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The state of Syria’s south: A month-long reporting series from Syria Direct

AMMAN: Half of Syria’s southernmost city, the provincial capital of […]

11 September 2017

AMMAN: Half of Syria’s southernmost city, the provincial capital of Daraa, sits in ruins. Thousands of homes and shops lie flattened, the targets of airstrikes and shelling from the summer’s battles.

In the towns and villages dotting the Daraa countryside, an estimated 30 percent of the province’s nearly one million residents are internally displaced. Most live in close quarters with extended family, or simply find refuge in tents and farm fields. Some are displaced from their homes for a second, or even third, time, with nowhere else to go.

A rural economy once reliant on agriculture is in shambles as near total regime control of Suwayda province, as well as roughly one third of neighboring Daraa province, blocks smuggled fuel and other goods from reaching impoverished civilians in opposition territory. Meanwhile, thousands of residents of Daraa’s southwestern corner live under the strict control of an Islamic State affiliate.

But despite the devastation, an unusual calm now presides over southern Syria. Just over two months into a Russian-, Jordanian- and US-backed ceasefire agreement, much of the fighting has come to a halt—at least temporarily.

Now is the time to step closer and explore the parties with a stake in southern Syria’s uncertain future—from farmers and displaced families trying to survive to armed groups and civil society leaders piecing together what comes next.

Daraa city’s southern districts in August. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed / AFP.

Over the course of the next month, Syria Direct, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is working with a team of five Syrian journalists on the ground in southern Syria—the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda—to both inform readers and teach aspiring young journalists to produce objective, well-rounded coverage of the war’s impact on their own communities.

Here is a primer to bring you up to speed on what is happening in Syria’s south.

Q: Are rebels and government forces currently fighting each other in the south? Isn’t the south part of the proposed “de-escalation” agreement?

Fighting between opposition and regime forces in southern Syria has cooled over the past two months following a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia, Jordan and the United States on July 9.

The agreement, originally announced at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany in early July, encompasses the provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda. It is not clear which rebel factions in southern Syria have signed on to the deal, nor what Washington and Moscow have promised their respective allies in the region. What is clear, however, is that the closed-door deal appears to have largely halted fighting between rebels and the Assad regime in southern Syria unlike previous attempts to end hostilities.

In May, Iran, Russia and Turkey brokered a truce that identified four “de-escalation zones” in different areas of the country, including a swath of land along the Syrian-Jordanian border made up of Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

Despite the de-escalation zones coming into effect in May of this year, major battles between the regime and rebels for control of Daraa city continued until the separate July 9 ceasefire agreement, leaving the provincial capital’s southern districts in ruins after a battle that saw almost no territory change hands. Major fighting has not resumed since the July ceasefire came into effect.

Q: Will Jordan ever reopen its border crossings with Syria? 

Six years of civil war in Syria have deeply affected its southern neighbor, Jordan. Thousands of Jordanians in border towns lost their jobs after the lucrative trade route between Amman and Damascus slowed in 2011, and then stopped completely with the closing of the Naseeb border crossing in early 2015. Jordan, a country of 10 million people, is now home to an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees return to Daraa from Jordan in August 2017. Photo courtesy Nabaa Media Foundation.

Leery of violence spilling into its territory, Jordan continues to lobby the United States to defend its border with Syria and, further east, Iraq. Amman has also armed and trained so-called moderate, vetted rebel factions active in the fight against the Assad regime and the Islamic State in southern Syria—resulting in a cooling of diplomatic relations with Damascus.

In a rare interview last December, Jordanian Brigadier General Ahmad Freihat discussed the possibility of restarting trade along the highway between Amman and Damascus. If the Syrian military were able to recapture the border zone and remove hardline Islamist factions from the area, Freihat told BBC Arabic, Amman would be quick to reopen its borders and resume regular trade between the two countries.

Prior to 2011, the Damascus-Amman trade route was worth billions of dollars annually. As Jordan struggles economically and the Syrian government recaptures territory along the border, Freihat and other high-ranking officials’ statements indicate that Amman may be aiming to normalize ties with Damascus and resurrect trade in the region.

