Syria Military Brief: South Syria – 31 May 2021

The regime conducted presidential elections in south Syria last Wednesday in the face of miniscule turnout, wide-spread popular protests and a general strike, as well as a slate of attacks against ballot boxes and election officials. After a weeks-long campaign to bolster security and turnout, the regime succeeded in placing ballot boxes in only 30 Daraa communities—less than a quarter of the province—with nearly half of all election facilities coming under attack by armed groups. The regime’s inability to conduct elections underscores the regime’s limited control over the south and the widespread rejection of its authority despite the passing of nearly three years since the 2018 surrender deal.  Adding to the public’s malaise regarding the regime’s corrupt electoral process, the month of May also saw a weeks-long escalation in Quneitra that ultimately saw the forced displacement of 150 Umm Batnah residents following repeated regime threats of a military incursion into the area.

 

Attached Map: South Syria 31th May 2021

Regime Presidential Elections

  • Syrian elections held: Voting in the Syrian presidential election took place on Wednesday after weeks of intense regime security buildup and efforts by officials to encourage civilians to take part in the electoral process. Despite regime efforts, only 30 voting centers were established in Daraa out of a total of 131 population centers. Major population centers such as Tafas, Daraa al-Balad and Busra a-Sham were among the areas where no voting took place—demonstrating the regime’s limited ability to penetrate local communities.
  • Syrians reject elections: Local residents of south Syria widely rejected participation in the country’s elections, viewing the regime’s electoral process as a rigged and broken system, its results preordained. Anti-election protests took place in 12 separate cities and towns across Daraa province, including major demonstrations in Tafas, Busra a-Sham and Daraa al-Balad condemning the regime and its corrupt elections. Beyond protests, residents of more than 94 cities and towns participated in a general strike to express their total rejection of the elections, while anti-regime fliers and pamphlets were distributed by activists in at least 106 towns and cities.
  • Protesters injured: Regime forces opened fire on anti-election protesters who approached an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint separating Daraa al-Balad and Daraa al-Mahatta (28.5), prompting clashes with members of a local armed group. Four protesters were wounded in the initial escalation by regime forces, with retaliatory gunfire by nearby armed men injuring three regime fighters.
  • Election attacks: Unknown armed groups launch a major wave of attacks against voting centers and election officials in south Syria, with more than 14 attacks recorded at various ballot box locations in Daraa province (26.5). Among the attacks included the burning of a Baath Party building in El Sahoah in rural eastern Daraa (27.5) and the targeting of several Military Intelligence fighters with hand grenades following the release of voting results. At least four attacks were recorded in nearby Suwayda province, in addition.
  • Election officials targeted: At least 16 instances of election officials being targeted by armed groups were recorded during and following the elections, including several assassinations. Among the attacks included the killing of election official Adnan Anad al-Masri as he traveled between Muzayrib and Yadudah in rural western Daraa province (25.5), an attack on Abu Yazen a-Tarmish, the secretary of the Baath Party Division in El Karak in rural eastern Daraa province (25.5).

Military & Political Developments

  • Quneitra displacement: The regime forcibly displaced 150 individuals, including former opposition fighters and their families, from their homes in Umm Batnah in rural northern Daraa province (21.5). The forced displacement came as the result of a weeks-long escalation that saw the regime threaten a military escalation against the town in order to coerce the former opposition into acquiescence. The displaced were taken under Russian escort from Quneitra to areas of north-west Syria under the control of Turkish-backed opposition factions as part of a Russian-brokered deal, arriving to IDP camps along the Syrian-Turkish border a day later (22.5). Although the regime sought the displacement of 30 armed men and their families from Umm Batnah, only 17 were ultimately expelled—the remaining 13 being Ha’yat Tahrir a-Sham-linked Muhammad Kheir a-Saiyda and members of his armed group.
  • Lajat returns: Some 200 civilians previously displaced from the Lajat region of rural eastern Daraa province returned to their homes in the towns of Al Shomara, A Shayah, Al-Mudawara and Al-Tayf under escort from Ahmad al-Awdeh’s 8th Brigade and several Russian military police patrols (22.5). The civilians were previously driven from their homes by local Hezbollah militia groups following the 2018 surrender deal, and their returns follow weeks of negotiations and talks between the former opposition and Russia.
  • Presidential amnesty: The regime issued a new presidential amnesty in preparation for upcoming elections, releasing the names of dozens of detainees in Daraa who are set to be released as a result (2.5). This amnesty had been discussed repeatedly by Russian officials in recent months, and is the latest in a long series of intermittent amnesties ignored by security forces as arrests and arbitrary detentions continue.
  • Officers discharged: The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad, issued a decree to release army personnel who have spent long periods of time in service (11.5). Of the discharged include reserve officers who have served more than two and a half years, doctors who have completed mandatory service and reserve elements who have spent more than seven and a half years on duty. High-ranking officers benefit the most from this decree, while only a small portion of soldiers have completed the steep requirement for release from duty.

