Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Daraa: Addiction, Assassination and Displacement

Youth emigration from Daraa governorate in Syria is related to the regime, Iran, drug trafficking, security concerns and economic conditions.

A picture taken during a tour organised by the Syrian Ministry of Information shows people and journalists at a damaged roundabout in the district of Daraa al-Balad of Syria’s southern city of Daraa, on September 12, 2021. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

The residents of Daraa governorate in Syria face challenging circumstances that compel them to emigrate to any country that will offer better living conditions. While all focus was on the tragic end of the Titan submersible, 77 people from Daraa lost their lives when the boat that carried them and other illegal immigrants from Libya sank near the coasts of Europe.

Since 2011, Daraa Governorate has been a key area in the Syrian crisis. It played a crucial role as the cradle of the Syrian revolution. The region saw frequent changes in control as opposing factions, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra, gained the upper hand. The Islamic State also had a presence in the governorate, prompting confrontations with FSA factions. However, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State lost these fights and transformed into sleeper cells, taking advantage of societal incubators.

In 2018, the Syrian regime and Russian air force launched attacks on the governorate, forcing the moderate factions to agree to a Russia-facilitated settlement with the regime. The settlement resulted in the partial restoration of the regime’s control in Daraa and weakened the factions, without eliminating them.

The partial presence of the regime and partial absence of factions has made the current context highly complex. In contrast to other regions of Syria, like Deir ez-Zor, rural Damascus and some parts of rural Aleppo, Iran and Hezbollah were unable to assert complete control over Daraa.

Nonetheless, Iran seems undeterred in their goal to pursue control over the southern governorate, given its strategic location bordering Israel and Jordan and its proximity to the capital, Damascus.

An anonymous source told Fanack the youth emigration from the governorate is alarming, describing the numbers as “terrifying.” They attribute this migration to fundamental reasons related to the regime and Iran, including factors such as drug trafficking, security concerns and economic conditions.

Planned Displacement

The source, opting for anonymity for security concerns, asserts that the reasons behind the emigration of Daraa’s people are interconnected.

The economic situation is complex, with inflation, a significant devaluation of the Syrian pound’s exchange rate and a scarcity of job opportunities being prominent elements in driving migration. Notably, the exchange rate of the US dollar soared to approximately 13,200 Syrian pounds in July 2023, a stark contrast to the 50-pound rate in 2010.

The source highlights that the Syrian regime subsidises agricultural products from the loyal Syrian coast while neglecting production in Daraa. Daraa relies heavily on agriculture, but insufficient resources for agricultural operations create challenges. Some areas suffer from water scarcity, lack of fertilisers, electricity and reliable transportation. Moreover, finding a market for agricultural products poses significant difficulties. These challenges have exacerbated the economic hardship in Daraa, motivating its people to opt for migration as a solution.

While the agricultural challenges affect Daraa’s entire population, specific drivers prompt youth emigration, one of the most prominent being the settlement process the regime has implemented in the governorate.

According to Syrian researcher Maher Sharaf al-Din, the recent settlement announced by the regime in June 2023 has put thousands of young people in a difficult situation. Those who have not completed compulsory military service are given six months to join the regime’s army. Additionally, defectors are given one month to rejoin. The settlement further allows all defaulters and defectors to obtain travel documents, permitting them to leave Syria within a specified grace period before having to join the army.

Sharaf al-Din contends that the regime has presented the youth of Daraa with two choices: “Either they join the army to fight in its ranks or leave the country permanently.” In his view, the regime intends to transform southern Syria into “a body without bones” that can be easily controlled. He warned that if the current situation in southern Syria, including the as-Suwayda and Quneitra governorates, persists, “the region will be devoid of its young population over time.”

Iranian Role

According to Sharaf al-Din’s analysis of the situation in the Syrian south, he believes that “the region is of significant importance in the Iranian scheme, even more so than the Lebanese south. While the Lebanese south is seen as a platform to put pressure on Israel, the Syrian south is regarded as a platform for exerting pressure on Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.”

