Regime forces continue to use a dual strategy of incentive and coercion to manage the evolving protest movement in southern Syria, aiming to strike a delicate balance that involves intimidating restive populations without resorting to overt violence that they fear could trigger a more extensive backlash. Authorities continue to claim that they are clamping down on drug smuggling, but most raids result in few—if any—arrests. Many of those detained are also released after bribes have been paid. Facing poor prospects for the future, south Syria is witnessing a continued and significant exodus of young people through irregular migration. A stark reminder of this reality was the loss of life of civilians from Daraa province in the devastating flooding that ripped through the eastern Libyan port city of Derna, a common staging-post for people attempting perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.
Map – Recent Developments in South Syria
Despite the regime ramping up veiled threats against demonstrators and pressuring local armed groups to assist in dismantling the movement, demonstrations continued and, in some cases even grew, across Daraa. More than 300 people in Daraa city participated in a demonstration supporting the protest movement in Suwayda; other smaller protests occurred in al-Hirak, Muzayrib, al-Karak, Tal Shihab and Jasim. Unlike Suwayda, the frequency of demonstrations in Daraa has gradually declined, with protests now taking place on a more weekly or sporadic basis compared to the daily actions seen weeks ago. Additionally, in notable contrast to Suwayda, protests in Daraa are largely devoid of female participants.
In early September, regime forces targeted the western Daraa towns of Nawa and Yadudah with artillery shelling, resulting in material damage but no casualties.
Later that month, security agencies released around half a dozen long-term detainees, including several former opposition fighters from Daraa. However, beyond this very small number of releases, the regime’s detention archipelago continues to function as it always has. For years, Military Intelligence—and other intelligence agencies—explicitly used arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances as a way of eliciting bribes from the families of detainees to line the pockets of officers. In Daraa, Military Intelligence recently stepped up this strategy, arresting over 100 individuals and then demanding families pay thousands of dollars per release.
The volume of narcotics smuggling in southern Syria shows no signs of abating despite assurances from the Assad regime: organized drug trafficking networks continue to transport drugs towards the Syrian-Jordanian border in preparation for cross-border smuggling operations. Likely in response to regional pressures to curb the trade, regime Military Intelligence arrested a drug trafficker in al-Lajat—although he was quickly released after his family paid a large bribe to officials. Similarly, Military Intelligence and the Criminal Security branch conducted several drug-related raids and arrests in rural Daraa. Most raids resulted in no arrests or seizures, and the few arrests that did take place were not related to drugs smuggling.
Instability in South Syria
Endemic levels of societal violence, as well as frequent attacks against regime forces and other local authority figures, continues across southern 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. Across the month of September, a series of four IED blasts targeting regime forces across Quneitra and Daraa provinces resulted in a handful of serious injuries but no deaths. Within the same timeframe, regime forces suffered nine armed attacks that injured at least eight soldiers.
Targeted killings have continued at elevated levels across south-west Syria. Assassinations claimed the lives of over 17 individuals, among them civilians, regime soldiers, Military Intelligence officers, former opposition leaders and drug traffickers. Additionally, dozens of other assassination attempts were recorded across the region.
The town of al-Shajarah in western Daraa is experiencing an outbreak of hepatitis, with more than 200 cases reported already. The outbreak was caused by contamination of drinking water in the town. Rising hepatitis cases have also been detected in other towns around western Daraa’s Yarmouk Basin. Across the province, more than half the bakeries operated for several days without any flour as the regime struggled to provide supplies to a dwindling number of active bakeries. Many have closed as a result of chronic bureaucratic dysfunction and spiraling economic collapse in regime-held areas.
Femicide remains a significant danger to women’s lives in south Syria. Over the past 30 days, six women were killed in Daraa province.
Young men, meanwhile, trying to cross the Mediterranean face other dangers on the journey. In another sign of the exodus of young men fleeing southern Syria, at least 20 people from Daraa were killed in the catastrophic flooding that devastated the eastern Libyan port city of Derna Libya last month.
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