Kidnappings, cross-border clashes threaten increasingly fragile status quo in Syria’s south

The recent deployment of Syrian army Fourth Division troops to Daraa is yet another reminder of the deadly unrest ongoing in southwestern Syria. Sent to pacify Mazayreeb following an unprecedented armed attack after which several soldiers were publicly executed, Daraa’s western countryside still regularly witnesses violent unrest including assassinations, hit-and-run attacks, and drive-by shootings. Even after Mazayreeb, similar pro-government operations against pockets of former opposition-held territory are still possible.

In late March, a months-long cycle of tit-for-tat kidnappings between communities in Syria’s two southernmost provinces, Daraa and Sweida, finally broke out into the open when two men from eastern Daraa’s Busra al-Sham were kidnapped in Sweida. Troops from the Fifth Corps, a Russian-backed force made up of reconciled rebels, stormed a neighboring Sweida town, took prisoners, and then allegedly executed them.

There have been intermittent clashes between the two regions since, including an attack on Busra al-Sham, headquarters of the Fifth Corps, late last month.

Even so, some observers — including analysts, a former senior figure within the southern Free Syrian Army (FSA), and a source in the Fifth Corps, who were interviewed for this report — suspect the real retaliation may still come. The complex array of pro-government actors, including Iranian and Russian-backed forces actively competing for control and influence in Syria’s south, risk further destabilizing the already fragile status quo.

Diverging experiences in Syria’s south

Daraa’s story is well-known — it is the so-called “cradle of the revolution” that birthed Syria’s 2011 uprising, presented something close to a model for a post-Assad Syria, and then collapsed.

Daraa was retaken by pro-government forces in mid-2018. In part because of the way the southwest was retaken, through a combination of military force and negotiated settlement, pockets of quasi-autonomous control by former opposition groups still exist.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Busra al-Sham, close to Daraa’s provincial border with Sweida. Seized by rebels in 2015, the town became headquarters to Shabab al-Sunna and its commander, Ahmad al-Owda, a former English teacher and rebel leader who has gone on to become a key figure in the southwest.

In summer 2018, with the Syrian government on the offensive, al-Owda became the first Daraawi commander to begin negotiating surrender terms with the Russians. From those meetings emerged the idea of the Fifth Corps, a Russian-backed auxiliary to the Syrian army that would absorb former rebels willing to settle their status (teswiyat awda’un) and return to Damascus’ fold. In return, al-Owda and the Fifth Corps — with the blessing of local tribes — would maintain select autonomy over local security and service provision.

Just a few kilometers to the east is the Sweida town of al-Qurya, hometown of late Syrian resistance hero Sultan al-Atrash. Although the distances are small, and local tribes and clans straddle more modern administrative and provincial demarcations, the two provinces have lived something akin to parallel lives during the last nine years of conflict: separated at times, irrefragably connected at others.

While much of Daraa fell to the opposition after 2011, Sweida maintained a degree of relative autonomy — in part because of the province’s historic independence from central authority, its special political, spiritual, and military institutions, as well as post-2011 developments. Sweida has taken in large numbers of displaced families mostly from Daraa and rural Damascus, but also harbored large numbers of young men, estimated in the tens of thousands, evading military service. The impact of the conflict on an already struggling local economy, and weak local government administration, meanwhile saw the rise of a sprawling informal economy driven by armed gangs profiting off gun running, drug smuggling, and kidnappings.

This process of fragmentation is also seen in the province’s military dynamics.

In response to perceived regime co-option of existing Druze power structures in Sweida, a series of “third way” militias formed after 2012 to try to protect Sweida’s autonomy. First was the Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity) movement, a conglomeration of local Druze defense forces independent of the Syrian government. That force splintered after 2015, when a suspected Syrian government bombing targeted and killed its leader Wahid al-Bal’ous, leading to smaller factions such as the Sheikhs of Dignity (led by two sons of Bal’ous) and Single Artery.

The Syrian government has historically had to rely more on proxies, or local security actors on the payroll of intelligence agencies and security branches, in Sweida when compared with other provinces where it could more directly exert force.

