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Wave of new Daraa settlements amid Arab normalization efforts

A wave of new settlements in Daraa is part of a series of recent actions in the southern province by Damascus—including pursuing drug smugglers and shifting the local balance of power—that coincide with increasing regional normalization efforts.

9 June 2023

PARIS — Videos posted on social media in recent days showed large numbers of young men lining up in front of the Qasr al-Houriyat government building in Daraa city, waiting to settle their statuses—wanted by the state or in default of military service—as part of the latest settlement process launched by Damascus in the southern Syrian province.

Since the Syrian regime regained control of Daraa in the summer of 2018, the southern province has seen many similar settlements. The latest initiative, however, offers new benefits to those settling their status, including the possibility of obtaining travel permits and a passport, at a time when leaving Syria has become a dream for many young people due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation, local sources told Syria Direct

The wave of new Daraa settlements, which began on May 16, is part of a series of recent actions in the southern province by Damascus and its affiliated groups that include pursuing drug smugglers and shifting the local balance of power. It also comes amid increased Arab normalization efforts, which culminated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attending the Arab League Summit in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah on May 19, prompting some to link events in the province with changing regional variables. 

On May 1, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq held a consultative meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman. The ministers came out with a “step-for-step” methodology focused on security issues rather than a political transition in Syria, based on the release of detainees, return of refugees and the fight against drugs and terrorism. Jordan announced a similar initiative earlier this year.

Latest settlements

On June 1, the Damascus-affiliated Security Committee in Daraa province informed community and neighborhood leaders in the province’s cities and towns that young men needed to begin settling their statuses from June 3 to June 8 at the Qasr al-Houriyat government building in Daraa city. 

The notice was the latest in a series of new settlements launched by Damascus on May 16, three days before the Arab League Summit, when the local branch of Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate began to settle the statuses of dozens of young men from the eastern Daraa town of Um al-Mayadhin. 

The settlement was carried out under the auspices of the 8th Brigade, which provided a list of men in Um al-Mayadhin required to undergo the settlement and stipulated the handover of a number of individual weapons. If they did not comply, the town would be stormed and those refusing the settlement would be expelled. 

The 8th Brigade is a local military group commanded by former opposition Southern Front commander Ahmed al-Awda. It was part of the Russian-backed 5th Corps until September 2021, when its affiliation was transferred to Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate. 

According to the official Facebook page of the Arab Socialist Baath Party Brigades in Daraa, the new settlements are part of “directives and a good deed by President Bashar al-Assad” aimed at conducting a comprehensive settlement “for all those who wish to return to their normal lives.” Those included are Daraa residents who did not complete their mandatory military service, deserted from the military or were implicated in other security or military issues such as “taking up arms.”

The Daraa settlements are led by Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, head of the military security branch in southern Syria. So far, they have reached the areas of al-Naima, Mahja, Kafr Shams, Ghabab, Qita, Muthabin, Nasib and al-Lajat, as well as the cities of Inkhil and al-Sanamayn.

On May 30, Damascus opened a temporary center at the headquarters of the 9th Division in al-Sanamayn city to conduct settlement processes for applicants from the northern Daraa countryside. 

Individuals settling their status are being given a six-month period to join the military if they have not completed compulsory service or reserves duty. Defectors have one month to rejoin their military units. All those who settle their status are allowed to obtain permission to leave the country, according to Abu Ahmad, 28, who settled his status in his hometown of Inkhil at the end of May. 

“Commanders in the 8th Brigade told us that the current settlement is the last one, and all those who do not join the military before the grace period ends will be considered wanted by the state,” Abu Ahmad said. This prompted him to complete the settlement to buy time to “get a passport to leave the country, fleeing military service,” he said, requesting anonymity for security reasons.

“The incentives provided by the regime to Daraa’s people are a step to encourage them to leave the country,” lawyer Suleiman al-Qurfan, the former head of the Daraa Free Lawyers Association, said. “Linking this settlement to granting new benefits, such as obtaining passports and travel permits” leads “many young men to make the settlement in the hopes of obtaining travel documents and leaving the country legally, after living in it has become virtually impossible,” he added.

8th Brigade weakened?

