In a symbolic blow to the anti-government uprising born in Daraa in 2011, the Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran-backed militias are once again attempting to violently subdue the Syrian provincial capital, which is considered the birthplace of the revolution that began a decade ago.
The most recent round of clashes was sparked by Syria’s May 31 illegitimate presidential elections. Several of Daraa province’s cities refused to participate in the elections and civilians took to the streets in protest.
On the day of the elections, the Syrian regime was forced to move the election center from the Baath Party Division building in Nawa city to the district center in the middle of the security square, where branches of the regime security agencies are located. This prompted the flight of most of the working members of the party’s division to the capital, Damascus, for fear of being targeted.
As a result, several neighborhoods in Daraa province were placed under a brutal siege. In late June, the Fourth Division of the Syrian army and other regime forces encircled the city and cut off all roads leading to Daraa al-Balad in the south, preventing the entry of food and medicine as well as the entry or exit of civilians. The regime and its allies proceeded to cut off electricity, water, and communications. One checkpoint remains open for residents, but it is under the control of the Military Security Branch and the Mustafa al-Kassem militia—a troubling scenario for civilians.
Daraa hasn’t witnessed a military campaign like this since the regime took control of the province in July 2018. Following that takeover, the region was divided into settlement areas, as happened in Daraa al-Balad, Busra al-Sham, Tafas, and other areas under regime control (MAP 1). Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) remained, forming sleeper cells, such as the Popular Resistance in the south—an armed group from Daraa province that was formed in November 2018—in several towns that refused the terms of a settlement with the regime, which exposed them to attacks. Other formations of the FSA joined the Fifth Corps—a volunteer-based force—under direct Russian control. The most prominent outgrowth was the Sunni Youth Forces, which now forms the forces of the Eighth Brigade in the Fifth Corps.
The complex reality of influence and control after the 2018 settlement
Despite the Assad regime’s control over Daraa since the 2018 settlement, the reality on the ground indicates that there are three spheres of influence in the province. The first is the area considered the center of negotiations between the opposition and regime, which is under direct Russian supervision. In this area, the regime maintained institutional control but was denied a security presence. The second sphere of influence comprises of settlements where the regime has all-out military control, such as Bosra al-Harir, al-Harak, Saida, and surrounding towns, as well as western areas like Jassem and Newa. Lastly, the third includes areas seized by the regime without signing a settlement agreement, such as Dael, Inkhil, and al-Hara.
Iran’s consolidation of influence in Daraa is one significant implication of this power diffusion. Via the Fourth Division, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and militias deployed in Daraa, Iran has successfully expanded its influence in the south and established a military presence in strategic locations near Syria’s southern border. Recent developments are further evidence of Russia’s failure to contain Iran in Daraa. While the Russians led the initial negotiations, Iran subsequently upended the process, empowering local allies to take military control of the province.
Daraa developments in light of the regime’s army being dispersed between Russia and Iran
Beginning on June 25, regime forces imposed a complete siege on the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad (inhabited by approximately fifty thousand people): the internally displaced camp, Palestinian refugee camp, al-Sad Road, and the farms in the areas of Shiah, al-Nakhla, al-Rahiya, and al-Khawani. The siege is meant to punish civilians for ongoing demonstrations since 2018 and the refusal of Dara al-Balad residents to participate in the voting process. As the dispute escalated, the Central Committee of Daraa al-Balad met with Russian General Assad Allah, who threatened to storm dissenting neighborhoods but agreed to prevent Iran-backed forces from taking military action in the city.
After several meetings between the Central Committee and regime, the two parties agreed to hand over the remaining light weapons of former FSA fighters who are not part of the Fifth Corps in exchange for lifting the siege imposed on Daraa al-Balad and an end to the regime’s military campaign there. The two sides also agreed to construct a new settlement to clarify missing or gray areas in the 2018 settlement.
