Syria Weekly: Is a new anti-Assad insurgency emerging in Syria?

Syria Weekly: Is a new anti-Assad insurgency emerging in Syria?
Attacks on Syrian regime positions have been widely reported this week, pointing to the emergence of a new low-level insurgency against Bashar al-Assad.
6 min read
26 April, 2019
Signs of a new anti-government insurgency are being seen in Syria [Getty]
New opposition activities have emerged in the shadows of regime-controlled territories in recent weeks with reports of attacks and bombings on Syrian army positions. There are signs pointing towards the start of a possible new insurgency against Bashar al-Assad's government, but the scale and potential of these anti-regime uprisings have been questioned by some commentators.

Among the areas where alleged attacks have taken place is Deir az-Zour, recently recaptured by the government from the Islamic State group [IS], but once controlled by rebel groups. Activists on social media have claimed a new opposition group has formed in the eastern province named Kateebat Thuwar Muhassan with the group claiming two attacks on Syrian army positions in recent weeks. This includes an alleged raid this week on Syrian regime forces at al-Sayyal, near Albukamal, resulting in the killing of 31 regime troops and militia fighters.

IS or rebels?

Sources have told The New Arab that these claims are likely to be false, and difficult to prove in a lawless region of Syria where information is tightly controlled by the regime. Pro-Assad media reported that a battle did take place in al-Sayyal this week between Syrian troops and Islamic State group infiltrators who had attempted to escape Baghouz for central Syria.
General poverty, lawlessness and corruption loom heavy over the land
DeirezZor24 monitoring group also confirmed that clashes between IS and the regime took place, but did not mention the supposed new rebel brigade. IS attacks have become increasingly common in Deir az-Zour.

This does not rule out the possibility of a new insurgency breaking out in opposition areas, which could perhaps mark a new chapter in Syria's bloody war. Although the Syrian regime have recaptured large parts of the country from opposition forces, militarily Assad's forces are overstretched and ill-prepared to fight guerrilla warfare against a clandestine armed opposition.

The economic situation in Syria remains grim with fuel shortages leading to miles-long queues at petrol stations, while food prices have shot up to astronomical levels. General poverty, lawlessness and corruption loom heavy over the land. The appetite for Russia and Iran – who have been pinnacle to the regime's survival – to get embroiled in an insurgency war would be questionable given their own domestic economic and political problems at home.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told The New Arab that the conditions that led Syrians onto the streets in 2011 are still there, while the regime's violent suppression could throw more into armed resistance.

"Abuses by the regime, corruption, lack of economic opportunities, the denial of basic rights have all become worse, therefore the regime's recapture of areas in 2018 does not indicate it enjoys legitimacy or support in these areas. The regime won because it was more powerful than the opposition with greater firepower and foreign support," Tsurkov said.
The conditions that led Syrians onto the streets in 2011 are still there, while the regime's violent suppression could throw more into armed resistance

Although Assad's forces control much of Syria, the nature of the regime has been to enrich the economic elite at the expense of the people. This means that unrest could be inevitable in some areas if the economic situation worsens and injustices continue.

Daraa, in southern Syria, has witnessed low-level unrest since it was recaptured by the regime last year, following a massive Russian-backed offensive and a so-called reconciliation deals witha number of rebel groups. The former opposition stronghold has witnessed civil protests and there have been low-level clashes between former rebels and regime forces in recent months.

Some former rebel groups have been loosely organised into the Russian-backed Fifth Corps, giving parts of Daraa a degree of autonomy. This does not mean the opposition fighters are now loyal to Damascus or Moscow, Tsurkov said.

"The narrative touted by the regime and Russia of 'reconciliation' does not reflect reality. Town and civilians surrendered because they were militarily defeated, not due to support for the regime or a desire to 'return to the bosom of the homeland', as the regime calls it," the researcher added.

"There is a great deal of hatred towards the regime among residents of areas now under its control and thereforce it is not surprising that in areas where the military and the intelligence's control is not tight some forms of insurgency will develop."

According to interviews conducted by Aymenn al-Tamimi with one former rebel in Daraa, the reconciliation deals agreed with Russia were motivated by a desire to prevent the regime directly controlling their towns and to avoid conscription into the government military. There was also a deep-rooted hatred among southern rebels for the Islamic State group which occupied the Yarmouk Valley, with opposition groups playing a key role in the regime's re-capture of these territories. 


Following recent clashes and scuffles between former rebel and regime fighters, Damascus has enacted revenge of opposition towns and villages in the southern province by blocking medical supplies to Daraa's sole clinic. Regime intelligence and militias deployed to the province have acted as an occupying force, with theft, extortion and disappearances commonplace. On Tuesday, a video showed former rebels attacking a regime checkpoint, allegedly in Sanamayn. Damascus sent reinforcements, including tanks, to quell the uprising.

"The insurgency we are seeing in Daraa stems from, in part, the reconciliation deals the rebels achieved through negotiations with the Russians which allowed them, in some towns, to hold on to their light weapons. Even in these areas that completely surrendered to the regime, light weaponry and IEDs were stashed away and can be used to attack regime checkpoints or assassinate regime and Hizballah officials," Tsurkov added.

Despite the potential problems these raids could cause for the regime, it is unlikely to lead to a repeat of the large-scale armed uprising that broke out in 2011, following mass defections from the Syrian army.

"This insurgency does not pose a threat to Damascus: it has a tight grip on power and occasional hit-and-run attacks will not destabilise this regime, which continues to enjoy Iranian and Russian backing, while the opposition has been reduced to controlling small pockets of territory in northern Syria."

State news reported on Wednesday that a bomb had gone off in the capital Damascus killing one civilian. The attack was claimed by a rebel group and the victim an alleged security official, showing that whether accidental, criminal or armed resistance, Syria remains a long way from stability. Far more dangerous would be an increase in attacks on civilians by IS, who have threatened their own insurgency in the deeply-divided country.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin