In late January, former opposition groups—including those under the command of Ahmad al-Awdeh—conducted the most significant anti-ISIS operation that the south-west has witnessed in years. Following a 10-hour gun battle around a house in the western Daraa city of Nawa, former opposition groups killed the most senior ISIS commander in south Syria, along with six other ISIS fighters who resisted arrest during the shoot-out. Regime forces played no part in the operation. January was in fact a major month for anti-ISIS security operations across Daraa province, with notable raids taking place in Al-Yadoudah, Nahtah and Daraa city, resulting in the deaths of at least 16 ISIS members. To the west, cross-border attacks by Iranian-backed militias targeting the occupied Golan Heights declined significantly in recent weeks, with militias launching just five rocket attacks throughout the month of January. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes, artillery barrages and suspected car bomb assassinations killed several Iranian-backed operatives in the south; Israeli forces also showed an increasing willingness to target regime infrastructure in Damascus and Rural Damascus in retaliation for militia attacks launched from Syrian territory.
Recent Developments in South Syria
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In the most significant operation of its kind in years, a major ISIS figure was killed in the western Daraa city of Nawa in an operation spearheaded by former opposition groups under the command of Ahmad al-Awdeh. A senior ISIS commander was killed along with six ISIS militants following a 10-hour armed stand-off around a house in Nawa. Regime forces did not directly participate in the operation, despite officials disseminating propaganda across unofficial social media channels that they had. Following weeks of clashes and raids that resulted in the deaths of several ISIS fighters, forces affiliated with Ahmad al-Awdeh and other groups in western Daraa reached an agreement with local leaders in Al-Yadoudah to remove ISIS cells from the town.
Conflict with Israel
January witnessed a significant reduction in Iranian-backed militia attacks targeting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with just five incidents recorded over the course of the month—the lowest count since the escalation in hostilities that followed Hamas’ 7th October attack last year. As the frequency of attacks by Iranian-backed militias has fallen sharply in recent weeks, there has been a concurrent reduction in retaliatory strikes from Israeli forces. However, Israel has increasingly turned its fire on regime infrastructure in southern areas of Rural Damascus province—as well as the Syrian capital itself—in retaliation for militia attacks.
A string of unclaimed assassinations targeting Iranian-backed militia members and regime officers has continued in recent weeks, killing at least seven individuals across Daraa and Quneitra.
Pro-Regime & Pro-Iranian Activity
Russia has increased the frequency of its military police patrols across south-west Syria, seeking to project an image of control in the south. Within the regime, Loay al-Ali’s term as the head of Military Intelligence’s regional branch for the south-west was extended for an additional year. New Iranian-backed militia deployments to south-west Syria have greatly diminished in recent weeks, with some minor Hezbollah deployments observed in the Quneitra countryside.
Military Intelligence units conducted raids in south-east Daraa, with no arrests or drug seizures observed. Meanwhile, groups affiliated with al-Awdeh also carried out raids across Daraa, targeting several sites owned by a known drug smuggler.
Instability in South Syria
Endemic levels of societal violence, as well as frequent attacks against regime forces and other local authority figures, continues across south Syria. Amidst an overall security vacuum, myriad clashes between armed groups, local clan disputes and assassinations against a range of figures have resulted in a tense and precarious security environment. A series of four IED blasts across Daraa province targeted Russian and regime forces, resulting in at least five regime soldiers’ deaths and the injury of four civilians.
While targeted killings have continued across south Syria in recent weeks, assassinations of individuals were down in January in tandem with several high-profile security operations against ISIS and other extremist groups in Daraa province. Assassinations claimed the lives of 21 individuals last month, while dozens of other unsuccessful assassination attempts were recorded across the region.
While public protests in south Syria have continued to diminish in size and frequency in recent months, three notable demonstrations took place in the city of Daraa in January, attracting between 150 and 250 people each. Demonstrators protested in solidarity with Gaza and demanded the release of detainees from regime prisons.
More than 45 young men from Daraa and Quneitra are missing after their smuggling boat set out from Libya bound for the Italian coast. Reports are now suggesting that all may have drowned. Two weeks later, another eight individuals from Daraa drowned while attempting to cross the UK Channel by boat from France.
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