However, the agreement has not been implemented so far due to several obstacles created by Major General Husam Louka, the head of General Security Directorate, Brigadier General Ghaith Dalah, commander of the Fourth Division, and Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayoub—all of whom have stated that the regime’s goal is absolute control over the entire neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad. This proclamation upset the Russians, who know Iran is escalating the conflict and attempting to strengthen the control of its local allies near the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
It is possible to deduce several important points from the rapid developments in Daraa al-Balad during the past week:
Amidst this military escalation on Daraa al-Balad and the eastern and western countryside and the continuation of negotiations between the Central Committee and the regime, Daraa faces several scenarios.
A new settlement and forced displacement
The way the Assad regime dealt with the cities of Tafas and al-Sanamayn could foreshadow what happens in Daraa al-Balad in the coming days. After the regime attack on the city of al- Sanamayn in March, Russia intervened through the Fifth Corps to resolve the conflict and imposed a truce that ended with the deportation of fighters to the north; those who stayed have had to hand over weapons. In January, the same scenario occurred in Tafas, after the regime demanded that the people hand over light and medium weapons and that those who wished to leave Daraa go north.
According to this scenario, Russia may intervene to end the attack on Daraa al-Balad, put an end to the military operation, and sign a new agreement. However, the details and terms depend on the size of the Assad regime’s losses in the coming days. This seems to be the most realistic scenario for the regime, considering its accelerated losses and negotiations with the Central Committee of Daraa.
The area under the shadow of the Fifth Corps
The FSA’s recent success will give it an upper hand at the negotiating table. The Central Committee may negotiate a stop to the escalation in all towns and cities in return for stopping the military campaign, lifting the siege, and deploying checkpoints for the Fifth Corps in Daraa. Although this scenario is possible, it requires the approval of Russia and Jordan and it is unlikely that Iran and the regime will accept this scenario, which would threaten their control in the south.
Return to the 2018 settlement
If the Russians do not intervene in the coming days to stop the regime’s military campaign and the FSA continues to maintain the military escalation line and preserve its gains on the ground, the regime may turn to pre-June 25 conditions to prevent further losses and the further bolstering of the opposition. The situation at the time gave the regime full administrative control over the area but with very limited security control.
Worst case scenario: absolute control by the regime without any reconciliations or settlement
This scenario is best for the Assad regime and its ally Iran, which does not favor Russia. It depends on launching a vast military campaign on the neighborhood and imposing absolute control without referring to any new settlements, which will result in a massive campaign of arrests for the residents and will not even allow them to flee to the north of Syria. This scenario is preferable for Iran because it will create a large vacuum in the region that can be exploited by local allies at the administrative, military, and security level, which will therefore pose a major challenge to Russia in regard to controlling the Iranian presence near the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
In the long run, this scenario will enhance the fragility of the security situation in the region for an array of reasons. This includes: an increase in assassinations against Iran’s allies in the region; the high incidence of clashes between members of the Eighth Brigade and Iran’s allies; and an increase in the number of Israeli attacks on Iran-backed forces. In sum, this scenario is considered the worst for Daraa and its people because it serves only Iran and its local allies from the regime.
Nawar Oliver, Omran Center military expert and the Information Unit manager on 2nd of Aug 2019, gave his remarks to the AFP about Russian Truce in Idlib and Hama and the initial reaction of some Opposition factions.
Oliver added, “Russia will continue to bomb civilians locations and carry out massacres, and keep on supporting the Regime ground attack during this ceasefire , The Russian has a long bad history when it comes to ceasefires with the oppositions faction, such as in Eastern Ghouta, Northern Homs, and Daraa.
On the 25th of July, Dr. Ammar Kahf, the executive director of the Omran, commented on latest developments in southern Syria to USA Today, by stating that the regime’s territorial gains in Daraa has put Iran and Hezbollah closer to being a threat to Israel and regional powers.
