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One year after reconciliation, why are southern Syria’s residents paying out of pocket for public services?

Amman— Residents of one southern Syrian town have taken it upon themselves to provide electricity to their homes, paying out of pocket to set up electrical lines and pooling money to cover materials and the salaries of maintenance workers.

20 June 2019

Amman— Residents of one southern Syrian town have taken it upon themselves to provide electricity to their homes, paying out of pocket to set up electrical lines and pooling money to cover materials and the salaries of maintenance workers.

“The state just does not have the ability to provide these services,” said Abu Mohammed, a 27 year old vegetable seller residing in Inkhil, located in the northern countryside of Syria’s Daraa province.

“We are the ones paying for everything…we buy the power lines, pay for the electricity poles that transport the electricity from the main plant to the neighborhood and from there to our homes.”

In March 2019, the municipality of Inkhil told residents that it could not provide electricity to the town’s neighborhoods, shifting the burden of reconstruction to inhabitants themselves—a tall order considering Inkhil’s decimated economy.

Abu Mohammed recently spent 40,000 Syrian Lira (approximately $70) from his own pocket to restore electricity to his home. By comparison, he receives a daily wage of just 2000 Syrian Lira ($2.45), and he says he needs four times that amount to keep food on the table.

“My salary is not enough,” Abu Mohammed told Syria Direct. “I rely on relatives who live outside the country to help me cover the rest.”

The situation in Inkhil resembles that of neighboring cities and towns. Already suffering from economic woes including the collapse of the Syrian lira, the loss of natural resources to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the mortgage of key state institutions to allies Russia and Iran, Damascus has proven unable to provide essential services in the territories it regained in southern Syria in mid-2018.

A resident of Daraa city, Issa Mohammed, confirmed Abu Mohammed’s account: “each person depends on himself and pays from his own pocket to fix his house, and to secure amenities in front of his home like lights, and to buy water from trucks.”

When the Syrian government established control over southern Syria in the summer of 2018, NGOs operating in the area were forced to shutter, which left tens of thousands of citizens who had come to rely on their services without any support.

In the town of al-Tiba along the Jordanian border, landline telephone service has still not been re-established and electricity is only available for two hours a day. Service provision shortcomings extend to the educational sector, where residents have taken to non-traditional methods to make sure their children are able to study.

At the beginning of the 2019 academic year, the area’s schools were unable to open due to a lack of funds, so local officials took to a communal WhatsApp group to ask residents for donations.

Abu Khaled, a former official in the opposition-led Syria Interim Government in Daara, spoke to Syria Direct under a pseudonym due to security reasons. “Syrians, inside and outside of the country, participated in the donation scheme. Many Syrians in the diaspora were eager to contribute.”

Nevertheless, Abu Khaled said that only a “very small” amount of money had been collected through the WhatsApp group in early 2019, which would go towards “paying the salaries of the school’s janitorial staff, buying basic supplies like paper and pencils, and the cost of printing exams.”

An employee of a humanitarian organization based in Amman, which previously worked to provide services in southern Syria, said that funding municipal services through crowdsourced donations was unsustainable.

“It’s true that the donations will meet the needs of things like paper and pencils–for the time being–but what about repairing and reopening hospitals, and paying employees’ salaries?” The NGO worker said, who spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. “The hospitals in Daara are in crisis right now.”

“How sustainable is this model, asking local residents to donate in order to keep services running?”

A Syrian government source who works in the municipal services sector in northern Daara told Syria Direct that the lack of service provision is a result “a scarcity of materials and equipment in state institutions currently.” He noted that there were “many challenges” standing in the way of a return to normal life in southern Syria.

On top of paying for their own municipal services, residents are burdened with a deteriorating economy, growing unemployment rate, and the cost of rebuilding their homes.

Russia remains focused on security

Russia, which negotiated a surrender with local rebels on behalf of the government in 2018, has failed to live up to promises it made to its opposition negotiating partners to assist Damascus in supplying municipal services.

In July of 2018, the Syrian government and its allied militias launched an offensive to wrest control of southern Syria from the opposition.

Observers expected a long battle for what was one of the last remaining opposition strongholds in the country, but the fighting was over within weeks. Rebel groups inked a series of localized peace deals with the Syrian government through Russian mediation, by which rebels turned over their areas to Damascus and laid down their weapons.

Under the peace deals, those rebels who remained were officially exonerated from crimes they committed while fighting the government’s forces. Those who refused the terms of the agreements left for opposition-controlled Idlib and Aleppo on government-provided buses.

During the negotiations, Russia tried to persuade negotiators and civil society organizations not to leave the area, local sources told Syria Direct.

A doctor based in Daara spoke to Syria Direct anonymously, saying, “the Russian leadership did a tour of medical facilities in the area and met with their staff, myself included. They advised us not to leave for Idlib, assuring us that we would be OK as the peace deal rolled out.”

“The Russian military officer told us bluntly: ‘No one go to Idlib. Whoever voluntarily participates in the peace deal will be satisfied with its terms, don’t worry.’ But we are still waiting for the Russians to fulfill the promises that they made.”

The Russians promised they would protect and provide for the medical facilities, said the doctor, “but the situation remains difficult for clinics and hospitals here, and the regime has no intention to improve the situation either.”

