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Protests in Daraa: Russia absent as Damascus weaponizes ‘tribal schisms’

With the arrival of the corpse to the graveyard in the old city of Daraa al-Balad in southern Syria, the wails of mourners quickly rose to a crescendo.

5 February 2020

AMMAN — With the arrival of the corpse to the graveyard in the old city of Daraa al-Balad in southern Syria, the wails of mourners quickly rose to a crescendo. The streets were consumed by chants of mourners demanding the downfall of “Bashar al-Assad’s regime” and “death, not humiliation.” The scenes invoked memories of the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, when demonstrators carried the first coffin almost nine years ago through the streets of the very same city.

On January 25, hundreds of people in Daraa al-Balad carried the body of Muhammad Ismail Abazaid, who was found dead one day earlier after he was kidnapped for five days by the Political Security branch. As two residents of Daraa al-Balad explained to Syria Direct, his killing was the security services’ “response to our demands.”

Abazaid’s body was found dumped on the side of the road in the al-Arbaien neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad, with a bullet lodged in his head. The next day, people of Daraa city organized a protest in his name, demanding the immediate release of detainees, a halt to the continuous arrests and an end to the chaotic security environment in the area. 

A return to protests

In the summer of 2018, government forces reestablished full control over southern Syria, taking many by surprise. Just days before the government’s final assault to retake the south, supported by Russian airpower, opposition factions in the area had been provided military and logistical support from the United States and its allies in the region. The opposition groups also received reassurances by the United States that southern Syria would remain secure, especially in the wake of government forces and its allied militias taking control of other areas in the provinces of Reef Dimashq and Homs. 

Nevertheless, following the beginning of the government’s military campaign to retake the south, the United States was quick to notify opposition factions that it was cutting off its support, leaving them “to face their fate alone.”

Under Russian supervision, opposition factions of “The Southern Front” – an umbrella organization for most armed opposition groups in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra – were forced to negotiate with the Syrian government over the terms of Damascus’ control over the south.

Among the terms included in the “reconciliation agreement” were the release of detainees and disclosure of their whereabouts, giving amnesty to dissidents and opponents and the return of state institutions and services to cities and towns. Members of the opposition armed groups were also allowed to keep their light weaponry in order to protect the area. Most of them went on to join government-backed militias, security services, and the army’s Fourth Division.

Despite the agreement, Damascus did not seem interested in supporting regional stability during its first month of rule over southern Syria. Arrests of opposition members continued and their property was confiscated and seized, further motivating continuing and mounting popular discontent. 

On the other hand, “the youth of the south, since the very early days of the reconciliation, did not join the compulsory and reserve military service. They refused to go to the security branches [to settle their status],” according to Muhammad Abu Mazen (a psuedonym), a journalist living in the western countryside of Daraa province. He told Syria Direct that the protests evolved into “writing slogans on the walls of government buildings, demanding the release of detainees and the withdrawal of Iranian militias.”

The writings on the wall were met by increased arrests; residents even accused the government forces and security services of carrying out assassinations. Civilians responded by intensifying their protests, organizing a “rapid night demonstration” and raising the same slogans written on walls. Later, they burned pictures of Bashar al-Assad and shot at government military checkpoints positioned throughout towns and cities.  

The protests in southern Syria did not take a uniform pattern, but rather, differed “depending on the security grip and the ability of the regime to enter the area,” noted lawyer Adnan al-Masalmah, one of the notables of Daraa city. He explained to Syria Direct that in areas where security forces have been deployed, “it is natural that protests are adopting clandestine methods, such as [protestors] covering their faces to protect their lives.” Whereas protests are “more audacious, less restrained and less secretive in areas where there are no regime elements.”

Sites of most notable protests in Daraa (5/11/2019 – 19/1/2020)

The reconciliation agreements reached in 2018 granted a certain degree of “autonomy” to many areas formerly under the control of armed opposition groups in Daraa. These groups kept their weapons, and military forces and security services were not allowed to enter those areas and move within them as they pleased.

As a result, residents of those areas attained a “type of freedom and independence, being able to express their views and protest in different ways – either through staging demonstrations, organizing sit-ins, or writing on walls, as is the case of the city of Tafas, Daraa al-Balad, and the city of Busra al-Sham, east of Daraa,” a source close to the negotiation committee of the city of Busra al-Sham told Syria Direct, under the condition of anonymity for security reasons. As for the towns of Mhajjah and Saida, they do not enjoy such freedoms “because of the security grip” of the regime, the source added.

At the same time, the prevalence of protests does not necessarily correspond to the level of presence of the government forces in a given city or town. There are several other contributing factors such as “people’s audacity, organizational capacity and skill, and [levels of] mutual trust between demonstrators,” according to a source close to the negotiation committee in the town of Kanakir.

Protests are also affected by “multiple divergent loyalties [to internal and external actors], different political currents, as well as internal hostilities between townspeople,” the same source told Syria Direct. He added that “the absence of different [political] currents and loyalties in the town of Kanakir, [for example], makes it easier to come out with sit-ins and [other] activities.” 

