Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Hauran: Until the Scene is Complete

A Russian soldier uses a binocular during a patrol in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, on September 1, 2021. Three years after Syria’s regime retook control of the flashpoint southern province of Daraa, regime forces have clashed with rebels again, trapping thousands of civilians in the crossfire. Nearly half of the population of the rebel-held Daraa al-Balad district have fled heavy shelling and ground battles, but the United Nations warns that remaining civilians are cut off with dwindling supplies. Source: SAM HARIRI/ AFP.

Hussein Al Zoubi

In the past weeks, the governorate of Daraa in southern Syria has been at the forefront after the Syrian regime launched a military attack to bring the Daraa al-Balad area on the Jordanian border under its authority. These events brought the Syrian file back to life in the corridors of decision-making capitals, at least in the media. The events reached their climax during the past 72 hours, leading to an agreement between the regime and the people. Brokered by the Russians, this agreement cannot be evaluated in isolation from the historical context of the entire Syrian situation.

Perhaps we would not reveal a secret if we said that the fighters in Hauran, whose centre is the city of Daraa, and those who raised the bar of their demands caused a delay in reaching an agreement. These fighters still carry the revolutionary impatience that erupted in 2011-2012. In addition, they have their motives related to loyalty to those who died by the regime. Sitting on the table to negotiate a deal would be like betraying their comrades-in-arms, let alone accepting the presence of barriers inside Daraa Al-Balad.

That perspective is still stuck in the revolutionary momentum when the opposition almost besieged Damascus. Therefore, the young people who grew up during the revolution would see the agreement as a betrayal. The remnants of the extremists tried to invest in this resentment and took the lead. And, within few days, they were able to cause a rupture in the public consensus behind the negotiating committee, as voices began to emerge through social media calling for supporting the extremists’ proposals.

However, the popular momentum that refuses to be drawn into extremism and aids the negotiating committee restored strength to the latter. Subsequently, the committee corrected some previous lapses, such as having more than one spokesman and the failure to issue periodic statements explaining the development of the negotiations, which prompted unknown parties to issue widely circulated announcements under the name of the Hauran clans. The committee turned around and managed the negotiation process ably. Probably this is what enabled it to mobilize a large portion of the street in Hauran. And if succeeded, it would undoubtedly confuse the regime and the Russians, even for a while.

The regime, for its part, found what it wanted with the remnants of extremist elements, which used to appear throughout the Syrian territory at a time when the regime desperately needed them. So, it poured out its hell on the remaining besieged neighbourhoods using elephant rockets with high destructive power and other low-accuracy missiles under the pretext of the extremists’ presence and their reluctance to leave the province.

If we want to read it in the heat of the moment, the agreement is nothing more than a choice between the worst and the bad. The first is the military incursion, and the second is the agreement itself. This trade-off is the outcome of two factors: the first is the certainty of the regime and Iran  behind it, that storming and subjugating Daraa will not bother the Arab countries, and the world decision-makers will not condemn it. Therefore, based on the strength of arms and the support of the militias within the formations of the Fourth Division, the regime would be able to enter the Daraa Al-Balad and subjugate it by force and humiliate its people. Daraa is the province that slapped it repeatedly after its siege. In addition, it will benefit from the lack of supply lines and the meagre equipment in the hands of fighters and will put pressure on the people.

The second factor is the firmness of the fighters, the negotiating committee, and the people behind them in Hauran and countries of diaspora and asylum. This firmness sent the regime a clear message that the military operation will not be easy. However, having control over the entirety of Hauran is just around the corner. Therefore, the negotiating committee reached an agreement under Russian auspices, and this agreement is the “bad” option. The committee reached the agreement which was an outcome of the 2018 settlement. It did that with the participation of the Fifth Corps affiliated with Russia.

