Syria Insight: What do the regime and Russia want from Daraa province?
The relative calm of Daraa province in southern Syria was shattered in July by the familiar sound of shelling. It came more than a month after locals in Daraa Al-Balad contested presidential election results which predictably saw Bashar Al-Assad return to power. The ensuing siege and rocket fire on Daraa Al-Balad was the regime’s typical response to dissent.
The two months of conflict and negotiations before a deal was finally struck cast light on the complex relationship between Russia and the Syrian regime.
Russia was behind a resolution that in 2018 saw opposition towns and villages in Daraa capitulate in quick succession following a regime offensive.
The “reconciliation” resolution saw rebel fighters incorporated into the Russian-managed Fifth Corps, and parts of Daraa - while officially under regime control - maintain some degree of self-rule over their own affairs.
For the Syrian regime, the presence of these semi-autonomous enclaves in Daraa posed something of an existential threat to its own rule. Through assassinations, bombings, and finally a military offensive, the regime tried to put an end to the Russian-sanctioned project.
“Some observers have pointed to the area’s refusal to participate in Syria’s presidential election as the trigger for the escalation, but Damascus has been adamant for quite some time at reinstating its grip over the remaining pockets of Daraa that have been out of its control,” Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at Crisis Group told The New Arab.
“Daraa Al-Balad will probably produce a domino effect on other areas too.”
On 29 July, the Syrian regime began a ground offensive against Daraa Al-Balad and tried to starve and shell the neighbourhood into submission.
Over the coming weeks, heavy fighting erupted between the two sides, with Russia working on finding a solution to the crisis which might help maintain its reputation as a potential mediator in Syria.
“Daraa was meant to be Russia’s success story for local mediation. However, and even before the siege, many Syrians were looking at Daraa as a cautionary tale of what could be if they acquiesce to a deal with Damascus,” Khalifa said.
“These actors specially point to assassinations, detentions and overall lawlessness in the area.”
As negotiations dragged on, Russia found itself pressing more heavily on the opposition to accept the regime demands knowing that Damascus would not budge on the issue.
“There has been a shift in Russia’s dealing with Daraa. During the last round of talks they were both late to seriously intervene and when they did, they strongly weighed in favour of Damascus, almost completely rebuffing what they saw as unrealistic asks from the rebels,” Khalifa added.
“This could be for a number of reasons, really, but my thinking is that it’s an unwillingness on their side to exhaust any additional leverage with the regime at a time when Damascus seemed quite adamant to pursue its goals.”
Russia has been keen to use its influence in Syria to bolster its international standing and regional influence.
The unrest in southern Syria has been a key concern for two of Russia’s key partners in the region - Israel and Jordan. Both have been uneasy about the presence of Islamist and Iranian-backed militias close to their territories and are more focused on these perceived threats rather than regime change.
Samuel Ramani, politics tutor at the University of Oxford and Associate Fellow at RUSI, said the most recent flare-up of fighting in Daraa likely triggered concerns in both these countries.
While Russia has sought to expand its influence in southern Syria, it has maintained a pragmatic relationship with Iran - whose militias form the other main bloc in Daraa security forces - and this has helped strengthen Moscow’s position in the region, said Ramani.
“With Israel, Russia claims that it can either act as a moderating force on Iran’s support for proxy militias and has actively encouraged Syria not to shoot down Israeli jets with (Russian-made) S-300 air defence equipment,” he said.
“Russia has also conveyed this message privately via regular consultations between Putin and King Abdullah II of Jordan, and during interactions with Gulf monarchies – especially the UAE. As Iran’s military presence does the heavy lifting for Assad in Daraa, it creates an opening for Russia to expand its presence with limited costs and burdens.”
In 2018, Israel and Jordan worked closely with Russia to resolve the situation in Daraa. During the recent crisis, Moscow might have pressed again to resolve the situation by its nominal allies, said Ramani.
On 22 September, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that Russia has “an important role in stabilising the south of [Syria]” in an interview.
“Russia-Israeli relations under Bennett are more ambiguous than under Netanyahu, as personal relationships have been disrupted with the change in power in Israel so Moscow’s actions in Daraa could be a good way of assuaging Israel,” Ramani said.
“Russia also gets an opportunity to highlight its status as a conflict broker. This is also a test of Russia’s ability to coexist with Iran in the long-term, as we as restrict resistance from the Syrian opposition to areas of Idlib, where it has a partial understanding with Turkey.”
Who won in Daraa al-Balad?
Relief was the overwhelming feeling in Daraa al-Balad after a deal was signed. Both the regime and the opposition claimed victory, with the former hoisting its flag in the city and the latter celebrating the withdrawal of the locally-despised, Iran-backed 4th Armoured Division.
The road to a deal was painful, and several tentative settlements collapsed after either the regime or opposition reneged on their side of the agreement.