Types of protests

In the period between November 2019 and January 2020, Syria Direct documented 102 separate protests, which have spread from Daraa province to western Reef Dimashq. Expressions of dissent have taken different forms, ranging from sit-ins, blocking of roads and writing protest slogans on public property, to coordinated attacks on government forces present in southern Syria.

Sites of most notable protests in Daraa, by type of protest (05/11/19 – 19/01/20)

As the above map shows, the town of al-Sanamayn in northern Daraa province has been the site of numerous protests and three attacks against government forces and security services. Government and security checkpoints were attacked by unknown assailants. Casualty figures remain unknown.

The city of Tafas in western Daraa province and town of Mia’rbah, followed by Daraa city and Eastern Karak, were the most active sites for demonstrations during the seven-month period.  Whereas the towns of Mia’rbah and Busra al-Sham in eastern Daraa, and the cities of Tafas and Mazirbib in west Daraa, as well as Daraa city, have been the most active sites of sit-ins. Generally, these protests have focused on demanding the release of prisoners arrested by the regime.

Sit-ins have taken two forms. In the first form, protesters gather in public places to express their demands through chants or protest signage. The second is “secret protests,” where protesters meet under the cover of darkness, concealing their faces and holding up signs so that they can document and circulate their protests through social media without fear of retaliation at the hands of the security services. The latter mostly occur in areas where there is a stronger government presence and a stronger possibility that security forces will conduct home raids, arrests, assassinations and forced disappearances.

Also, popular protests have spread from Daraa province to the western countryside of Damascus. The first “secret” sit-in was organized by young people in the village of Kanakir on December 2, 2019. It was followed by an open sit-in on December 16, where elders, women, and children “demanded the release of detainees and a disclosure of their whereabouts, and nothing else,” a media activist close to the village’s reconciliation committee told Syria Direct.

An absent guarantor 

Even though Russia is the guarantor of the “reconciliation” process and the subsequent deals that have allowed Damascus to reclaim southern Syria in July 2018, it seems like Moscow is “unaware of the situation [on the ground],” lawyer al-Masalmah said. “They think everything is fine, in contrast to what we’ve been trying to tell them,” he added, “as a result of corrupt Russian generals who twist the facts to fit the needs of the [Syrian] regime.”

According to a negotiator from west Daraa who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, “Russia’s role is clearly lessening, due to forged reports from the regime, in addition to the increasing Russo-Iranian conflict in southern Syria.” Still, he clarified that this doesn’t signify a “complete end to Russia’s role,” pointing to Russia’s recent mediation between the regime and the representatives of the town of Nahta to release two regime soldiers who had been kidnapped there.

Damascus’ stance

The source close to the reconciliation committee of Busra al-Sham emphasized that in general, there have been no “clashes between regime forces and the protesters” in Daraa province. However, the source did not rule out the possibility of the regime “kidnapping or assassinating those that play a [key] role in the protests.”

The source from Kanakir expressed a similar sentiment, saying that while “the regime is unable to break up the protests with force, home raids or the direct arrest of participants,” its response might come “through sectarian militias in the area.” He pointed to recent “threats from Iranian [militias] to carry out assassinations.”

He added that “many assassinations of members of the opposition and people loyal to the government have been carried out,” explaining that this has been done to create an internal conflict within Kanakir. The source gave an example of the recent assassination of a government-affiliated member of the Kanakir reconciliation committee. “Those loyal to the government accused revolutionaries of the assassination and clashes broke out between militants from both sides [affiliated with the opposition and the government].”

Future scenarios 

It appears that the Syrian government and its Russian ally are not interested in heeding the demands of protestors to release detainees or reveal their fates. There is a possibility that the disclosure of information on the vast number of detainees who perished under torture at the hands of security services and government forces would constitute an additional burden that Russia may seek to avoid. Such a complication could negatively impact its political strategy in Syria, a strategy based on propping up the Syrian regime. 

At the same time, according to the July 2018 reconciliation agreements, Damascus “is unable to [engage in] military escalation by launching large military operations” in Daraa province, al-Masalmah said. The alternative would be for the “regime to provoke a tribal conflict that could pave the way for a civil war,” he added, as well as “tighten its security grip and [carry out] assassinations in areas it is not allowed to enter, through its those militias that constitute part of its security services.”

However, the fact that Damascus is disregarding the demands of protestors and dealing with protestors violently will most likely lead to “an increase in military operations that target government forces and their allied militias,” according to the negotiator from western countryside of Daraa. He went on to add that “this could drag the region into a new war.” 

“The regime tried to manage the areas that it entered as a result of the reconciliation process by recruiting some [residents into its forces] and granting privileges to others,” al-Masalmah said. However, “everything is insufficient because the real demands remain unmet. There are continuing [demands] that we cannot overlook until they are fulfilled.”

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou and Rohan Advani.

This article reflects minor changes made on 06/02/2020 at 11:30 AM.

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