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Will the Security Crisis in Southern Syria Spark a ‘New Revolution’?

Ongoing assassinations have become routine events for the residents of Daraa in southern Syria since the government retook control of the governorate in July 2018 with the support of Russian forces. Hardly a day goes by without an assassination in the governorate, targeting almost all sides of the conflict.

The assassinations and kidnappings have now extended to all sides of the political and military landscape, including the armed opposition leadership, Syrian army officers and security forces and those connected to them, in addition to pro-regime local officials.

In recent weeks, the intensity of these operations has sharply escalated, which indicates the region may be ‘facing further bloodshed, and popular rage’, according to one of the members of the opposition’s negotiating delegation.

Since early last month, there have been popular protests and insurgency in the region from former opposition fighters, who last year began ‘reconciliation efforts with the Syrian government. They became engaged with security forces and militias connected to regime forces, as a result of the deteriorating security situation and refusal to allow Iranian forces to deploy in their regions.

There have been approximately 262 assassination attempts in the Daraa governorate since the beginning of 2019, with 152 people killed by December 2019. These included 102 former opposition fighters who had joined security forces or government militias, according to Omar al-Hariri, a member of the Daraa Martyrs’ Documentation Office, a local human rights organization that monitors assassinations and detentions in the Daraa governorate.

Who is behind this?

After the government took control of southern Syria last year, Russia sponsored a series of reconciliation agreements between the regime and the opposition. Through this process, Russian and Iran began to compete to recruit opposition factions and their military leaders to the ranks of militias loyal to them, including military security, state security, Air Force Intelligence, the Fourth Division and the Fifth Assault Corps. The majority of these factions and their military leadership thus became involved in these power arrangements.

Abu Mohammad, the former military leader of the opposition factions, who is currently based in West Daraa, said that this increase in assassinations was occurring ‘systemically’ and that ‘the Iranian militias, Hezbollah and the Syrian intelligence forces are behind it, in order to create a security crisis and eliminate former opposition forces’.

Nevertheless, it does not seem that any side of the conflict in southern Syria is immune from these campaigns, especially given that the assassinations have included all factions, since all of the rival forces have tried to carry out their own agendas and interests.

However, it does appear that Hezbollah and the Iranian militias, which are trying to make incursions into southern Syria, are behind a majority of the assassinations of those opposed to their presence in the region – whether opposition or regime forces. The military leader of the Fifth Assault Corps in East Daraa (a local militia supported by Russia and formed after the reconciliation process with former opposition fighters) confirmed this, citing that the pattern of assassinations was carried out by ‘guns with silencers’.

Furthermore, the Russian military police, which had been deployed to ensure stability and enforce the reconciliation agreement that Russia sponsored in the region in July 2018, was not shielded from the security crisis. Last October, an explosive device of unknown origin exploded while the Russian military police were patrolling the northern countryside of Daraa, which resulted in casualties among the Syrian security forces who were accompanying them, according to
Russia Today.

In the midst of this bloody chaos, ISIS also appeared on the scene, and last November shot and killed Major Mohamed Jabbour, head of the Inkhil contingent of state security, which is loyal to the regime.

The conflict

In spite of the competing interests of some of those accused of carrying out these assassinations, it is clear that the conflict is not just between the Russians and Iranians, or the opposition and the regime, but is also between the security apparatuses inside the regime. These forces seem to be becoming more loyal to Russia and Iran, and have tried to carry out their agendas and protect their interests. The fissures in loyalty and allegiance play a key role in the assassinations and the killing of opposition fighters.

According to the negotiator, Syrian military security, which is loyal to Russia, is considered one of the ‘most active’ in carrying out assassinations, and in ‘creating a security crisis’, in order to make incursions into southern Syria, and ‘curtail Iranian influence and the influence of those loyal to Iran, whether regime or reconciliation factions’.

Although all of the regime’s military security and state security – and part of Air Force Intelligence – is loyal to Russia, military security is actually involved in carrying out assassinations against state security and Air Force Intelligence, in order to limit their influence and curtail their power.

On the other hand, the Fourth Division, which is led by Maher al-Assad and is loyal to Iran, is also closely embedded in these conflicts. Last July, a military bus belonging the Fourth Division exploded at the outskirts of al-Yadudah village in West Daraa; there were ‘five Syrian soldiers killed, and fourteen others wounded,’ according to the Russian news agency Sputnik.

Abu Mohammad observed that the ‘Fourth Division is in an ongoing conflict with military security, and with the other agencies that are loyal to Russia – which often work together so closely that weapons are directly exchanged between them.’ He added that ‘since the first day of the reconciliation process, the Fourth Division has tried to recruit as many of the youth as possible, in addition to drug dealers, arms dealers, the heads of major currency exchange companies, and those with significant capital’ in order to increase their influence.

Meanwhile, Air Force Intelligence in southern Syria is split into two groups with conflicting loyalties: the first, which works in the eastern countryside of Daraa, is loyal to Iran; the second, which works in the western countryside of Daraa, is loyal to Russia.

‘The volcano will erupt again.’

During the last four weeks, popular protests have escalated in many cities and villages in southern Syria, demanding the release of detainees, an end to the arbitrary detentions carried out by security forces and the withdrawal of Iranian militias. Many regions of Syria have also seen roads blocked and security forces kidnapped by former armed opposition factions.

These former opposition forces now carry IDs from the Fourth Division, which it joined last year, and have blocked the road between the village of al-Yadudah and the city of Daraa. They have also kidnapped members of the security forces.

However, this did not go unnoticed by security forces, who soon responded to these operations: the body of the former leader of the opposition, Abu Bandar al-Khaldi (Alaa al-Salem) was found at the outskirts of the village of Ataman in the countryside of Daraa, with signs of torture on his body. This occurred only days after he was kidnapped by the security wing of the Fourth Division after he had tried to block the road with his factions.

In light of these events, the negotiator said that ‘if the living and security conditions deteriorates further, and the regime-backed campaigns of detentions and assassinations continue, then the volcano will erupt again, and the revolution that began in Daraa nine years ago will break out again.’