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The short arm of the law: Daraa police absent or constrained

Most of Daraa’s cities and towns have no police stations nearly six years after returning to Damascus’ control. Where police are present, they have limited powers or work under the watchful eyes of settlement factions.

11 July 2024

PARIS — The police station in Inkhil, a city in the north of Syria’s southern Daraa province, lies in ruins. In April, Farouq al-Hammadi, a member of the Syrian People’s Assembly, tried to change that. Meeting with notables, he asked them to organize a fundraising campaign to repair the building.

Over the six years since Inkhil returned to regime control, al-Hammadi, and other figures affiliated with the central government in Damascus, have repeatedly asked residents of the city to fund the repairs. Each time, the response has been a firm no, local civilian sources told Syria Direct. To this day, there are no police based in Inkhil.

The same is true of most of Daraa’s cities and towns, six years after a Russian-sponsored 2018 settlement agreement returned the province to regime control and, at the same time, returned its public institutions. Where police do exist in the province, their authority is limited. In some areas, they only operate under the watchful eye of local settlement factions. 

In Syria, the police—the Internal Security Forces—are a subsidiary of the armed forces, responsible for maintaining internal security in coordination with the Minister of Interior. Police stations belong administratively to a provincial Police Command, which itself falls under the Ministry of Interior, and represent it at the provincial level. 

Police stations are supposed to represent the Internal Security Forces in their jurisdictions, playing a role in maintaining security and public order, preventing and controlling crime and protecting public and personal freedoms. They also take citizens’ complaints and deliver official notices, such as conscription letters. 

No police station

Five months ago, a fight broke out between 28-year-old Rami Abu Qassim and a group of his relatives in Inkhil over an agricultural land dispute. Because his city has no police station, Abu Qassim had to file a complaint at the criminal security branch in al-Sanamayn, a city around 13 kilometers away in the northern Daraa countryside. 

Going to al-Sanamayn to make the report meant risking his safety. While the city is relatively nearby, Abu Qassim had to cross through regime checkpoints to get there. Because he is wanted for compulsory military service, he risked being extorted or detained if personnel station at the checkpoints closely scrutinized those crossing through.

“I didn’t have any other option,” he said. “My relatives refused to comply with the clan and sharia solution, and continued to harm members of my family,” he told Syria Direct

Police officers withdrew from the Inkhil police station in 2013, the same time that regime forces pulled out of the city and opposition forces took control. Police were supposed to return, alongside other institutions, after the 2018 settlement agreement. However, the stationed was completely destroyed in a 2016 suicide bombing that targeted opposition officials.

Instead, officers assigned to Inkhil work from al-Sanamayn. Their role is limited to ‘“handing over some documents or notices to Inkhil’s mukhtars [neighborhood administrative chiefs], who deliver them on their behalf,” Abu Hassan, who lives in the city, told Syria Direct. 

“We don’t have a state, and the police officers want someone to protect them,” he added sarcastically. Police “come to the mukhtars’ houses in the morning, hand over what they have then go back” to al-Sanamayn.

Many police stations in Daraa operate out of main city centers, outside their jurisdiction and far from the populations they serve. Officers assigned to the eastern Daraa village of Umm Walad, for example, work out of al-Musayfra, a city 10 kilometers away that it administratively belongs to. 

“People are forced to go to al-Musayfra to carry out any procedure that requires a police document,” Umm Walad resident Ibrahim Muhammad (a pseudonym) said. 

Officers at the Umm Walad station in al-Musayfra only “handle reports and complaints, [complete] the procedures for replacing lost identification papers and issue warrants,” he said. “The station can’t arrest anyone, and everybody knows that. The purpose of filing a complaint is for the person’s name to be circulated, restricting their movement.”

“Police capabilities are weak. These officers are the weakest in authority,” Abu Muhammad, a former opposition military commander in Daraa, said. “Often, police officers are used to put pressure on the regime to meet certain demands people have, such as releasing a detainee or breaking a siege, or to deter it from launching a campaign it intends to carry out,” he said. 

This past December, local factions in the northern Daraa city of Jassim detained police officers and members of the military security detachment in response to the regime imposing a siege on the city and threatening military action against it.

