Assad Shores Up Control in Syria’s Symbolically Important South

For much of the Syrian civil war, the southern city of Deraa and the surrounding Houran Plains, an agricultural region near the Jordanian border, were divided between government forces and armed rebels. Fighting raged back and forth, killing thousands. It was not until Russia backed a government offensive in 2018 that the situation changed in earnest. That year, Moscow brokered a series of agreements with rebel factions that brought the area back under loose government control.

This summer, fighting returned to Deraa—the epicenter of the initial 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that sparked the civil war—when government forces moved to forcibly revise the terms of the 2018 agreements. After a monthslong siege, Assad’s forces and their Russian allies have subdued the part of Deraa city that was still under rebel control, pressuring fighters to lay down their arms and accept a greater state presence. It is an outcome that bodes ill for anti-government forces elsewhere in the region.

Southern Syria—Houran, in particular—was an important theater during the early years of the war, and fighters there benefited from foreign support. Jordan permitted the use of its territory as a rear base and conduit for a CIA-organized, Saudi-funded supply line to anti-Assad forces. But as the Islamic State rapidly took over territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, Jordan lost faith in the southern rebels. When Russia began carrying out air strikes in Syria in September 2015, Jordanian officials quickly entered into talks with Moscow, which, they believed, could be both a foe of the jihadists and a tempering influence on Assad. In Amman’s view, it was as good a way as any to lose the war.

As the Jordanians began to restrain their rebel clients, on the understanding that Russia would restore Assad’s rule along the border in a gradual and non-disruptive fashion, their allies didn’t protest much. The Saudis had tired of Syria and were distracted by another war in Yemen, while the United States shared many of Jordan’s concerns about the long-term viability of the rebel forces. In any event, President Trump would soon end the CIA support program, which he called “massive, dangerous and wasteful.”

Without foreign funding, the Houran rebellion began to wither.

In early 2018, after successful Russian-backed operations in the center, north and east of the country, Assad’s army pivoted south. Russia took the lead, launching a process of negotiations to assuage the concerns of Jordan, which feared refugee inflows and instability, and nearby Israel, which feared infiltration from Iran, one of Assad’s main allies. Syrian troops played the bad cop to Russia’s good cop, and by the middle of the year, towns across the Houran Plains had either been browbeaten into submission or signed conditional surrender deals sweetened by promises of amnesties and detainee releases. Rebels with a more hard-line stance had no choice but to accept safe passage to northwestern Syria, where Turkish troops guard another rebel enclave under a separate understanding with Moscow.

The Russian-brokered deals in 2018 ended major fighting in the south but did little to address the region’s grievances or demobilize the losing side. Former rebels continued to control many towns and villages, disengaged from the wider war but still armed. A few of these groups became trusted allies of the regime or of Russia, but most were only loosely co-opted. Tensions remained high among former enemies that were no longer at war but also not meaningfully reconciled.

Both sides have accused each other of betrayal. Rebels and other locals complained of broken promises and discriminatory governance. Many were especially galled by the Assad regime’s refusal to release their friends and relatives from jail, though the truth of the matter is likely that most had already been killed in detention. Damascus did issue amnesties and promise freedom of movement, though these promises have not always been kept. Syrian officers in the field have been known to detain ex-rebels who venture out of the safety of their hometowns.

The symbolic significance of seeing government flags fluttering over Deraa al-Balad, where Syria’s 2011 uprising started, is hard to overstate.

Regime loyalists are also unhappy with the 2018 deals, which, to them, seem like inexcusable terrorist-coddling. They seethe at the sight of defiant gunmen brandishing rebel flags in towns that the army lacks permission to enter—especially since some of these areas serve as safe havens for groups that still target the government, including a lively jihadist underground.

These tensions have fueled a constant rumble of unrest around the former rebel pockets in the south since 2018, including shootouts, ambushes and unexplained bombings and assassinations. Russian mediation efforts have resolved some crises, but new ones have kept popping up. Some of the violence is clearly political and linked to rebel remnants, pro-regime groups or jihadist militants. But there’s a wider problem with armed lawlessness across the political spectrum, manifesting in violent family feuds, score-settling and organized crime. Often, incidents are too murky to investigate or make sense of. The city of Tafas, for example, has been plagued by bloody tribal infighting, but its political factions are also clan-based, with some engaging in anti-regime violence.

Abdullah al-Jabassini, a researcher specializing in Syria’s south, has documented a rising trend of violence that cost more than 380 lives from mid-2018 to early 2020. That was still a vast improvement from the pre-2018 situation of all-out war, but the flare-ups then became more serious. Last year, the government launched an offensive to retake control of Sanamein, one of the Houran region’s main towns, followed by fighting around Mzeirib and Tafas.

When a former rebel group kidnapped and executed nine police officers in Mzeirib in May 2020, government loyalists were outraged. Jamal al-Zoubi, a member of Assad’s Baath Party who hails from one of the area’s main tribes, warned that once the army was done with northern Syria’s Idlib region, it would turn south again. “None of the areas that entered the settlement and are now exploited by terrorists will be left like this by the state,” Zoubi told Al-Watan, a pro-government newspaper in Damascus. “What happened in Sanamein some months ago will be applied to the rest of the areas.”

Finally, in June of this year, the government turned its gaze southward to the old town of Deraa, known as Deraa al-Balad, where ex-rebels and allied clan elders have continued to rule some 50,000 people after the 2018 surrender. As the biggest, best-known opposition stronghold in southern Syria, both sides saw Deraa al-Balad as a touchstone of Hourani politics. If the regime succeeded in imposing a new order there, it could confidently move on to other towns.

Local leaders rejected the government’s initial demand, made in June, to let the army enter to establish checkpoints and disarm former rebels. Assad’s forces then closed all points of entry and blocked humanitarian aid, creating crippling shortages, and began to shell the area. Deraa al-Balad’s rulers agreed to a new deal in July, but rebel spoilers appeared to refuse to let the army deploy, and the deal had to be renegotiated. Subsequent rounds of talks also collapsed due to mutual intransigence. In late August, Russia warned that it would bring in its air force, at which point the rebel holdouts gave up and agreed to the terms of a new deal. Since Sept. 6, implementation has proceeded smoothly, and as the siege and the shelling ended, some of the area’s nearly 40,000 displaced civilians have begun to trickle back home.

The latest deal significantly revises the 2018 terms in the government’s favor. It does not impose full state control, but local authorities have lost much of the de facto autonomy they enjoyed and the armed ex-rebel elements have been defanged. For the first time in years, Syrian and Russian troops have entered Deraa al-Balad to raise their flags, set up checkpoints, and search for guns and fugitives. The Russian military says more than 1,600 residents have registered for amnesty, handing in some 600 firearms. In return, according to the pro-opposition weekly Enab Baladi, the army finally ended its blockade of food and medicine shipments on Sept. 10.

The symbolic significance of seeing government flags fluttering over Deraa al-Balad, where Syria’s 2011 uprising started, is hard to overstate—and it doesn’t end there. True to its original intentions, the government is already seeking to capitalize on its victory by moving into towns west of Deraa. This week, army units have reportedly deployed to Mzeirib and Yadoudeh, and were moving into the outskirts of Tafas, one of the area’s main hot spots.

To opposition sympathizers in these towns, and elsewhere across the Houran Plains, the outcome in Deraa al-Balad will have served as both a warning and a template. “There will be no more negotiations,” one source told Al-Watan. “The terms of settlement are clear. Whoever agrees is welcome, but those who don’t agree may get a deadline. If they do not agree after that, the army is ready.”

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