government bodies in Daraa before last year, a-Daraawi says he used to be well respected in his community, and people would “flock” to him for favors.
Now, however, he feels that people are making a concerted effort to avoid him.
Fear of arrest and property seizures, or losing one’s job, all play a part, according to a-Daraawi.
“Most people around me think that those who worked on the frontlines of the revolution could either be under surveillance or followed by the security [services] of the regime,” he says. “They are extremely cautious.”
A-Daraawi himself requested that his real name and details about his former position be withheld in this report, fearing for his own safety.
Although Basel al-Ghazzawi—a media activist from Yaduda, some eight kilometers northwest of Daraa city—currently lives in Turkey, he too has felt from afar the fading social cohesion through friends who stayed behind. From a small town where most residents know one other, al- Ghazzawi says he used to go out with his friends “on a daily basis.”
But now, he adds, “everyone is busy figuring out a way to either escape military service or make a living.”
A picture taken on August 2, 2018, shows a general view of destroyed buildings in the opposition-held southern city of Daraa. Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.
In Daraa, ‘the walls have ears’
Daraa was brought under the government’s control in July through a combination of military force and negotiations—and a series of localized reconciliation and ceasefire deals that would see the province capitulate town by town after a month-long aerial and ground assault.
In towns taken by force, Syria Direct reported in December, pro-government forces are now in direct control and residents say that arrests and raids are commonplace. Syria Direct was unable to reach residents in areas directly controlled by the government.
Meanwhile, towns in which local opposition leaders managed to negotiate for individualized settlement agreements have managed to retain some sort of autonomy, with the same rebel groups still largely intact and in control—albeit under the banners of the Syrian government.
As part of the agreements, local rebels and civilians were given the choice between evacuating to rebel-held Idlib province or to remain and “settle their status” with the government.
Former rebels who chose to stay were offered to join the ranks of the government’s Fifth Corps—a Russian-backed volunteer-only force designed to absorb former rebel fighters while exempting them from mandatory military service.
According to Abdullah Al-Jabassini, a researcher with the European University Institute who has documented how negotiations determined the different fates of areas of Syria’s post-reconciliation southwest, the opposition’s local governance officials “struggled during the negotiations to be one of the main actors.”
Negotiations with rebel groups and the Syrian government, or its Russian allies, were often conducted over the heads of local civilians and even opposition-era governance bodies. Previous purported attempts by civilian community figures to open up reconciliation talks with the Syrian government were disrupted by rebels, sometimes violently.
And while eventually rebels came under pressure from civilians to surrender once the pro-government offensive started, “for both service provision to return and for indiscriminate violence to stop,” Al-Jabassini tells Syria Direct, negotiations haven’t benefited everyone.
When rebel commander Ahmad al-Awdeh’s Shabab a-Sunna faction prepared to sit around the negotiating table with the Russians in Busra a-Sham back in July, the first rebel group to do so in the southwest, civilian negotiators withdrew in protest over a “lack of confidence.”
The opposition-affiliated Crisis Administration’s civilian delegation pulled out of negotiations “in light of the lack of clarity in the discussions and the Russians’ insistence on imposing their conditions,” a statement argued at the time.
According to Al-Jabassini, “now, after the end of the talks, [former opposition governance officials] feel deceived."
“They became ordinary civilians struggling to preserve their wartime institutions, and they are still appealing to Russia to merge their institutions with the government’s ones,” he adds. “Their institutions, as mere infrastructure, still exist, but they do not do any type of work these days.”
This changing political landscape has left indelible marks on local communities across the southwest.
Navigating this new landscape often means keeping a low profile and avoiding any association with outspoken critics, according to former and current residents, which is why individuals linked to opposition-era institutions—like a-Daraawi and al-Ghazzawi—appear to have some sympathy for civilians’ fears.
“[This] reality has been imposed on them,” al-Ghazzawi says, adding that he also refrains from contacting some of his relatives because he fears that they might be arrested if they are caught speaking to him.
But for those who still associate themselves with the opposition, some local residents have outwardly tried to appear in support of the government. According to Abu Mansour, close friends and former political allies suddenly “flipped completely” after the Syrian government moved back in, even changing their profile pictures on social media to pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s double-starred flag.
Many of them, he claims, are now affiliated with the government, either in the ranks of the Fifth Corps or the Fourth Division—an elite formation of the Syrian army led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, that is notorious for its brutality.
The same goes for al-Ghazzawi, who says many of his friends and relatives blocked him on social media after he criticized the fact that they joined the Syrian army.
As the only one among all of his cousins who chose to head northwards on the evacuation buses after Yaduda was captured by pro-government forces, al-Ghazzawi says he met a lot of resistance from friends and family members who repeatedly tried to convince him to stay.
During the three months he spent in Syria’s rebel-held northwest, before eventually leaving for Turkey, the media activist says he even received threats from relatives in Europe for criticizing their brothers on social media.
Al-Ghazzawi has himself deleted friends on social media and replaced his number on WhatsApp, although he stays in touch with plenty of friends who, in his words, have “preserved the principles of the revolution.”
While many rebels either left Daraa in evacuations to northern Syria or were absorbed into pro-government forces, it appears that small pockets of anti-government communities remain relatively active and outspoken.
Both Daraa and neighboring Quneitra province have witnessed occasional flare-ups of opposition activities since the government retook control, with anti-government graffiti on the walls and a series of assassinations targeting former opposition figures who had participated in negotiations with the government.
In November, a Facebook group named the “Popular Resistance” emerged, and has since claimed responsibility for a number of assassinations and attacks on government facilities—most recently, for an attack on a Syrian army barracks in the western Daraa countryside town of Tafas.
As political divisions appear to deepen, Abu Mansour says the social dynamics of his town are characterized by an atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.
“There’s sensitivity and an underlying hatred,” he says. “[People] talk about each other behind their backs, as soon as they are gone.”
And with everyone concerned about their own problems, a-Daraawi claims, it can be hard to trust anyone these days.
“The walls have ears,” he says.
‘If you keep to yourself, no one will approach you’
For Daraa residents abroad thinking of return, hostile environments in the southwest from both pro-government forces and civilians trying to adjust to their control, can be particularly daunting.
After living for years in squalid conditions in northern Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, Abu Taha and his wife finally made the decision earlier this month to return to Syria with their children.
While encouraged by the news of a general amnesty for army deserters issued in October last year, as well as stories from several friends who had already successfully made the trip, Abu Taha was also well aware of the risks involved.
“Anyone who wants to seek revenge on you will write it in a report, so that the regime raids your house and drags you away for interrogation,” he told Syria Direct last month, not long before crossing back into Syria.
And so rather than returning to their home in Daraa, the family decided to pass straight through the province altogether and head for Damascus instead—without even telling any of their relatives that they were going back to Syria.
“I’m planning to delete most of my social media [accounts] and destroy my Jordanian SIM card,” the 39-year-old said at the time.
In Damascus, he said, he has friends who could help him find housing while he settles his status with the government.
But Abu Taha still has to tread carefully. He has already taken a number of measures to prepare himself and his family for navigating the labyrinth of censorship and surveillance they are entering.
“I’m trying from now on to train myself and my family to not utter any word that has to do with the revolution or Bashar,” Abu Taha explained, adding that he still fears that he could be “harmed” because he originally fled the country to avoid army conscription.
But unlike in Daraa, the family hopes it’ll at least be able to go relatively unnoticed in the capital—far from the prying eyes of vengeful relatives.
“[In Damascus] if you keep to yourself and don’t raise your voice, no one will approach you.”
*Syria Direct has changed the names of all sources within Syria to protect their safety.