Until then, Jordan’s 350-kilometer-long northern border with Syria remains a closed-off, heavily guarded military zone where civilians and traders are officially barred from crossing.

Q: What should an informed reader know about Suwayda province? How does the minority Druze sect fit into the civil war?

Suwayda is a regime-controlled, Druze-majority province along the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Druze, a minority in Syria whose religious practices remain closely guarded among themselves, are largely centered in Suwayda province. Despite the presence of high-profile religious figures in the province who oppose the Syrian regime, pragmatic Druze political leadership remains largely neutral and focused on internal affairs.

Though officially under regime control, much of Suwayda’s civil and military authority comes from within. A host of homegrown political and military factions hold sway inside the province, mainly focused on defending it from outside attackers.

One well-known armed faction, the Men of Dignity—led by Druze cleric Abu Fahad al-Balous until his still-unclaimed assassination in September 2015—acts as a local police force and repels outside attacks.

The Men of Dignity advocate for a so-called ‘third way’—calling for reform without actively opposing the Assad regime.

Abu Fahad al-Balous, second from left, and other members of the Sheikhs of Dignity in Suwayda. Photo courtesy of Men of Dignity.

Q: What about Israel? What is its role in southern Syria?

Along Syria’s farthest southwestern reaches, the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights shares 80 kilometers of borderline with Quneitra province, and to a lesser extent, Daraa province. The majority of the border is held on the Syrian side in Quneitra by anti-Assad rebel forces, with whom the Israeli government has quietly pursued a policy of building and maintaining contact.

The stakes for Israel, with regard to the Islamist scene on its doorstep, are relatively low. Rebel militias, including the Islamic State-affiliated Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed, operate across the border with vastly inferior military capabilities, and generally view Israel as even a lesser evil than Assad and his allies. Antagonizing Israel outright in the Golan is not a priority, while defending from Assad is.

Meanwhile, Israel appears invested in maintaining a state of relative calm along its border, and preventing hostile pro-regime militias such as Hezbollah from amassing along the Golan, particularly as Assad’s army makes gains elsewhere across the country.

For residents of the towns and villages lining the Syrian side of the Golan in Quneitra, Israel’s tacit cooperation with local rebels means as many as 3,000 war-wounded and sick individuals have been transported across the border for treatment since the beginning of the war. They enter via the Qahtaniyah crossing, which is controlled on the Syrian side by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham-affiliated rebels.

But as Assad’s forces make significant victories elsewhere in Syria, and sit poised to continue seizing territory in the eastern desert, it is unclear whether the Syrian regime will amass the forces required to reclaim territory in Quneitra—an effort that would threaten an already precarious equilibrium and test Israel’s relationship with rebels along its border.

Q: What kind of threat do Islamic State-affiliated groups pose to Jordan and Israel? Who is actually trying to counter IS in southern Syria?

In May 2016, local Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk merged with ideologically similar allies, bringing roughly 200 square kilometers of the the Yarmouk river basin in Syria’s farthest southwest corner under the control of the newly minted, hardline Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) militia.

A neighborhood in southern Daraa city in August, destroyed by shelling. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

For thousands of residents in the towns and villages within JKW’s territory, rule by the IS affiliate means life under strict, Islamic State-inspired laws—including cages for people caught smoking, and cutting off the hands of accused thieves.

One Yarmouk basin resident in January told Syria Direct of civilians beheaded by sword for charges of sorcery and other perceived violations of Islamic law—measures similar to those taken in other areas of Syria under Islamic State control.

In February, JKW fighters drove Free Syrian Army-affiliated fighters from two rebel-held towns adjacent to their territory in a surprise advance, proving its weight against more moderate opposition militias in the area. Since then, neither side has made a significant advance.

But despite its military successes earlier this year, JKW poses little imminent threat for Jordan and Israel. The Yarmouk Basin’s terrain keeps JKW backed into a corner, separated from the Golan Heights and Jordanian territory by the Yarmouk River, which surrounds the group on two sides.

A series of airstrikes likely carried out by Jordan or Israel this past June also killed a handful of JKW officials gathered for meetings, suggesting both a significant breach of the group’s intelligence and a lack of urgency on the part of neighboring countries to fight JKW on the ground. 

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