This development will increase the likelihood of greater conflict in the Middle East. Developments in Daraa are also signs of a new era in the Syrian conflict, where domestic actors have largely disappeared and given way to international and non-state actors using Syria for their own agenda.
Dr. Kahf has stated that “The story of the armed Syrian opposition is over, Iran and Hezbollah are much stronger today than a month ago and closer to the southern front. I think this (Syrian conflict) will continue to escalate.”
Special thanks to the co-writers of the Article, Jacob Wirtschafter and Gilgamesh Nabeel.
This report presents a brief account of latest developments in southern Syria, covering the Daraa and Qunaitera fronts with a specific focus on Iranian involvement from late May until July 17. Prior to the latest escalation along the southern border of Syria, there were reports of an initial agreement between Israel and Russia to push back Iranian and Iranian-backed forces along Syria’s border with Israel. The Iranians reacted by incorporating many of its militias and forces into the Syrian army to continue fighting in the area. Photographs and videos posted on pro-regime media as well as accounts belonging to some of the Iranian-backed militias confirm their involvement. In the final agreement between opposition forces and Russia involving parts of Eastern Daraa and Daraa city, green buses headed to the area to prepare the transportation of a small number of the opposition members to Idlib, while other areas concluded reconciliation agreements. Other areas to the west of Daraa are still going through negotiations to finalize the terms of their agreements. The Russians are pushing for an agreement where minimum number of residents are displaced to Idlib, as a deal to receive them was not concluded with Turkey. At the same time, Iranian forces are pushing for the escalation of attacks to take full control of all southern regions.
In late May 2018, Israel and Russia agreed that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces would vacate areas in southwestern Syria near the Israeli border(). Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that due to the Syrian army’s recent advances, foreign forces should withdraw from Syria and mentioned Turkish, American, Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers specifically when asked to clarify. Iranian Foreign Ministry representative Bahram Qassemi responded that Iran would remain in Syria while terrorism exists and for as long as the Syrian government wants Iranian forces there(). Nevertheless, in order to reduce pressure from Israel, Iranian-backed forces – including some of Hezbollah members – withdrew from areas in southern Syria only to return as integrated units within the Syrian Army structure. Examples of Iranian-backed forces within the Army include the following:
In early June, Russia began deploying troops near territories occupied by Israel, indicating Moscow’s preference for decreased Iranian presence in Syria and despite the dominant presence of Hezbollah in the area. Sources confirmed that Hezbollah was not happy with Russian moves and would demand Russian withdrawal, similar to what happened in Al-Qusir, Homs in the first week of June. Conveying Iranian opinion, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri told Lebanon’s al-Manar, “Iran and Syria enjoy deep relations that would not be influenced by the propaganda measures of anyone,” adding also that Lebanese militias would not leave Syria().
The following is a list of top Iranian-backed militias and forces involved in the escalation of violence in the southern front:
|Militia Name||Origin||Situation in Syria|
|Imam al Baqir Brigade||Syria||Part of LDF|
|Lebanese Hezbollah||Lebanon||Special Forces|
|Saryaa Al-Arin||Syria||Military Security Branch|
|Zu Al-Fiqar Brigade||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|Imam Hussein Brigade||Iraq||Militia|
|Al Quds Brigade||Palestine||Militia|
|Abu Fadl Al-Abba||Iraq||Republican Guard|
|A Taha Regiment||Syria||Tiger Forces|
|Arab National Guard||Mix||Militia|
|Salah Al-Assi groups||Syria||Tiger Forces|
At the end of June, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces – with the support of the Russian Air Force – began the attack on Daraa, quickly capturing a number of cities in a matter of days. Following this rapid advance, various towns throughout Daraa accepted reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime, including the towns of Um Oualad, Saida, Um Mayazin, Taybah, Nassib, Jabib, Ibta, and Da’il. By the first week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed forces along with the Russian military police had surrounded Nasib border crossing after capturing the city itself. According to Information Unit Source, the presence of Russian military police is part of an undeclared agreement between Russia and Jordan to ensure that Iranian-backed militias do not enter through the Nasib Crossing. However, as these militias integrated themselves into different Syrian army groups, it is difficult to monitor their presence in Daraa.
