AMMAN- The bombing of a Syrian military bus in Daraa governorate by an unknown group on June 17th exemplified the intensifying violence that is engulfing southern Syria as a multitude of groups compete for influence in the wake of the Syrian and Russian forces recapture of the area in July 2018.

Over the past year, violence, in general, has become the new normal in southern Syria. Nevertheless, the explosion that targeted a military bus of the Fourth Armored Division, on the road between the city of Daraa and al-Yadudah town, was unique for its size and number of resulting dead and injured officers and soldiers.

A Syrian police officer told Sputnik, a Russian government news outlet, that the explosion “killed five Syrian soldiers and injured 14 others.” SANA, the Syrian government’s news agency also reported that “terrorists targeted a military vehicle on the way to the town of al-Yadudah, west of the city of Daraa in the morning [of the 17th],” without mention of the number of dead and injured. 

However, a source close to the Fourth Division told Syria Direct that the incident led to “the deaths of five officers of different ranks, and also injured others, most of whom had [to have] limbs amputated.”

On the very same day, a general in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate was killed in western Daraa by a car bomb. Members of his family were also injured in the explosion, according to pro-regime outlets. 

Just a few hours before these two bombings, Mohammad al-Banat, an Islamic preacher, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the town of Muzayrib in western Daraa. Unidentified assailants on motorbikes opened fire on him, giving him minor injuries. Al-Banat is a member of the Central Committee in Daraa, which was formed after Syrian government forces took control of the governorate last year, in order to complete negotiations between the opposition and the government to achieve “reconciliation” between the two parties. 

There was also an assassination attempt on a former opposition military leader in the city of Daraa. A roadside bomb exploded next to his car in the evening of July 20th, lightly injuring him and several others. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. 

On the same day, an explosive charge detonated in a car belonging to a first lieutenant in the military security branch in the city of Nawa in the countryside of western Daraa. The lieutenant was wounded and taken to the hospital for treatment, according to local news sources. 

Daraa governorate has seen an “increase in attacks [physical, social and political] on certain individuals who were civil and military activists during the Syrian revolution,” a member of the negotiating committee in the city of Daraa told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity. They also noted that “currently, military and civil [activists] who are pro-regime are also being targeted.” 

Violence is “systematic” and is perpetrated by “one party,” according to the negotiating committee member. “Its goal is to confuse the situation in Southern Syria to create a large vacuum and implement the political agenda of the surrounding states.” 

Though the source did not specify which states were meant, they did confirm that this state “works under the cover of the Fourth Division.”

The Fourth Armored Division is commanded by Maher al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother. It is one of the more effective Syrian military units and has been known for its brutal crackdown on protesters, especially in Daraa. It has also incorporated former opposition fighters from the Daraa Governorate after the reconciliation agreements of July 2018. 

On the other hand, a source close to the Fourth Division accused Damascus of being behind the bombings. Referring to the bombing of July 17th, he told Syria Direct: “Looking at the severity of the damage from inside the bus,” makes it probable in their view that “the explosive device was planted inside of the bus.” 

In their opinion, “through these [attacks], the regime wants to force the new members of the government forces [who joined the army as a result of the reconciliation agreements], especially members of the Fourth Division in the western countryside, to withdraw to the military barracks in [the town of] Izraa and the central sector [central area in the Daraa Governorate].” 

Though there is no certainty that the government has any involvement in these attacks, a possible motive for such an attack could be Damascus’ wariness of former opposition fighters who were incorporated into the Fourth Division. There is talk of these fighters holding competing loyalties, specifically to Iran and Russia, something which would be sure to irk Damascus. 

Stuck in the crossfire of the security services’ rivalry 

A year after the government’s recapture of southern Syria, the region is still “divided” along “hidden borders” imposed by the reconciliation and settlement agreements, which created inconsistent and sometimes conflicting areas of influence.

In some parts of the Daraa governorate, former opposition militias maintain their influence, something reinforced through their resistance to government forces before accepting a reconciliation agreement. Conversely, in other parts of the governorate, where militias surrendered unconditionally, government control is absolute. 

A former political coordinator with the Southern Front, an umbrella organization of most of the opposition armed groups in Daraa and Quneitra which disbanded with the entry of government forces in the south, told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity that “the targeting of opposition-affiliated individuals is a step towards eliminating any person that impedes the expansion of regime and Iranian control in the region.” 

In the same vein, the targeting of military checkpoints, in their opinion, “is purely a pretext that the regime and its militias use to justify its surprise operations and searches to find weapon caches and people wanted [by the regime] in southern Syria.” 