Instability in South Syria

  • Anti-regime demonstrations: The frequency and lethality of attacks against the regime have increased in recent weeks, with the regime sustaining mounting casualties in light of growing popular anger:
  • — Daraa al-Balad: Dozens of protesters joined more than 150 armed former opposition fighters in an anti-regime demonstration in Daraa al-Balad in solidarity with Umm Batineh in Quneitra (2.5), this also came amid major tensions with the regime in Daraa city.
  • — Palestine solidarity: As the Israeli military launched a military escalation against Gaza last week, calls to display solidarity with Palestinians arose in south Syria. Residents of Muzayrib conducted two marches in support of Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza (13.5-14.5), with demonstrators also denouncing the regime for its recent threats of escalation in Umm Batinah in Quneitra province.
  • Attacks on regime forces:
    — Bomb attacks:
    An IED exploded in downtown Inkhil in rural northern Daraa province (3.5). Days later, unknown attackers detonated another bomb in the al-Abasiyah neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad (4.5). No one was injured in either attack. Attackers also planted an IED near a State Security checkpoint in Al Harah in rural northern Daraa province, but regime forces disarmed the bomb before it detonated (7.5).
    — Bomb attack: A bomb exploded near a police station in Sheikh Maskin in rural northern Daraa province (14.5), but no casualties were reported. In the aftermath of the blast, regime forces discovered and subsequently disarmed a number of other IEDs at nearby positions.
    — IED strike: Unknown attackers detonated an explosive device near a regime position along the Daraa-Damascus highway near Saida in rural western Daraa province (18.5).
    — Tafas blast: Attackers detonated a bomb in downtown Tafas, yet the blast did not cause any injuries or deaths (24.5).
  • Assassinations: Assassinations are a result of various entities competing for control, with the 4th Division a major target at present:
    Retired general targeted: Unknown gunmen attempted to assassinate retired regime Brigadier General Dheeb Khalifah in Girgis in rural central Quneitra province (3.5). Khalifah, unharmed in the attack, is closely affiliated with regime Air Force Intelligence and previously served within the apparatus’ administration.
    Former representative killed: An unknown attacker assassinated Moataz Yousef al-Jebawi, a former opposition official who served on both the local council of his hometown and Daraa’s provincial council, stabbing him to death in Barqa in rural northern Daraa province (6.5).
    Baath Party killed: Gunmen shot and killed Muhammad Yousef a-Dayat, a Baath Party official, in El Sahoah in eastern Daraa province (11.5). A-Dayat had recently been tasked with overseeing the distribution of ballot boxes for the upcoming presidential elections set for late May.
    Highway killing: Gunmen assassinated Yasser Muhammad al-Marjan, a relative of Former Prime minister Wael al-Halqi, as he travelled along the Damascus-Daraa highway near Jbab (13.5).
    Municipal official targeted: The head of the eastern Daraa town of Ghussum’s municipal council, Mustafa al-Miqdad, survived an attempt on his life after gunmen opened fire on his position (16.5). The attack on al-Miqdad comes following a series of earlier assassinations on municipal employees and figures in recent weeks.

Arrests & Violations  

  • Killed in prison: Relatives of three Daraa residents received death notices in May, including two former opposition fighters, with each presumed to have been killed under torture. The three has previously turned themselves into the regime following the 2018 surrender deal.
  • Highway arrests: Regime Air Force Intelligence arrested four Daraa residents traveling along the Damascus-Daraa highway (6.5, 29.5).
  • Raids: Regime Air Force Intelligence raided farmhouses west of Dael in western Daraa province in search of wanted individuals (11.5). Later in May, regime State Security launched a series of raids and conducted arrests in Mhajjeh in rural northern Daraa province, arresting several residents (29.5).
  • Doctor arrested: Regime forces arrested a well-known and prominent doctor in Jasim in rural northern Daraa province (23.5). The doctor had been a medical worker in opposition areas of south-west Syria prior to the 2018 surrender deal.

Humanitarian Developments

  • Coronavirus: Local health officials in Daraa province recorded at least 9,655 new coronavirus infections over the last month in addition to 171 new deaths (2.5-31.5). Although the virus continues to spread in south Syria, the regime’s Daraa Health Directorate halted vaccine distribution in province—citing low interest from local residents to receive the vaccine. The region’s health sector has suffered under months of negligence and mismanagement from the regime, which still refuses to release accurate case numbers to the public.