Map (1): Updated Southern Front Control Map - 19 July 2018
Iranian-backed forces suffered a number of casualties during the attack on Daraa, losing more than 50 top-level fighters – among these fighters were those from Hezbollah, as well as Khalil Takhti Nejad, a fighter for the IRGC. Nejad was deployed to Syria as a member of the Imam Sajjad IRGC Hormozgan Provincial Unit and commanded an operation from an unnamed base in a southwestern Syrian city of Daraa, approximately 32 km from Israel’s northern border.
Note: chart only indicates the number of dead among top Iranian-backed militias who participated directly in the recent Daraa battle; information obtained from monitoring pro-regime websites and official militia accounts.
By the second week of July, Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias announced that they had captured 520 km2 in Daraa province; 290 km2 from military operations and the remaining 230 km2 following a deal between Russia and the opposition factions. Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias continued to advance along the Syrian-Jordanian border and reached the town of Khrab al-Shahm, facing no resistance from the opposition as most opposition forces had withdrawn from the borderline earlier.
Footage from Daraa battle of Iranian participation
The images below were taken from official media accounts of the participating militias and from pro-regime accounts.
Eastern Daraa Agreement and Western Daraa ongoing Negotiation
The situation in Daraa remains unclear. Four major events that are underway include:
About 20 buses are expected to depart with hundreds of civilians and fighters of Islamic factions with their families. There were about 1400 people expected to depart but the committees which are close to Russia are trying to persuade people to stay instead of evacuating to the north for the following reasons:
Note: In regards to Quneitra, there is no agreement until now and no initial negotiation between the Russian and any faction of the opposition forces. Russian negotiators want HTS to leave its post before starting any kind of negotiations.
The situation is being continually monitored in order to maintain an eye on what changes occur. The opposition’s divided actions will continue to leave it exposed to manipulation by outside forces. The Syrian regime will further its presence in the south by playing off the Israel-Russia-Iran trio; and Jordan will observe silently without exerting much effort in terms of actual fighting with or against any of the parties involved. With Russian forces gaining more ground in Syria whether at the behest of the Syrian regime or by making unilateral moves, it will be crucial – albeit difficult – to observe how Iran proceeds to protect itself and its assets in Syria.
() 29 May 2018 – Telegraph - https://goo.gl/Z5jFUh
() 8 July 2018 – Fares News - https://goo.gl/3KdLpU
() 10 June 2018 – Daily Sabah - https://goo.gl/noyzPV
() 16 July 2018 – Al Masder News - https://goo.gl/zyKA28
Updated Influence report and map of Syria 22 June 2018 with % of Gains & Losses in the last 34 Days. Ongoing battles on the Northeast front of Daraa, Regime and allies forces with Russian air support of are trying to control the area to the east of Damascus - Daraa international highway to Nasib crossing gate.
Meanwhile YPG with US support launched a new Military Campaign against ISIS in Southern Hassaka.
Map (1): Areas of Influence - Syria - 22 June 2018
Map (2): Areas of Influence - Syria - 22 June 2018 (Simplified Map)
Map (3): Crossing Gate Control Breakdown and Current Situation
Chart (1): Simplified Percentage of Control (May vs. June) 2018
Note: The charts below show the percentage of total Syrian territory that each faction controls.
Chart (2): Percentage of Syrian Territory Controlled by Opposition Groups
Chart (3): Percentage of Syrian Territory controlled by the YPG
Chart (3): Percentage of Syrian Regime and Allies Control Areas Breakdown
Chart (4): Main International Military Bases and Airports – June 2018
Iran has continued its attempts to expand in southern Syria despite international agreements aimed at curbing its role in the area. Russian and American the influential countries in southern Syria consider the arrival of Iranian militias to the Jordanian-Syrian border and the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to be “a red line,” which has necessitated direct interventions. Despite this, Iran has continued its expansion as part of the encirclement, which it has pursued in recent months.
