Daraa province in southern Syria recently saw the fiercest fighting between rebels and regime forces since 2018. A subsequent ceasefire brokered by Russia remains fragile, while Syrians isolated continue to suffer.
At least 15 civilians were kill in an artillery attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in late July when the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias attempted to violently subdue Daraa, considered the birthplace of the 2011 uprising.
The main reason for the resumption of violence was the presidential election on May 31, in which the residents of Daraa did not participate. While citizens voted in most areas under the regime’s control, voting for al-Assad out of fear, residents of Daraa staged a protest against the government at the Omari Mosque on the eve of the elections.
The mosque remains a place of great symbolic importance. In 2011, the first major demonstrations of the Syrian revolution took place in its surroundings. When regime forces joined in and opened fire, the mosque itself became a field hospital. The atrocities committed by the military there sparked outrage across the country and led to large-scale protests in various towns.
However, the rebels were also defeated in Daraa in 2018. Subsequent reconciliation agreements were facilitated in exchange for the fighters handing over their weapons to the Syrian army. But Russia, the main ally of the Assad regime, did not accept a complete occupation of the province by Assad’s forces because it did not want to jeopardize its relations with Israel by allowing Iranian militias fighting alongside the al-Assad troops to gain a foothold so close to Israel.
“Daraa is the connection point between Syrian and Jordanian lands on the border of the occupied Syrian Golan, and this particular line has explicitly drawn an important Israeli-Jordanian red line to prevent Iran and its allies from expanding and s ‘approaching the Golan Heights and the borders of Jordan,’ Samer Bakkour, professor of Middle East policy at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.
The lack of a Syrian military presence has resulted in repeated rebel attacks, which has led Russia to demand new reconciliation agreements to seize more weapons from the residents of Daraa. But Daraa rejected the Russian request and the Syrian armed forces besieged the neighborhoods of Deraa al-Balad on June 25.
Al-Assad troops surrounded the 40,000 residents of the historic district and cut off food, water, electricity and medicine. The roads to the city’s hospitals have also been cut.
The tactics used in Daraa have already been seen, Bakkour said.
“The Daraa model that the regime followed has been replicated in most of the areas over which the regime has tightened its grip, whether by destroying and using the scorched earth policy, by isolating areas from one another. others, then moving civilians for those who do. do not want reconciliation and impose forced “reconciliations” on those who decide to stay, and the young among them are taken to the front lines. “
During this escalation, the Deraa al-Balad Central Committee met with Russian General Assad Allah, who is playing a leading role in the exacerbation of the conflict, Bakkour said.
“The latest escalation involved residents of Daraa accusing Russian forces of angering the population, especially Russian officer Assad Allah, who demanded to erect barriers for regime forces in the city, to search the houses of heavy and light weapons.
“In addition, the regime sought to expel five armed opposition figures, such as Muhammad al-Masalma and Muayyad Harfush, to areas controlled by the pro-Turkish opposition in northern Syria, and the Fourth Division began to bomb neighborhoods, which greatly intensified the violence. situation, ”Bakkour said.
The infamous Fourth Division – currently in the region – was charged with war crimes against civilians at the start of the revolution.
After various meetings between the Central Committee and the regime, the two sides agreed to a five-phase agreement that includes the handing over of the remaining small arms in exchange for the lifting of the siege and the end of the military campaign, while keeping three checkpoints in the city.
However, Bakkour said he doesn’t think this amounts to a paradigm shift on the Russian side.
“The regime forces reinforced the siege of Daraa al-Balad because they wanted to subdue Daraa. However, Russia still asserts that it will not intervene directly since it has already established itself in Daraa, ”he declared.
However, the ceasefire is unlikely to improve the situation. Although talks must continue in order to reach a lasting solution, there are already various reports that both sides are in violation. The Syrian army would have bombed areas in Daraa in early August, while the rebels attacked Syrian soldiers days before.
The continuing instability further threatens the humanitarian situation in Syria.
“In recent weeks, we have seen the humanitarian situation deteriorate rapidly in the country. Even with a tenuous ceasefire, the impact of recent clashes has resulted in massive displacement and the seemingly indiscriminate nature of some of the attacks has kept civilians in danger, ”Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
Given the precarious situation on the ground, the international community must, at the bare minimum, prevent the Syrian government from arming aid, Kayyali urged.
“The international community must first and foremost ensure that humanitarian organizations operating in Daraa reach all those threatened with famine and do not allow the Syrian government to use aid as a weapon in its clashes, which we have seen government do this repeatedly in other contexts.
While the ceasefire is indeed only temporary, the outlook remains bleak for the Syrian people of Daraa.
“Unless all parties to the conflict respect the rights and well-being of civilians, we will continue to see the situation worsen, as we did in Aleppo, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta,” Kayyali said. .