The Syrian Daraa province is experiencing escalating tension amidst a fragile security situation and a multiplicity of actors with conflicting goals and policies. While the province is subject to a settlement deal based on a Russian guarantorship, a US understanding and regional support, the security situation in the province is prone to explosion in light of the severe security chaos, liquidations and unidentified assassinations. This warns of muddying the waters in a particularly sensitive area in view of its geographic location at the borders with Israel and Jordan and at the vicinity of Damascus, the capital of the Syrian decision.
Massive military build-up
In the second week of May 2020, Daraa province witnessed the arrival of massive military convoys including dozens of armoured vehicles, tanks and personnel carriers headed for Western Daraa Countryside and Daraa al-Balad area, belonging to the Fourth Division and the Radwan forces (Hezbollah’s elite force), in addition to a military buildup from the fifth and ninth military divisions whose headquarters are located in the province and which are accused by area residents of being loyal to Iran in view of the existence of pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah officers and commanders in those two divisions.
This buildup has come against an operation in which operatives from the “Taswiyat” (settlement) factions stormed the Mezairib police station in the Western Daraa Countryside and executed nine policemen in retaliation for the kidnapping by regime troops of two faction operatives and executing them. These developments coincided with assassinations of regime officers in the security agencies and the army in the Eastern and Western Daraa Countrysides.
Many areas in Daraa have also witnessed demonstrations calling for the exit of regime forces and their adherence to the settlement deal signed in the Hmeimim airbase under Russian guarantorship in June 2018 whereby military operations were halted and Syrian regime troops were allowed to stay in most areas of the province after six years of being under the control of opposition factions.
A fragile deal
The settlement deal signed by the Syrian regime in Daraa province is different from the other deals that took place in the other so-called “de-escalation zones” in Ghouta and al-Rastan, and earlier in Homs and Western Ghouta. This is due to the presence of influential regional and international players, in addition to the social composition of the province which is characterized by an interrelated tribal nature, its common borders with Jordan and Israel, and the existence of US and Israeli interests therein. The armed opposition factions in this area have been associated with the US-led Military Operations Center (MOC).
This interrelationship has reflected on the settlement deal that was guaranteed by Russia based on an understanding with the other parties and Russia’s pledge that war will not return to this area, that Iranian militias will be kept out of it, that opposition factions will be part of the security and military composition in the province, and that local powers will assume a role in running their areas. Consequently, Russia formed the “8th Brigade”, led by Ahmad al-Oda, within the ranks of the 5th Corps. Some opposition factions in Daraa al-Balad and Western Daraa Countryside kept their light weapons while regime troops would refrain from entering those areas or be kept out of them. The Central Committee in Horan was also set up. It is an umbrella that encompasses dignitaries, former commanders of the military opposition and clergymen from the province whose task is to coordinate with the regime’s security committee and representatives of the Russian army.
This deal seems to disagree with the interests of the Syrian regime and Iran and its arms in the region which seek to regain full control of the strategically located province in terms of its position as the gateway to the Arabian Gulf and the borders with Israel. They seek to evade the settlement deal and put pressure on Russia and force it to opt for decisive military action against factions in the region.
Security and economic conditions
The security situation in Daraa is characterized by fragility and complexity mainly as a result of the multiplicity of players and the diversity of their references and goals. The province is witnessing a noticeable polarization among Russian and Iranian tools. While the 5th Corps and the Military Security are loyal to Russia, the 4th Division, led by Maher al-Assad, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate are loyal to Iran. Those powers engage in a hidden conflict for control and influence in those areas. Recruiting Taswiyat operatives is one of the areas of competition between those powers. While Russia seeks to expand the cadre of the 5th Corps and transform it into a force parallel to Iran’s militias and its arms in the region, Iran seeks to recruit the largest number of those operatives. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Iran has managed to recruit nearly five thousand operatives in the last few months through the so-called “al-Areen Companies of the 313 Brigade”.
