Syria Military Brief: South Syria – 23 March 2020

An outbreak of deadly clashes between an ISIS-linked armed group and the regime’s 4th Division has left nearly two dozen regime soldiers dead in rural western Daraa, prompting a series of aggressive regime deployments to the surrounding area as regime officials threaten to launch a retributive operation. Members of the Muhammad Qassim a-Sbeehi group ambushed regime forces in Muzayrib, with local figures in the area now working to convince a-Sbeehi and other ISIS-linked figures to depart south Syria in order to avoid the regime’s collective punishment. The regime frequently uses ISIS remnants to justify its aggressive policies in south Syria. As the security situation worsens, living conditions for Syrians in the south continue to deteriorate: many communities are without flour to produce bread, and the freefall of the Syrian pound has pushed most markets and businesses to close. Meanwhile, the region is facing its most concerning spike in coronavirus cases in months, with more than 3,000 infected in a one-week period.

Attached Map: Recent Developments in South Syria – 23rd March 2020

Military & Political Developments

  • Western Daraa escalation: More than 22 4th Division soldiers were killed in a major ambush on regime forces attempting to raid the home of ISIS-linked armed group leader Muhammad Qassim a-Sbeehi in Muzayrib in rural western Daraa (16.3). The fighting has raised serious concerns that the regime will retaliate against western Daraa with a security operation.
  • Retributive kidnappings: Relatives of kidnapped Suwayda resident Mustafa Azzam abducted a number of Daraa residents traveling in western Suwayda province in a new instance of tit-for-tat kidnappings between the two provinces (14.3). Azzam’s family is working to pressure Ismail a-Shukri, the leader of a criminal gang who abducted Azzam a week prior. In a separate move, members of Ahmad al-Awdeh’s 8th Brigade arrested several Bedouins accused of carrying out kidnappings in rural Daraa and Suwayda provinces (16.3).
  • Regime seizes weapons: The regime has made several attempts to boost its stores of weapons and disarm the former opposition, informing local regime militia groups and former opposition units in south Syria that they will be required to surrender a personal light firearm or pay 700,000 SYP in order to renew their security ID (7.3).
  • Russian visit to Busra: A Russian delegation led by Operations Commander General Andrei Kolotovkin visited Busra a-Sham in rural eastern Daraa province accompanied by reporters from several Russian TV channels (13.3).
  • Presidential amnesty: The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued a new general amnesty for those wanted for military service and defectors (12.3). The decree stipulates that wanted individuals turn themselves in within the next three months, and comes alongside regime promises to “determine the fate” of those detained from 2011 onwards. Numerous presidential amnesties have been issued in recent years, but are not enforced—arrests, killings and forced disappearances continue even following the issuance of such decrees, with tens of thousands of Syrians unaccounted for within the regime’s network of detention facilities and prisons.
  • Tafas talks: Russian-moderated talks continue between the regime and former opposition in rural western Daraa following an agreement that brought an end to a regime escalation there last month. The deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, Aleksandr Karbov met with the former opposition’s reconciliation committee and Daraa governor Marwan Sherbak in Tafas to discuss services (8.3).
  • Emigration: More than 400 men have departed Daraa province since the start of March, ultimately working their way towards Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt and Libya. The men, most of whom departed Syria to avoid mandatory military service, have set their sights on these new destinations following the UAE’s decision to discontinue issuing work visas to Syrians.
  • Former opposition attacked: Two members of Ahmad al-Awdeh’s 8th Brigade were shot and killed in Dael by unknown attackers (19.3).

Instability in South Syria

  • Demonstrations:
    10 year anniversary: Syrians across Daraa province demonstrated to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, protesting in nearly a dozen towns and cities one decate after mass demonstrations against the regime in Daraa began (18.3, 19.3).
    — Arrests prompt protests: Demonstrators in the Lajat town of Jaddel in rural eastern Daraa province burned tires, blocked roads in response to the regime’s arrest of several local residents (18.3, 20.3).
    — Daraa protests: Protesters burned tires, closed roads connected Daraa al-Balad and Daraa al-Mahatta after the regime’s arrest of a former opposition member (8.3). Days later, similar protests erupted in Umm Batinah in rural Quneitra province when protesters built burning roadblocks in response to the arrest of three residents (10.3). The regime subsequently released two of the detained.
  • Attacks on regime forces: Popular anger continues to fuel anti-regime attacks:
    — Damascus bombing: The regime announced that it had prevented a bombing inside Damascus carried out by a Kanaker-based armed group (15.3), with state media reporting that regime forces killed three of the attackers.
  • Assassinations: Assassinations underscore the south’s instability as multiple forces compete for control and influence:
    — Former commanders targeted: Former opposition commander Ahmad a-Saqlawi survived an IED strike on his vehicle in Saida al-Jolan in rural southern Quneitra province (7.3). The same day, gunmen attacked former opposition commander Abdelrahman al-Eisawi in Tasil in rural western Daraa. Just days earlier, an armed group targeted former opposition commander Walid a-Dokhi in Inkhil in rural northern Daraa province (5.3). A-Dohki began working for regime State Security after the 2018 surrender deal.
     Former opposition killed: Unknown attackers shot and killed a former opposition fighter in Jasim in rural northern Daraa province (4.3).
     Christian returnee killed: An armed group assassinated Bassam Elyas Rizq, a local resident and Christian, in Kharaba in rural eastern Daraa province (11.3). Rizq had returned to Kharaba from elsewhere in Syria after the 2018 surrender agreement.
     Local official targeted: Ghassan al-Ammarein, the mukhtar of Nawa in rural western Daraa province, survived an attempt on his life after gunmen attacked him outside his home (20.3).

Humanitarian Developments

  • Coronavirus: At least 3,420 new coronavirus cases and 54 deaths have been reported by local health authorities in Daraa province this week (14.3-20.3), a major spike following several weeks of relatively low incidents of new infections. The spike comes amid an ongoing lack of proper infrastructure to treat and quarantine patients that threatens public healthj.
  • Bread shortage: Daraa province continues to experience a major bread shortage and regime flour shipments arrive days behind schedule or are cut off completely.
  • Businesses close: Businesses and stores across Daraa province have largely closed their doors in light of rapidly worsening economic conditions and the freefall of the Syrian Pound (15.3-19.3), and it remains unclear when business will resume.
  • SARC in Busra a-Sham: The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) opened a new branch center in Busra a-Sham in rural eastern Daraa in coordination with members of Ahmad al-Awdeh’s 8th Brigade (17.3). The initiative has seen shipments of World Food Program food parcels unloaded in Busra a-Sham for distribution, with aid operations set to be guarded by 8th Brigade forces.