In November 2017, Daraa province has witnessed surprising competition between Iran and Regime forces around the conscription of Syrian young men from the province, as well as the formation of a new force, Brigade 313, which is under the authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Despite the Iranian-led brigade only being around for a number of months, it has attracted more than 200 young men; members who were conscripted for the formation were young men from Daraa who were known to work on behalf of the regime, who were currently promoting the force based on its benefits, and the salary, which its members received.
Enlistment takes place at the Brigade 313 headquarters in the city of Sa'Sa', and new members receive an ID, which has the logo of the Revolutionary Guard, ensuring his ability to pass through Regime forces checkpoints.
In recent weeks Daraa has witnessed the most intense clashes and aerial bombardments it has seen for years. Despite the plan for “de-escalation zones,” civilians in the city are likely to becaught in the newest battlefield for foreign power proxies and the warring Syrian sides.
ISTANBUL– When the Syrian government announced a 48-hour cessation of hostilities in Daraa on Saturday, some residents of the southern city were skeptical.
The brief pause in fighting, which ended on Tuesday as the Syrian army and its allied forces resumed their operation, came after two weeks of some of the most intense aerial bombardments and clashes the city has seen since 2015. Some saw the pause in fighting as a victory for the rebels who control the city and who have been resisting a government advance in the area since February. Others, however, were worried that the temporary halt was a cover for pro-government forces to bring in reinforcements.
The truce was announced just as the dates were set for the next round of United Nations-led peace talks in Geneva (July 10) and Russia-led negotiations in Astana (July 4–5). In theory, it sounded promising. Syrian state-run media said the purpose of the truce was “to back the national reconciliation efforts.” The area is part of Russia’s proposed “de-escalation zones,” where a ceasefire has, in theory, been in effect since last month, though it has not been enforced.
In fact, in recent months the area has become the newest battleground for fighting between rebel and pro-regime forces – and the various foreign powers with different strategic interests in the south. Aerial bombardment and ground clashes between opposition and pro-government forces are continuing in Daraa city.
Map of control for the fourth proposed “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s southern provinces. (Nawar Oliver)
“Moving forward, the bombing is only going to increase, and there will be no reconciliation,” a Syrian military source told the nonprofit journalism organization Syria Direct. “Give it a month, and this will all be taken care of.”
With so many parties involved, a lasting ceasefire in the area is an unlikely option, and despite the international community gearing up for yet another round of discussions aimed at stemming the ongoing violence and destabilizing the actions of warring parties, civilians in Daraa continue to suffer.
Pro-government forces have carried out roughly 2,000 air raids, including the use of barrel bombs, missiles and artillery shells, on Daraa city in recent months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group. In the two weeks before the temporary ceasefire, pro-regime forces allegedly carried out 645 barrel-bomb attacks, 199 airstrikes, 645 mortar attacks and 91 napalm rocket attacks, according to the volunteer group Syria Civil Defence.
During this time at least 88 civilians, including 18 children and seven women, were reportedly killed by pro-regime forces. Twelve people were killed in an airstrike that hit a school housing IDPs, Muhammad Asakra, a citizen journalist based in Daraa city, told Syria Deeply. A government missile also hit the civil defense center in Daraa last week, rendering the building and one ambulance inoperable, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
The increase in attacks preceded a major ground offensive in the city by the Syrian army and Iran-backed Shia militias. On June 4, pro-government reinforcements, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi militias and the army’s elite 4th Armored Division, were deployed in what rebels said was a move to seize the city and control Syria’s border with Jordan.
