Syrian regime forces storm Daraa al-Balad as negotiations fail
Renewed clashes broke out between regime forces and residents in Daraa al-Balad in Southern Syria on Wednesday, after the former attempted to storm the city for the second consecutive day in a row.
Regime forces shelled Karak, a neighborhood in Daraa al-Balad, and exchanged intermittent rounds of gunfire with residents elsewhere in the city. The day prior there was also fighting on the outskirts of the city between residents on one side and regime forces and their allied militias on the other.
Tuesday's fighting resulted in the death of one resident and the injury of at least four, including two small children. In addition, the violence caused an unknown number of families to flee and others to request that they be allowed to evacuate before regime forces enter the city.
The fighting comes after Daraa al-Balad has been under siege by the regime for over a month, with soldiers blocking electricity, water and all roads into the city. The siege started after Daraa al-Balad refused to accept the results of Syria's presidential elections in May, widely condemned as fraudulent by the international community.
The siege produced a humanitarian crisis in the city, cutting off all goods from entering except those few which were able to be smuggled in.
The siege was due to be lifted over the weekend, after a deal was struck between Daraa’s negotiating committee and regime forces on 24 July. However, disagreements over its implementation led to regime forces re-imposing the siege on Tuesday.
The deal stipulated that the residents of Daraa al-Balad had to hand over a certain amount of light weaponry and allow the regime to install three security checkpoints within the city. In return the regime would issue pardons for a number of local individuals, lift the siege, withdraw its forces from the city and disarm local militias which are backed by the regime.
Residents turned in about 60 pieces of weaponry, but the regime claimed that the weapons were "damaged" and that they were insufficient to fulfill the deal, Mohammed al-Asaker, an activist from Daraa, told The New Arab.
Large amounts of regime forces then began to gather outside Daraa al-Balad, bringing in reinforcements and military vehicles from neighbouring cities, once again closing routes in and out of the city. On Tuesday, the regime forces attempted to push into Daraa al-Balad, but were ultimately repelled by fighters in Daraa al-Balad.
"The regime broke the deal," Ahmad Abazeid, an activist working with the Freedom for Daraa Campaign, told The New Arab. "The regime raised the number of [requested] checkpoints within the city from three to seven, and then to ten, in addition to placing military and Iranian-backed forces within Daraa," Abazeid said.
There has been on-and-off again fighting between the regime and residents across Daraa province since the regime retook the southern Syrian province in July 2018.
At the time, the regime and a "central negotiating committee," a committee made up of local leaders in Daraa province, produced what were called the reconciliation agreements, which were preliminary terms meant to govern Damascus's re-entry to the province under Russian supervision.
Reconciliation has largely been unsuccessful in the three years since its adoption in southern Syria, as scores of residents who supposedly "settled their status" and were given a pardon from the regime have faced arbitrary arrest, disappearance, and torture.
Opposition political activity has continued in Daraa, albeit in different forms than before 2018, and there have been multiple open skirmishes between regime forces and residents across the province.
Security conditions have also degraded in southern Syria, with assassinations and kidnappings of regime figures, former opposition forces, and civilians occurring frequently.
Personally, I refuse to turn in my weapons, unless it stops the war
Some former opposition figures, such as Mustafa al-Kassem, have also formed their own militias with the blessing of the regime and act with impunity within Daraa. "He has bombed the city more than once, and is accused of killing young men from the city," Abazeid said.
As a result, residents of Daraa have little faith in the regime and its desire to implement reconciliation agreements meant to smooth the transition as Damascus reasserts control within the southern province.
"Personally, I refuse to turn in my weapons, unless it stops the war," Hamza al-Hourani, a resident and fighter from Dara al-Balad, told The New Arab. However, Hourani expressed skepticism that the regime would abide by any future agreement, regardless of whether he handed in his guns.
"If the regime wanted to end this situation, we would have turned in our weapons yesterday," he explained.
Until some sort of settlement was reached, then, Hourani resolved to fight. More reinforcements arrived as he spoke, intensifying the buildup of regime forces just outside Daraa al-Balad.
"We're not advocates of war, but war has been imposed on us. We’re the owners of this land, and we will sacrifice our lives for it."