Additionally, the type of assassinations that have been carried out in the south resemble methods used by the security services in the past, including those targeting government military officials.

“Assassinations have been used to solve disputes between government branches in the past,” according to the member of the negotiating committee in the city of Daraa. 

Nonetheless, there is likely not just one actor behind the recent wave of violence. A former opposition military leader confirmed to Syria Direct that the incentives for some of the operations are “retaliation and revenge, a result of the war against IS [ISIS], which killed many people on both sides [opposition and IS].” 

They added that “some of the criminals [both IS members and common criminals] who were pursued by both the opposition-affiliated court (Dar Al Adl) and opposition factions,  are undertaking operations in retaliation against opposition leaders. The government is giving them clandestine support [to carry out these operations].”

Yet, according to the former military leader, “some of the operations which target [government] military checkpoints are the result of the restrictions imposed by these checkpoints, in addition to the army exploiting [local residents] for bribes.” 

The confusion over the parties responsible for the escalating violence and the “security methods followed by the sectarian militias and the security agencies,” could lead to, as the negotiator warned, Daraa “returning to square one, creating an excuse for the resumption of armed activity in the south as a [kind of] retaliation [by its residents].”

The solution to the current instability in their opinion is to “implement the demands of the people, and change the behavior and methods of the security services towards [residents] and their demands, in addition to treating everyone [in accordance with] the law and to respect their rights as citizens.” 

Targeting Russian soldiers

While attacks against government and opposition-affiliated figures and entities are widespread in the south, the explosive charge detonated under a vehicle of the Russian military police on July 13th as it was driving from the town of al-Sahoah to Basra al-Sham in eastern Daraa was exceptional due to its targeting of Russian forces. However, there was no damage sustained by the vehicle or any soldiers. 

The director of Khmeimim Russian airbase, Major Alexi Bakeen, accused illegal terrorist organizations “which work in a dispersed fashion in south Syria” of being responsible for the explosion “which aimed to [complicate] the situation in this region.”

However, “the Southern Company” (Saraya al-Janoob), an opposition group which has carried out operations against government forces and individuals in the past, was quick to deny responsibility for the attack. Instead, the group accused “Iranian militias” of being behind the attack. 

A source from the 5th Corps in Basra al-Sham, a Russian formed military group, told Syria Direct that the investigation into the circumstances of the attack is still ongoing. The former political coordinator with the Southern Front also said that “all of the operations that target individuals in the opposition have a link with the Russians, increasing the likelihood of Iranian involvement in the operation.” 

The negotiator from the city of Daraa also alleged the Iranians to be behind the attack, saying that the incident “is part of the conflict between the security services and Russia and Iran.” 

“Reaction” to the lack of reconciliation

In September 2018, the formation of a group called “the Popular Resistance” was announced. Information on the group is limited, but since its formation, it has claimed responsibility for several hit-and-run attacks on government and security officials and posts, including the bombing of Mukhabarat buildings in the Daraa governorate.

After the targeting of a Baath party office in the town of Umm Walad in eastern Daraa in February 2019, the Southern Company claimed responsibility for the operation. The group then issued what it called an “final warning”that it would soon be targeting other government facilities in the south. 

The target of such attacks is to “send a message” to the Syrian government to “stay away from civilians,” according to a spokesperson for the group who spoke anonymously to Syria Direct in March 2019.

Despite the fact that there is no explicit relationship between the Popular Resistance and the Southern Company, the two groups share the goal of “overthrowing the regime,” according to the Southern Company’s spokesperson. The spokesperson also confirmed that “the group didn’t claim responsibility for all the attacks.” 

There are several causes for the violent reactions to the Syrian government and former opposition leaders, according to the former political coordinator of the Southern Front. Chief among them is that young people and some community leaders are “dissatisfied with the reconciliation agreements and settlements.” 

“Until now, the articles of the settlement deal have not been implemented, and there is [still] no solution to the problem of [military] deserters or any statements [released] concerning those who have been detained. This is in addition to the tightening of the security [apparatuses’] grip and the crackdown on civilians through methods such as mandatory military service, [as well as] the rise of prices, lack of services and jobs, and the increase in Iranian [presence] and the spread of Iranian Shiism.” 

As a result, Mohammad Abdul Haq (pseudonym), an independent journalist living in the countryside of eastern Daraa, told Syria Direct that “the Syrian opposition can restore their strength if tensions arise again, especially since the reconciliation deal that Russia sponsored specified only the surrender of heavy weaponry. The [fighters] kept their medium and light weaponry in secret shelters, which is what gives the armed opposition the ability to [fight] in the case that the situation ignites once again.”