At the beginning of May, a meeting was held in al-Sanamayn attended by Major General Mufid al-Hassan, head of the regime’s Daraa Security Committee, and Brigadier General Louay al-Ali. The head of the military security branch in the city, nicknamed Abu Hassan, also attended, alongside other officers and community leaders from the city of Inkhil. 

A number of 8th Brigade commanders were also present, as those partially responsible for the settlement, one notable from Inkhil who attended the meeting told Syria Direct. They included Colonel Nasim Abu Ara, the brigade’s chief of staff, and his deputy, Captain Abdulhakim al-Eid, who is responsible for its group in Inkhil.

The meeting “discussed the security situation in Inkhil and achieving the conditions of the latest reconciliation between the regime and the people, in addition to improving electricity and water services and implementing major projects in the city,” the notable said. 

“The regime officers stipulated the withdrawal of all weapons in the city as a condition of the settlement and correcting the statuses of deserters and those who have not completed military service,” he added. Another condition was “the 8th Brigade group and its commander leaving the city,” which most of the notables and community leaders refused. 

While the 8th Brigade is affiliated with the regime, it serves as a safety valve, “maintaining the city’s security and service institutions, recovering stolen goods, resolving interpersonal disputes and preventing [Islamic State] IS elements from entering Inkhil,” the source added. 

The regime issued a list of 116 names of men from Inkhil who were required to undergo the settlement and hand over weapons to the military security committee, he added. Some of the names on the list were members of the 8th Brigade in Inkhil. Because the brigade objected to the list, “the number of those who must hand over weapons was reduced to around 60 percent,” the source said. “Most of the weapons approved to be handed over belong to groups opposed to the 8th Brigade that previously clashed with it, some of which are affiliated with state security and military security.” 

On March 26, armed clashes broke out between the 8th Brigade in Inkhil and the state security-affiliated Hayek family group. The 8th Brigade accused the latter of being involved in robberies, banditry and drug trafficking.

Arab normalization efforts

Recent Daraa settlements, attempts to strip weapons and operations against drug smugglers come amid increasing Arab normalization efforts. Some Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, are attempting to influence the Syrian regime’s behavior to preserve their own national security. 

Prior to the “step-for-step” methodology from the Saudi, Egyptian, Iraqi and Jordanian foreign ministers, Amman presented the United States (US) with a “non-paper” plan: an informal Jordanian vision for dealing with Syria. It proposed dealing with Syria on the basis of changing the regime’s behavior gradually by granting it incentives in exchange for Damascus taking specific measures. These included stopping Iranian influence in Damascus and implementing Security Council Resolution 2254 regarding a political settlement in Syria. 

Damascus has not openly linked the latest Daraa settlements to the course of regional politics. However, they appear “to be within the framework of a step-for-step methodology provided to the regime by Arab countries that brought it back into the Arab League,” al-Qurfan said. 

Abu Muhammad, a former Southern Front commander in the northern Daraa countryside, agreed with al-Qurfan. Damascus’ recent moves in Daraa—whether settlements or going after drug smugglers—are a “message to Arab countries that the regime is fighting the drug trade, trying to extend security in the Houran [Daraa], and stopping insecurity through settlements and withdrawing weapons,” he told Syria Direct

“In fact, the regime has raided drug traffickers who are trying to work for their own personal interests apart from it, so it decided to get rid of them,” Abu Muhammad added, asking not to be identified by his full name for security reasons. He referred to raids conducted by two local militias led by former opposition commanders Imad Abu Zureiq and Mustafa al-Masalmeh, also known as al-Kasm, against accused drug traffickers in the eastern Daraa countryside, including Rafea al-Ruwais.

Notably, both commanders participating in pursuing drug traffickers are also accused of trafficking and dealing drugs. Abu Zureiq and al-Masalmeh were added to US and European sanctions lists for their involvement this past March. 

“The drug trade will not stop in Daraa,” Abu Muhammad said. “The settlements remain superficial, and without a political solution and the release of the detainees, security chaos in the Houran will not stop.” 

Al-Qurfan was also skeptical. “The Arabs will realize later that these settlements are not a step of reform, and cannot be considered part of the step-for-step methodology,” he said. Rather, in his view, the latest settlements aim at “emptying Syria’s south of its young men by expelling them.” 

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

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