Locals speak with Russian forces in the Syrian rebel-held Daraa al-Balad district of the southern city of Daraa on September 6, 2021 as they enforce a ceasefire between government forces and local committees as part of reconciliation efforts after several months of siege by government forces. A Russian-brokered ceasefire came into force on September 1 in Daraa province, the cradle of Syria’s uprising where government forces have been battling holdout rebels. The southern province of Daraa, held for years by opposition forces, was returned to government control in 2018 under a previous Moscow-backed ceasefire that had allowed rebels to stay in some areas. SAM HARIRI / AFP

The answer goes back to March 18, 2011, when the Syrian revolution took place in Hauran, and the first martyr fell. It also goes back to the symbolism created by Daraa al-Balad, and its Omari Mosque, one of the joints of sectarian pride. Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab, who built the mosque, is one of the hated figures by the ruling Shiite sect in Iran. Furthermore, Daraa formed a sublime condition in the Syrian conscience as the cradle of the revolution. Therefore, breaking it will give the regime a moral and political boost and add a new disappointment to the Syrian opposition bloc. However, this did not happen. Daraa was not broken, and the images spread across the globe exposed the parity during the signing of the agreement, which preserved dignity.

But according to the terms of the agreement itself, Daraa did not win. The regime that failed for a decade to prove its presence in Daraa al-Balad is now getting part of what it wanted by raising its flag alongside the Russian flag. And it will also have security points inside neighbourhoods, be handed over a limited quantity of weapons, and conduct settlement processes for wanted persons. Yes, these may be symbolic and can be overthrown during any military development that may occur, but that is not the case in the eyes of the victims’ fathers, mothers, and sons who were crushed by the regime’s military machine in that spot for a decade. This is regardless of the destruction caused to homes, mosques, and infrastructure by the bombing. There were also about 40 people killed throughout Hauran, in addition to many wounded people who cannot be treated.

What happened in Daraa was not isolated from the international situation, as it became known that Iran is seeking to impose its control through its militias over southern Syria. Possibly, Iran would use what happened in Daraa in the negotiations of the nuclear file. And Israel is not out of the horizon regarding what Iran seeks on strategic terms. That is the habit of the Persian weaver who does not reveal the painting on his carpet until finishing it to apply its pliers to Saudi Arabia and Jordan through complete control over Yemen and Syria.

It is against the Arab regimes, who continue to turn a blind eye to the Iranian octopus that devoured Iraq while its arms extended in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Thus, from this perspective, the agreement can be read strategically, assuming that this agreement will last for a significant period. Therefore, we can say that the recent deal in Daraa is a victory in all senses. Iran’s militias are outside the scene and are still on the outskirts of Hauran, and thus Daraa becomes one of the obstacles to the Iranian project.

However, the factual failure of the Iranian plan lies in restoring life to the province and returning the people to their homes. Those people still live in the camps of Jordan or are expatriates in the Arab countries. Those people in the Gulf countries have not returned to their homes since 2011. The Iranian project relies on displacing the majority, emptying the areas, converting the remaining few into Shiites, and turning the young people into members of its militias. Iran does the same in the countryside of Deir Ez-Zor and Homs. As for the city of Homs, the regime prevented the people who wanted to return to repair their homes in the destroyed neighbourhoods and left seven neighbourhoods empty.

On the other hand, the agreement would serve, perhaps not to the regime’s liking, the societal situation by controlling the loose weapons that have become a threat to civil peace. Hardly a week passes without the governorate recording one or two assassinations from which we do not vindicate the regime.

We also do not exclude the sleeping extremist cells that exploit the chaos of weapons in settling their scores, not with the regime but with the people. Perhaps this leads to reviewing the experiment of the governorate with the Eighth Brigade, which came out with the 2018 agreement. Nowadays, the brigade controls the Bosra al-Sham area under Russian supervision. In addition, it has been active in the recent developments in Daraa, even if it did not lead the scene. At the same time, we have to keep the governorate’s interest in mind and provide it with more tools of societal resilience. After all, politics is not rigid. It is instead more dynamic with transformable interests and benefits.

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