A medical team giving treatment and medicine to patients in al-Shaykh Maskin, a town in the Daara countryside. Source: The Local Daara Administration

Abu Khaled, the former Syria Interim Government Official, told Syria Direct that the hospital in his village of al-Tiba is barely functioning–there is a lack of doctors, medical services, and medicine.”

“Occasionally the government will send a car from the Red Crescent that stops in a public area to provide treatment, but it does not provide testing services for the sick.”

A member of the negotiating party in Tafas, who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, said that the Russians “listen to the complaints and needs of the people, without doing anything to fix them.”

“The Russians kept us aware of everything that’s going on in the area, but they could not do anything about the situation we’re in… They can’t even get us a ton of flour if they tried.”In Daara, the negotiators presented the Russian delegations with a list of complaints concerning the lack of services, but “that didn’t change a thing,” said a member of the Daara negotiating party.

Since the inking of the reconciliation deals, Russia’s presence in the area has been limited to dispatching military police patrols to protect civilians from violations committed by armed groups. The Military Police also intervene to resolve disputes at the behest of local residents.

Abd al-Atheem al-Saary, a resident in the eastern countryside of Daara province, recounted an incident that occurred in February 2019: a family with close ties to an officer in the Syrian Army’s 12th Brigade took over the house of a former commander in the Free Syrian Army, who goes by the name Abu Hani, in the village of Izraa.

Abu Hani “wasn’t able to get them to leave because they were under the protection of the 12th Brigade–they were former agents for the brigade–so the Russians intervened after Abu Hani complained to them. They clashed with soldiers from the 12th Brigade, and then returned his house to him about two months ago,” said al-Saary.

“There is no Russian police presence in my village, but if anyone complains to the Russians, they will get him justice,” he added.

The spokesman for the Center for Reconciliation, General Igor Federov, confirmed in February that residents of southern Syria have come to the Russian military police seeking mediation on numerous occasions. The problems they have been asked to solve include tracking down missing relatives, as well as resolving housing and real estate disputes, and residency issues.

Disparity in public services evident

Living conditions and the state of municipal services differ from city to city in southern Syria. In part, this a product of the peace deals whose terms were written ad hoc for each town and city–some of which have not yet been finalized. In addition, local sources told Syria Direct that the government appears to be neglecting service provision in certain strategic areas in order to encourage residents to leave.

One such area is the Yarmouk Basin. In July of 2018, Syrian government forces, in cooperation with the Syrian Free Army, conducted a military operation to eliminate IS from the fertile strip of territory located near the occupied Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Basin had been under the control of the Khalid bin Walid army, an IS affiliate that imposed strict Shariah law on the area from May 2016 until its capture in summer 2018. Today, the Yarmouk Basin has an even lower quality of life than nearby areas.

A former FSA military officer from the nearby town of Tafas described the situation in the Yarmouk Basin as “shameful.”

“There are no schools, no drinking water, no electricity, no health services,” the officer said. “All they have are a few small ovens that do not even work very well.”

Many of the area’s residents, especially those with children, fled to surrounding cities and towns due to the worsening quality of life, seeking better living standards.

“In addition, the army has expropriated a number of houses in the area for their own use,” the officer added

Sameer al-Saady, a journalist from the Syrian town of Tasil in Daraa province who is now based in Amman, Jordan, accused the Syrian government of “deliberately neglecting the Yarmouk Basin and depriving them of essential services.”

“The regime is restricting the services available to the area’s residents in order to force them out without directly taking action against them,” he told Syria Direct.

Al-Saady noted that there have been attempts by “Iranian-backed militias to enter and control the area” in Yarmouk Basin, a claim backed by open source reports, but one which Syria Direct has not been able to independently confirm.

Handover of rebel services to the government

During the rule of the opposition Syria Interim Government, there were a number of public works projects initiated inside opposition areas. For example, the Syria Interim Government attempted to create a new power plant to generate electricity in al-Ajami in Western Daara, and implemented a new project—dubbed “the revolution”—to improve the supply of potable and irrigation water.

“The service projects and institutions initiated during the rule of the Free Syrian Army were handed over to the Syrian government after it entered the area,” said the member of the negotiating party from Daraa, who requested anonymity.

“These projects are still operating,” he added, noting that credit for some of the existing services in the South should be attributed to the institutions and donors that operated in the area before the government took control.

With the reintroduction of government institutions in the area, a number of administrative problems, including patronate networks, have begun to surface once more. These issues have prompted the reconciled rebel brigades to reactivate old opposition institutions to complement service provision efforts, according to the negotiator.

“There have been some problems with the distribution of bread under the Syrian government-led municipality in Tafas, so we partially reconvened the old [opposition] local council to support the government municipality. As a result, bread distribution returned to its prior state.”

“We oversee the distribution of gas and emergency aid that is sent by the Red Crescent–when it reaches the area.”

“The regime is not doing anything for us,” concluded the negotiator from Daara. “Before the government entered the area, people got emergency aid from local and international NGOs, but now there is no such aid.”

Concurrent with government and Russian failures to provide municipal services in southern Syria, the area is also witnessing a string of assassinations targeting rebel commanders who reconciled with Damascus. The resulting sense of uncertainty and chaos has convinced the former rebel leader from Tafas that the South’s future is bleak.

“We’re going to live through some tough times,” he said.

“I know what’s in store for the South–the area will witness a blood bath.”

This investigation was supported by OPEN Media Hub, with funds provided by the European Union

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