In addition to that, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have armed and funded Bedouin smuggling groups and gangs for years — Hezbollah particularly profits from drug-running across the Syrian-Jordanian border — but also patronized a broad range of armed formations in the province, from family-based clan groups to fully fledged militia forces. Iranian actions in Sweida usually end up being to the detriment of independent Druze groups in the area.

Russia has tried to also support local groups, but has been far less effective. And as is the case in Daraa, any decline in Russian influence in Sweida will likely benefit Iran first and foremost.

From kidnappings to executions

The videos are much the same: topless men, their backs covered in marks and sores, screaming God’s name as someone off-camera beats them. Videos like this, filmed by kidnapping gangs and then sent to families in order to elicit ransom payments, have become increasingly common in southern Syria in recent months.

On March 26, men from Busra al-Sham crossed into Sweida to sell cattle at a local market when they were kidnaped by a local armed gang. Soon after, there was a demand for ransom.

This time was different, but why? Some argue that kidnappings have increasingly taken on a more coordinated nature — pitting communities in eastern Daraa and western Sweida against one another, and leading some to claim that there are ulterior motives behind them because either the Syrian government or Iranian-backed groups stand to benefit from the instability.

Either way, this time the Fifth Corps retaliated. On March 27, fighters entered al-Qurya, likely to kidnap local men in order to push for the release of those kidnapped from Busra al-Sham.

The details of what happened next are disputed.

A source within the Fifth Corps, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that at some point this “patrol” came under fire from a Sweida militia. The patrol requested back-up from Busra al-Sham, and a gunfight ensued. Several Sweida fighters were killed in the shooting, the source claimed, before their bodies were sent to a hospital in Busra al-Sham.

However, Sweida-based armed groups and victims’ families, meanwhile, claim that the Fifth Corps actually abducted several men from the Sweida side of the border, took them back into Busra al-Sham, and executed almost all of them afterwards. The men’s bodies were later returned to al-Qurya.

According to a statement issued by the Rijal al-Karameh movement, the Fifth Corps fighters “executed six prisoners … which presents conclusive evidence” that the aim was not to push for the release of the men from Busra al-Sham, it was revenge.

It’s impossible to know what the aim was, but in close-knit, quasi-autonomous tribal societies that value concepts of honor and fair fight, the actions of the Fifth Corps were never going to be forgotten. Unsurprisingly, cross-border attacks have followed — including an unprecedented armed attack on Busra al-Sham in late April.

Escalations have a rippling effect through the communities and geographies in which they occur. Acts of violence usually have consequences, spreading from one community to the next, even though those consequences may not be felt until days, months, or even years later. In ancient Greece, this dynamic was known as miasma; a societal pollutant, spreading like a contagion as violence was met with more violence.

Similar dynamics exist in tribal societies. Age-old tribal laws and societal structures are there to intervene and mediate in disputes, or else violence can continue. One such mechanism used by tribes across Syria is tribal reconciliation (sulha). In recent years, lawlessness in Sweida has also seen tribal structures formed along the lines of a tarsh al-dam (bloodshed) agreement meant to resolve cases of kidnappings, murder, and other violent crimes.

Following the al-Qurya incident, there have been attempts by local communities to mediate. At the same time, members of a committee formed to mediate between Busra al-Sham and al-Qurya have been targeted — suggesting that some local actors are willing to escalate the situation.

Al-Owda: Regime collaborator, or savior of the south?

Much of the anger in Sweida currently focuses on one man: al-Owda.

Although many opposition supporters dislike al-Owda because of a perception that he sold out to the Russians and handed over the south with it, al-Owda is controversial for other reasons too. For one, this is not the first time he’s been accused of abuses — including complicity in the torture and killing of prisoners.

In February 2016, al-Owda oversaw the arrest of a former military defector named Zeidan al-Nseirat as he returned from talks with Syrian government representatives in the northern Daraa town of Ibtaa. Al-Nseirat was taken into detention in Busra al-Sham, and wound up dead. Speaking to this reporter at the time, al-Owda denied what he called “rumors,” but also added that Nseirat was “coordinating with the regime … with the goal of helping the regime to recapture liberated areas in his local area.” Nseirat had actually died of a heart attack, al-Owda claimed.