Pro-government forces were attempting to advance on the Daraa camp neighborhood to outflank the opposition, which had recently seized roughly 90 percent of the strategic al-Manshia district, Abo Muhammad Daraa, the spokesperson for rebel league Ahrar Horan, told Syria Deeply.
Fighting broke out in February when some Southern Front rebel factions, with members of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, launched the “Death Over Humiliation,” offensive against government forces in Daraa city, aimed at preventing the regime from capturing the border crossing with Jordan. On February 17, opposition fighters captured most of al-Manshia district and part of the highway leading to a crossing, postponing any regime attempts to reopen it.
Map showing the location of the February battle between rebels and pro-government forces to capture the border crossing with Jordan. (Nawar Oliver)
The partial truce came only after “repeated” failed attempts to seize the city, Major Issam al Rayes, spokesman for the Southern Front coalition of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Reuters. “The regime’s forces have stopped their military operations after big losses in equipment and men since the start of their campaign over a month ago,” he added.
According to a statement from the rebel military operations room known as al-Bunyan al-Marsous, at least 40 members of pro-regime forces were killed in recent clashes in Daraa, including high-ranking officers, such as Ahmad Fayez Tajo, who directed fighting in Zabadani city and Darayya district. Senior Iranian military adviser Haydar Jalilond was also killed in fighting in Daraa, according to the Iranian Nasim news agency.
The Syrian government is not the only side fighting in Daraa with foreign allies. Jordan, which shares a 235-mile (375km) border with Syria, and its allies have maintained relations with rebels to deter fighting and keep the border region relatively free of hostilities. As a result, until February, Daraa had largely been considered a de facto safe zone – despite intermittent Syrian airstrikes.
The southern provinces are largely under the control of Syria’s armed opposition, comprising roughly 40 Free Syrian Army-linked factions operating under the Southern Front umbrella. The Southern Front has received varying degrees of training and funding from countries in the joint Military Operations Center (MOC) between Western and Gulf states based in Amman. This has enabled Jordan to exert control, with tacit consent from the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, over rebel factions near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, southern Daraa province and the Yarmouk Valley.
Until February, the MOC had also been able to regulate the majority of activities between Southern Front factions and the Syrian regime. For example, in August 2016, the MOC reportedly offered Southern Front rebels monthly salaries if they refrained from an offensive against the government-controlled town of Sheikh Miskeen. This is just one instance of how Jordan had managed to keep a relative level of calm in the south before February.
Table showing the change in percentage of control of the different groups in southern Syria before and after the recent offensives. (Nawar Oliver)
When fighting broke out in February, the Jordanian government’s initial reaction was to close 55 miles (90km) of its border with Daraa and Quneitra, denying entry to everyone, including injured civilians. The MOC responded by attempting to persuade the Southern Front factions to stop the battle or halt their participation – signaling that Jordan did not consent to the fighting.
One source close to the situation, who requested anonymity for security reasons, suggested the battle was not a rogue move by the rebel groups, but rather an American plan to deter Syrian government- and Iran-backed pro-government forces from taking control of the border crossing with Jordan so close to its ally Israel. The U.S., Jordan, the Gulf States and Israel, on varying levels, oppose a strong Iranian presence on the southern borders – one of the main obstacles for foreign cooperation in a southern safe area.
Daraa was not always a hub for foreign interests. The city, the homeland’s shield, was considered the spark that ignited the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2011.
The relative calm in Syria’s south in recent years has largely kept Daraa out of international headlines, but six years on residents and activists in the city are once again mobilizing to try to put an end to violence against civilians.
They started the “Act for Daraa” social media campaign on June 12 to raise awareness of the situation in the southern city. Using the hashtag #ActForDaraa, activists share photos, videos and reports of attacks in Daraa on various social media platforms. Some have also organized various sit-ins and demonstrations, and social media users around the world have posted pictures of themselves holding signs in support of the campaign.
Written by Housen Akoush, Nawar Oliver