Cradle of Syria’s uprising turns into ‘chaotic’ south


BEIRUT, Aug 30, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Bombings, gun violence and mysterious
assassinations: In Syria’s southern province of Daraa, an experiment to use
surrendering rebels as regime proxies has seen the area descend into

Unlike other parts of Syria retaken by the regime, the army has not
deployed across the whole province, relying instead on its unlikely partners
to ensure security.

But the surrender deal “has failed to usher in stability, and chaos
reigns,” according to Salam, a former Daraa resident who left the province
last month.

“The assassinations and explosions are increasing day by day,” the man in
his thirties added, asking to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

Some rebels and their families started evacuating Daraa in July 2018 under
a surrender deal brokered by regime ally Russia after weeks of fierce

Their loss of the province dealt a symbolic blow to the uprising, which
started with massive protests in Daraa in 2011 after a group of teenagers
were arrested over anti-regime graffiti.

Under the 2018 deal, opposition fighters who chose to remain were granted
amnesty on condition they hand over heavy weapons. Light firearms were

After a series of victories against rebels and jihadists, President Bashar
al-Assad’s government now controls around 60 percent of the country.

Government institutions have returned to Daraa.

But unlike in other parts of Syria back under government control, from
which most rebels withdrew, many former opposition fighters stayed behind in

They retain control over large rural areas to its south, west and east,
according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

They also hold southern parts of Daraa’s provincial capital, known as Daraa
al-Balad, the Britain-based monitor says.

Some have started working with state institutions or joined a Russian-
backed contingent of the Syrian army.

Syrian military and security forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of
these areas, the Observatory says.

– ‘Targeted killings’ –

Daraa province lies on the frontier with Jordan, which used to back rebels
in the province before last year’s detente between Amman and Damascus.

It also borders Israel, which is suspected of working with Russia to
prevent Iranian-backed forces from deploying near its frontier, according to

The region’s “uniqueness lies in the degree to which opposition structures
have remained intact”, said Alex Simon of the Synaps network, a Beirut-based
research group.

The government’s “comparatively hands-off approach” to the province
reflects an “effort to economise what remains of a depleted military
apparatus”, he said.

Simon said former rebel factions “make convenient proxies for the Russians
and the regime” in areas where the army is absent.

“But they’re also a liability: Residual weapons and simmering anti-Assad
sentiment create the potential for violent flareups,” he added.

Loyalists in Daraa routinely face the menace of explosions and gunfire,
says the Observatory, which has documented 60 such attacks since June.

Omar al-Hariri, an opposition activist, said the proliferation of weapons
in a province still bubbling with anti-Assad sentiment “will naturally result
in the formation of sleeper cells”.

“This is why operations against the regime have started to intensify,” the
Daraa-born activist told AFP.

But, Rifaat, another Daraa resident, said it was impossible to determine
who is responsible.

“There are weapons in every house,” he told AFP, also using a pseudonym.

“Anyone can murder anyone for whatever reason.”

The United Nations says civilians working with state institutions, as well
as former rebel fighters, have been hit by seemingly targeted killings.

– ‘Empty words’ –

In March, dozens took part in a rare protest after a statue of the
president’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, was erected to replace one destroyed
by protesters at the start of the uprising.

And last month, anti-regime graffiti re-appeared on a Daraa wall.

Daraa is similar to other former rebel bastions in that hundreds there have
been detained and forcibly conscripted into Assad’s army despite the so-
called “reconciliation deals”.

Between July 26 last year and the end of March, at least 380 people were
arrested or detained, the UN says.

“Many of those arrested were humanitarians, army defectors or people
affiliated with anti-government forces,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher
at Human Rights Watch.

Such abuses have transformed reconciliation promises into “empty words”,
she said.

To avoid arrest or conscription, Rifaat said he does not leave Daraa al-

“There are many others just like me,” he told AFP.

“As long as we don’t cross regime checkpoints outside the area, nobody can
reach us.”

Rifaat said he sometimes feels as if he is under siege.

But, he said, that is “a million times better than fighting with the regime
or being imprisoned”.