Syrian activists and jurists accuse Iranian arms of orchestrating chaos-raising operations and assassinations with a view to undermining the settlement deal with opposition factions, especially the Military Security branch which is said to have established relations with drug and arms dealers and real estate agents and recruited numerous operatives who seek to target stability and security in the province. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between the time of signing the settlement deal in the summer of 2018 and April 2020, a total of 352 successful and 32 failed assassinations were carried out in Daraa province. None of the perpetrators of all those operations has been arrested and the perpetrators were considered unidentified. Those operations targeted personnel of the regime troops and Russian patrols, “reconciliations” (musalahat) operatives, and former faction commanders.
The economic factor plays a significant role in escalating the state of chaos and instability where the province has a high rate of unemployment, exceeding the rates recorded in other Syrian areas. Agricultural production, which is the main economic factor in the province, has greatly slowed down. According to the results of the 2017 Food Security Survey jointly carried out by the Syrian government and the World Food Programme (WFP), the rate of the food insecure in Daraa province reached 42.5 percent. Furthermore, nearly 40.4 percent of the province residents are at risk of being food insecure. This risk may well have materialized in light of the recent wave of price spikes, exceeding 100 percent for many commodities.
The majority of Daraa’s economic problems are attributable to the regime’s retaliatory policies against the province where security clampdowns prevent a large number of young people from moving to the capital and other areas for work; tradesmen are prevented from purchasing goods from other provinces; and the security and military checkpoints spread out across the province serve to impose royalties on incoming goods to the province which contributes to doubling their already high prices.
The province’s control areas are distributed among four main powers:
The 5th Corps: the 8th Brigade of the Russian-backed 5th Corps controls a part of east Daraa areas, surrounding the city of Busra al-Sham, and prevents Iran’s militias from penetrating those areas which are characterized by stability and the availability of services, water and electricity.
Pro-Iranian militias and forces: those powers are concentrated in parts of east and north Horan. They are represented by the 4th Division and the Air Force Intelligence, in addition to al-Areen companies of the 313 Brigade which is loyal to the Revolutionary Guards along with Hezbollah which established camps in the Lajat area to train and equip Daraa recruits. Those areas are the theatre of operations carried out by the Taswiyat operatives against Iran’s arms. They have also started to witness activity by ISIS operatives who stay at the desert-side of the area’s outskirts.
Regime troops: regime troops control the greater part of Daraa city (Daraa al-Mahatta) in addition to the Central Sector and a part of the Western Countryside areas. Those areas, particularly in the Western Countryside, are characterized by chaos and the lack of services and being subject to strict security policies by the regime.
Opposition-controlled areas: the opposition controls dispersed centres (Daraa al-Balad, Tafas and Jasim), and continues to keep its light weapons in those areas that the Assad regime seeks to regain through the operation for which it currently mobilizes its forces.
The crisis in Daraa is characterized by multiple factors. On the one hand, it is a crisis of a community vis-à-vis the authority, and on the other, of conflicts between the ruling agencies, in addition to the rivalry between the players who run the game in Syria (Russia and Iran). The Assad regime seeks to regain control against a situation where it lacks the structures of security and social control that it had relied upon before the revolution in Daraa, while Iran seeks to generate militia structures from among the area residents to enhance its position in an important and strategic area. In contrast, Russia seeks to develop a reassuring equation for the regional neighbourhood.
The Syrian regime is heading for a clash. It is receiving Iranian support to change the current equation. Both sides seek to benefit from the prevailing chaos to force Russia to opt for decisive military action against the opposition factions that act, in their turn, based on the principle of reaction to the regime’s retaliatory policies and Iran’s vigorous attempts to penetrate local communities in Daraa and change their identity. Uncontrolled armament and escalating fury contribute to creating favourable conditions for the return of violence.
While a broad clash is difficult to perceive, in light of the power imbalance in favour of the regime and supportive pro-Iranian militias and the absence of an international or regional support for the Taswiyat factions, the regime is likely to opt for implementing the strategy of gradual nibbling to take control of the areas outside its control and force the Russians to accept this equation, without discounting the possibility of the outbreak of a regional war between Israel and the regime forces and Iranian militias as a result of the recent penetration by the latter in the areas adjacent to occupied Golan.
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