The killing was part of a wider trend of forced disappearances and “tyrannical” behavior by al-Owda and rebels under his command.

Even so, al-Owda has proven himself to be a survivor, deftly navigating between local communities and regime backers. Service provision is generally better in the east of the province around Busra al-Sham, something that carries real weight among local communities when much of the province is characterized by neglect and misgovernance. Secondly, Fifth Corps units have repeatedly intervened to prevent attempted arrests and raids by Air Force Intelligence and other security branches.

Al-Owda and his Russian backers are also adapting by mediating in local issues outside their traditional remit. Recently, Russia — with Fifth Corps mediation — oversaw the return of displaced families from the nearby Christian-majority Sweida town of Kharaba, something that the regime has failed (or neglected) to do for years. Although Russia has taken it upon itself to patronize Christian communities in Syria, this move may also help al-Owda in broadening his legitimacy and support base.

“The regime and Iran are trying to escalate”

And yet Russia is not the only regime backer looking to capitalize on the situation in the south, where dynamics are hyper-local on the one hand, but involve every major foreign backer of the Syrian government on the other.

For one, the Syrian government’s security apparatus is keen to intervene in Sweida in order to reassert control over a historically more autonomous region of the country, and also seek out those evading arrest and/or military service who’ve taken refuge in the province since 2011. After the al-Qurya attack by the Fifth Corps, voices in Sweida have begun to raise the demand that the Syrian army be allowed to install checkpoints and oversee security between Daraa and Sweida — arguably unthinkable just months ago. But by neglecting security and allowing different actors to combat one another, or by using local proxies on the payroll of intelligence agencies and security branches to destabilize the situation, the Syrian government can look on as things escalate further.

At the same time, Iran and Hezbollah are both looking to further plant roots of so-called resistance in the south. They present the greatest challenge to Russia’s stabilizing ambitions in the area, and it’s increasingly said that the balance of power in the south is tipping in Iran’s, rather than Russia’s, favor. In Sweida, that is largely the result of Hezbollah gradually gaining more and more influence through local proxies, so that the group now maintains affiliations with a broad range of pro-government factions and criminal gangs in Sweida, as well as Military Security (the most powerful security branch in southern Syria).

According to a former senior figure within Daraa’s opposition, Iranian-backed groups in Sweida are trying to escalate the current situation so that they can benefit from instability and force themselves into local dynamics.

“The regime and Iran are trying to escalate, and of course they’re trying to weaken the Fifth Corps,” the source said. “They already have huge influence within these militias, so they wanted to escalate because it’s in the interests of Hezbollah and the regime to have more influence in the area.”

Iranian-Russian competition exists in Syria, but can be overstated. At times, some pro-opposition outlets have gone as far as presenting the relationship between the Syrian regime’s two most stalwart allies as something akin to a shadow war, always occurring somewhere just out of view. In the south of Syria, however, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as competition between Iran and Russia waged largely through local proxies representing the allies’ ambitions on the ground. Sometimes they work at cross-purposes, sometimes they do not.

Sweida presents some insights into what the future relationship might look like. In the weeks since the latest flare-up between Daraa and its eastern neighbor, suspected Hezbollah-affiliated militiamen targeted fighters from the anti-regime Sheikhs of Dignity in the eastern Sweida city of Salkhad.

The city, an important smuggling hub, has seen similar clashes between Hezbollah-affiliated and anti-government groups before, another, separate cycle of violence in southern Syria’s many concentric escalations and one that hasn’t yet spilled over into Daraa.

But if Iranian-backed groups are more willing to throw their weight around against local enemies inside Sweida, there is greater risk of escalation further west, pitting Hezbollah-backed groups and criminal gangs against local rivals — including Russian-backed groups. Should those escalations reach into Sweida’s west, that could eventually touch the Fifth Corps.

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