Originally, the regime wanted to install up to 13 security checkpoints in the city, deploy the 4th Armoured Division in the city, and the complete surrender of all light weaponry in the area.
These conditions were “unacceptable,” a member of the Daraa al-Balad’s negotiation committee told The New Arab under the condition of anonymity. “They wanted to enter the city by force and open security branches within the city - of course they would be arresting, kidnapping, assassinating and executing civilians if they did that,” the committee member said.
The final deal was decisively in the regime’s favor, but still was a far cry from what it originally demanded.
No security branches were set up within the city, and only a limited number of light arms were handed over. Those weapons that were turned over were “derelict,” Mohamed al-Askara, an activist from Daraa, told The New Arab.
The security checkpoints set up within the city were manned by the Moscow-aligned 8th brigade, a relatively tolerable outcome to local residents who see Moscow as a more credible actor than the regime and Iran.
Since the deal has been accepted, things have been “calm,” Hamzeh al-Hourani, a fighter from Daraa al-Balad, told The New Arab. “It’s like how it was right after the settlement in 2018 - peaceful.”
The confrontation between regime forces and opposition fighters in Daraa al-Balad was the most significant fighting seen in southern Syria since the regime entered in 2018. Opposition fighters were successfully able to repulse the regime’s advances for over a month, as well as overran regime checkpoints, killing soldiers in the process.
The fighting was a bloodletting for city residents, and manifested feelings of deep resentment that had been simmering in the province since the regime entered three years prior.
In the first days of fighting, the sense of excitement was palpable. In “solidarity,” opposition elements in surrounding towns attacked regime checkpoints as the conflict in Daraa al-Balad raged.
“We own this land, and we will sacrifice our lives for it,” al-Hourani said in late July.
By ending the rebellion in Daraa al-Balad on largely its own terms, the regime crushed the hope that came with the biggest challenge to its legitimacy in the south since reconciliation.
Even if it did not achieve everything it wanted in Daraa al-Balad, raising the regime flag in the city center has created the momentum it needed to re-conquer the rest of Daraa province—for the second time.
What does the regime want?
Since resolving the standoff in Daraa al-Balad, the regime has gone on to renegotiate the terms of the 2018 reconciliation deal with at least five other towns and villages in Daraa province. Tafas, Yaroubieh, Mzeireb, Dael city, Tel Shihab and al-Yadouda have all accepted new settlements with the regime.
Under the terms of these new deals, the limited autonomy given to Daraa province under the reconciliation agreements is effectively ended. Deals differ from town to town, but in general the new deals involve the turning over of light weaponry, the entrance of Syrian army forces and the settling of the status of non-violent offenders.
While the settling of statuses is a nominal pardon, in practice it does not guarantee its recipients' safety from the regime. Despite settling statuses, individuals in Daraa have been subject to arbitrary arrest and kidnapping.
Further, as a pro-government news station reported on 18 September, after settling their statuses, individuals have three months to enrol in the Syrian Arab Army.
In the past, settled individuals have often been sent to the most dangerous posts in Syria: combing the desert for Islamic State (IS) cells in the Syrian Badia, and being sent to the front-lines of Idlib and Hama. Many of the casualties in these two theatres are reconciled individuals who had their statuses settled.
In effect, drafting reconciled individuals allows the regime to remove any unwanted former opposition elements from Daraa - weakening any future opposition.
Most immediately, the regime wants to consolidate its control in southern Syria. By re-shaping the reconciliation deals, it was able to reduce the autonomy of Daraa and make moves towards “rebel-proofing” the province.
The fact that regime soldiers are now distributed physically within cities in Daraa means that a repeat scenario of Daraa al-Balad, where the regime was unable to enter, is less likely.
By putting down the rebellion in Daraa al-Balad, it also removed a major challenge to the legitimacy of the reconciliation process—which it seeks to replicate in northeast and eventually, northwest Syria.
The regime also has external-facing goals with its “re-conquest” of Daraa. Regional powers - such as the Gulf Arab states and Jordan - are moving to normalise relations with the Assad regime. Open warfare with non-jihadist fighters makes Assad’s grip on Syria seem more tenuous and the regime’s war on its own citizens harder to sweep under the rug.
Fighting in southern Syria also spoils progress with its southern neighbour, Jordan. Jordan re-opened its border crossing with Syria for just a few days before it was forced to close it due to fighting in Daraa al-Balad.
The M5 international highway, which links Syria to Jordan and is a key transit point for goods heading to the lucrative GCC market, runs straight through Daraa.
There does not need to be a full-scale rebellion in Daraa to cut off the highway. Just a few well-motivated actors could do much to threaten the security of the highway and spook traders looking to transit their goods through Syria. Consolidating the regime’s security presence in southern Syria is a hedge against these threats.
However, unless the new settlements solve resident’s grievances with the regime - namely, subjecting the population to lawlessness and arbitrary violence - Daraa is unlikely to stay peaceful for long.