“The regime currently tries to have a sovereign presence in major areas and cities, and this requires more authority to control them and manage their affairs,” he said. This comes at the expense of “smaller population centers, which are not of interest to it, where its presence is surface level or virtually nonexistent,” the former commander added. 

Abu Muhammad likened Daraa’s police stations at the moment to “civil institutions, like the civil registry,” noting that they “do not carry out their real functions.” Instead, “90 percent” of interpersonal problems are resolved through local clans or factions, he added. 

Read more: Daraa residents turn to clan reconciliation over the court system

‘Limited’ role

When the 2018 settlement agreement was signed, residents of the Daraa al-Balad neighborhoods of Daraa city asked Damascus to bring in a police station to “manage people’s affairs,” which was done. Today, there is a police station in the former opposition stronghold, although “the regime has tried to withdraw it several times due to security tensions that took place,” one notable in the city told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

One such instance came when the regime launched a military operation against Daraa al-Balad in 2021. “After that, they tried to permanently withdraw the precinct, if not for the intervention of the notables and the Central Committee,” he said.

Daraa’s Central Committees are bodies formed following the 2018 settlement agreement to negotiate with Damascus and administer the area. The Central Committee in Daraa city dissolved itself in the summer of 2021.

“The station’s work is limited to writing reports regarding lost official documents so a replacement can be issued, or removing the dead [from the civil registry], alongside other measures that require a police report,” the notable added. “They do not intervene in anything outside the police station building,” to the point that they “cannot leave the station to make an arrest or serve an official notice.” 

Instead of the police, Daraa al-Balad residents rely on clan reconciliation processes—“the clan solution”—to solve many issues, while a small number of cases are settled “through the courts,” he said. 

The same is true of Jassim, 57 kilometers to the north. Its station’s role is limited to “writing legal documents for official transactions people need to complete their legal procedures,” Abu Hussam, a former opposition commander in the city, told Syria Direct

“The settlement factions and negotiating committees bar the station’s forces from going out and roaming around the city. They also prevent them from taking complaints, arresting or jailing anybody,” he added. The police “have no authority to intervene in the city’s affairs.” 

Last year, in one operation aimed at pressuring the regime to release detainees, local military groups in Jassim detained dozens of members of the local military security branch and police station. In response, Damascus “tried to withdraw the station from the city several times,” as it did with the military security branch under an agreement with local armed groups. Local forces refused to allow the removal of the police station, which “serves us—we need it for many bureaucratic transactions,” Abu Hussam said. 

On the sidelines

Perhaps most strange is the situation in Tafas, north of Daraa city. There, the Central Committee reached an informal agreement with Damascus under which civilian police officers are present—stationed at a military barracks—but have no authority to directly interact with civilians. Rather, local factions in Tafas operate two unofficial stations under the committee’s authority. 

The stations belong to two rival military groups. The first belongs to former opposition military commander Abu Murshid al-Bardan, while the second belongs to the al-Zoubi family. Both stations are staffed by former police officers from Tafas. 

The stations take residents’ complaints and write reports related to the loss of official documents, alongside other tasks usually performed by police officers in regime stations. Then, the police officers in the military barracks stamp and sign the documents, making them legally recognized within regime institutions, according to intersecting information Syria Direct obtained from two Tafas residents. 

“All problems in Tafas are solved through the Central Committee or the [clan] reconciliation committee made up of sheikhs, and don’t go to the regime,” one source close to the Central Committee in the western Daraa countryside said. 

“A citizen does not have to deal directly with regime institutions, even for transactions that require the police,” he added. “The Central Committee’s station writes the report, then communicates with the regime police to sign and seal it, without the citizen going to the station.” 

Busra al-Sham, in eastern Daraa, has a regime police station alongside a security committee affiliated with the 8th Brigade—a local military group led by a former opposition commander and affiliated with Syrian military security—that is responsible for protecting the city.

“The police station is allowed to do everything in terms of administrative and identification document services, but not to arrest, detain or intervene to resolve problems between people,” a media source close to the 8th Brigade told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

The police station “cannot do anything, even if a complaint is filed with it,” the source said. “People’s disputes, problems and rights are resolved through the clan [reconciliation] committee, backed by the 8th Brigade.” 

Even the regime-affiliated police station itself “works under our management,” an 8th Brigade commander told Syria Direct, refusing to further clarify his force’s role in its operations. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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