The anonymous source concurs with Sharaf Al-Din’s perspective, asserting that the forces exerted on Daraa and southern Syria are “part of a deliberate and coordinated plan backed by Iran.” “Despite previous settlements, Iran has not been able to fully force its control over certain areas in Daraa. Now, Tehran aims to gain control over the region by encouraging the departure of young men without engaging in battles that might reset the situation to its initial state,” the source added.

The source notes that the settlements concern young individuals aged 18 and 19, implying they were still children when the Syrian revolution started, and their age did not allow them to partake in any acts of opposition against the regime. The source suggests there is a deliberate effort to depopulate Daraa, particularly from its youth. Young people in the governorate seeking to obtain passports face financial exploitation in the process.

The source highlights that they are “coerced into paying ten times the regular cost for a passport that does not grant them permission to travel to immigration countries.” The source emphasises that even Gulf countries, which used to absorb Syrian labour, have ceased to do so. “The same challenges apply to countries like Jordan, which hosts millions of Syrians, as well as Lebanon and Turkey, which has been deporting Syrians to the Syrian north.”

The source asserts that a considerable number of young individuals from Daraa have travelled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in search of jobs. For some of these young people, Erbil serves as a place of departure in their quest to find a country where they can build a better life for themselves.

Another significant factor pushing young people to emigrate is the prevalence of assassinations within the governorate. According to the source these can be divided into two primary types in Daraa. Local factions target young men previously associated with other factions or accused of affiliating with the military or its services.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime carries out assassinations against its opponents. Consequently, many young people find themselves either at risk of assassination or pressured to carry out assassinations. Many therefore view emigration from Syria as an opportunity to escape these grim circumstances.

Captagon’s Gate

The Syrian-Jordanian border in Daraa and as-Suwayda has been a route for drug smuggling, particularly Captagon, destined for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The source identifies a significant connection between drugs and emigration: “Dealers used to manipulate young men, convincing them that narcotics are just stimulants to enhance their ability to stay awake during battles. Unfortunately, many of these young men fell victim to addiction, affecting both opposition and regime soldiers.

However, the prevalence of drugs among young people has decreased compared to previous periods, which can be partially attributed to the cessation of armed conflict.”

The deteriorating economic conditions in Daraa have also contributed to a decline in the use of Captagon. Despite the relatively low price of a single pill compared to a pack of local cigarettes, the economic hardships have made Captagon unaffordable for many.

According to the source, the targeting of individuals involved in drug trafficking by unidentified groups has been another reason for the decrease in drug use in Daraa. These operations have resulted in numerous assassinations in the governorate.

The most significant factor disclosed by the source is the control of the regime’s Fourth Division units over the Syrian-Jordanian border, particularly in as-Suwayda, an extension of the Daraa governorate. The Fourth Division has established its authority in the area to gain control over the drug trade and smuggling activities.

As per the source, the Fourth Division’s intervention has “transformed the smuggling operations from chaotic to organised activities. The division has implemented a hierarchical system, with officers overseeing the roads and others escorting the shipments near the borders.

If smugglers suffer injuries during the process, they can contact medical points affiliated with the Fourth Division for assistance.” “This approach indicates that the aim is not to prevent smuggling altogether but to control and restrict unauthorised individuals from interfering with the smuggling. Consequently, smuggling has evolved into a highly organised and structured criminal enterprise, with significant military involvement,” the source added. Moreover, the Fourth Division has barred residents from accessing vast borderlands without authorisation.

According to the source, the Fourth Division’s control over the smuggling operations has resulted in significant gains for the division, led by Maher al-Assad. “With their dominance in the market, the Fourth Division has managed to reduce the wages of the smugglers.

Previously, an individual who carried a 20-kilogram bag and crawled across the border to dump it would receive $14,000 for a single smuggling operation. Now that the division has monopolised the market, the wages of cross-border smugglers have been reduced to $5,000 per operation.

Jordanian officials have stated on multiple occasions that militias aligned with the Syrian regime oversee smuggling operations into Jordan. The source adds that since the Fourth Division’s presence, drones have been used along the routes used for drug and weapons smuggling into Jordan. These drones are linked to Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias, and made their appearance in the region at the same time as the Fourth Division.

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