Syria Military Brief: South Syria – 01 September 2022

Serious tensions are brewing between the former opposition and the regime’s intelligence forces across Daraa province following a slew of assassinations targeting local leaders. In western Daraa, violence remains intermittent between the regime and former opposition groups despite the establishment of a settlement agreement to end the weeks-long siege of the Tafas area. Tensions worsened after the killing of two prominent local figures by intelligence-backed cells and now threaten to restart violence in the area. With the former opposition under threats of violence and serious regime pressure, many representatives have now resigned their posts or left the area altogether—including the once-influential Daraa Central Committee, whose former opposition members voted to dissolve the body after months of security threats and stonewalling from the regime.

Attached Map: Recent Developments in South Syria – 1 September 2022

Western Daraa Tensions

  • Tafas settlement reached: Regime and former opposition negotiators reached a settlement deal that ended the weeks-long siege of Tafas in western Daraa, with the former opposition agreeing to expel wanted individuals and allow the regime to establish positions within the area (16.8). Although the settlement deal would ultimately see the regime open roads to and from the city to civilian traffic, violence and tensions persist. Nevertheless, the regime withdrew most of its reinforcements from Tafas and conducted security sweeps in several areas, though no arrests were recorded (16.8-18.8).
  • Extortion of farmers: The regime’s blockade of western Daraa created difficult conditions for local farmers unable to access their lands to harvest their crops. As the encirclement continued, the regime temporarily allowed farmers to access their lands located beyond the siege lines in exchange for payouts of roughly $340 per farmer. Through this system of bribery, the regime had managed to extort an estimated $40,000 from local farmers by the end of July. In early August, however, the regime rescinded this offer, informing farmers that all of their properties and lands needed to be evacuated and cleared of workers within less than 24 hours (4.8).
  • Prominent commander assassinated: Although the siege in Tafas has concluded, the violence has not. An armed group assassinated Khaldoun a-Zoubi, one of the most prominent former opposition commanders in western Daraa, as he returned to Tafas from a meeting in Daraa city (25.8). The killing sparked serious anger—a-Zoubi is the latest in a string of former opposition members to be killed in the area. A-Zoubi’s funeral was held a day later in Tafas, transforming at its conclusion into an anti-regime demonstration.
  • Deep tensions in Tafas: The killing of a-Zoubi came only days after the assassination of Fadi al-Asmi, a well-known religious figure, in nearby Dael (17.8).
  • Demonstrations: Several small demonstrations took place across south Syria, with dozens of residents in Jasim and Daraa al-Balad holding small-scale protests against the regime’s escalation in western Daraa (12.8). Several attendees at both rallies brandished weapons.

Recent Developments

  • Daraa central committee dissolves: Members of the Daraa Reconciliation Committee (also known as the Daraa Central Committee) announced the dissolution of the organization, more than four years since its establishment (4.8). The move came amid serious frustrations regarding the effectiveness and abilities of the group given their limited influence and power, as well as security concerns following the assassination of numerous members of the body.

Instability in South Syria

  • Daraa-Suwayda tensions: Tensions flared between residents of Muslim-majority Daraa and Druze-majority Suwayda province earlier this month following the kidnapping and murder of Hatem Azzam (2.8). Azzam, a Druze from Suwayda, was kidnapped by an armed group and later executed by Daraa resident Samir al-Hariri, whose brother was kidnapped by a gang in Suwayda days prior. Suwayda residents are now demanding the return of Azzam’s body, while the threat of impending clashes between rival armed groups has prompted dozens of families to flee farmland located on the provincial border between Daraa and Suwayda. Retributive kidnappings between Suwayda and Daraa are not uncommon, with isolated abductions sometimes snowballing into tit-for-tat violence that destabilizes entire communities.
  • Extortion: Crime and violence continue to exacerbate instability across south Syria, with residents increasingly targeted in several areas of Daraa by criminal gangs seeking to rob or extort them. One criminal leader issued threats to more than 100 individuals in several eastern Daraa towns and demanded bribes and “protection money” (1.8). The wide-scale operation saw the group gather at least $100,000 from one town alone.
  • European migration: Smugglers continue to utilize illicit networks to transport young men from south Syria out of the country, with hundreds of youth departing south Syria in order to evade detention or conscription into the regime’s army. A network of smugglers is currently charging $12,000 to transport individuals to Europe through north-east Syria and Turkey (24.8). Hundreds of men have been arrested by the regime as they attempt to escape Syria, while others have been intercepted by regional border authorities.
  • Belarus route resumes: A separate scheme appears to have emerged through Belarus: at least 400 men from Daraa traveled to Belarus during the first two and a half weeks of August with the ultimate intention of crossing into the European Union (17.8). Their departure comes nearly a year after a migrant crisis briefly emerged at the Polish-Lithuanian border.
  • Men flee to Iraq and Lebanon: Some 50 men left the Lajat region of Daraa province and used informal smuggling routes to reach either Iraqi Kurdistan or Lebanon (31.7). The majority were fleeing mandatory military service.