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Russian Influence in Southern Syria

Translation- Russian military syria
Children chat with a member of the Russian military forces in the southern Syrian city of Daraa on August 14, 2018. Photo: Andrei BORODULIN / AFP ©AFP ⁃ ANDREI BORODULIN

By: Umm Elias – Copy Rights

Outsiders often talk about the influence of various foreign powers, such as Russia and Iran, in Syria; it is rare to hear a local’s perspective on the matter. As a resident of Deraa province in southern Syria, I would like to address the topic of Russia influence as it relates to my area. Though I have not personally met with Russian personnel, I have seen them as I passed through the Muzayrib area along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The Russians played a major role in the final campaign that brought southern Syria back under Syrian government control. Militarily, the Russians provided critical air support to the Syrian regime. But they also had a role in negotiating the so-called “reconciliation agreements” between various localities and the government to ensure those areas returned to government control without a major fight. My area, the Yarmouk Basin, was controlled by an Islamic State-affiliated group known as Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, so there was no such agreement. Instead, the Russians intensely bombarded the area, facilitating its rapid capitulation to Syrian government forces. Although the bombardment was damaging and terrorized us at the time, I do not think there was any other solution except a military one to clear out the Islamic State presence from the area. In the immediate aftermath of the military campaign, the Russians even visited the area and provided some food and medical assistance to the locals.

However, the Russians have also worked to cement their influence in the area and throughout southern Syria for the long-term. The most important mechanism by which they try to exert influence is the Fifth Corps project, which has competed with the Syrian army’s 4th Armored division, the military intelligence and the air intelligence for recruits among former rebels and other locals. The Fifth Corps was announced at the end of 2016 and now counts a number of formations as affiliates. It is officially designated as an “assault” force and its role, as portrayed by the Russians, is to fight the Islamic State.

In the Yarmouk Basin area, most of the auxiliary forces are currently affiliated with the 4th Armored division, with only a minority enlisted in the Fifth Corps. In truth, not everyone has confidence in the Fifth Corps project and many doubt its longevity. Instead, they see the 4th Armored Division as a better guarantor of their interests and security. This is despite the fact that the Fifth Corps offers a relatively high and stable salary, whereas many 4th Armored Division auxiliary personnel have received irregular lump-sum payments instead of consistent salaries.

The main stronghold for the Fifth Corps in the west Deraa countryside is the town of Tafas, where the local Fifth Corps affiliate force is led by Abu Murshad Tafas (previously of the rebel group Jaysh al-Mu’atazz Billah). Indeed, although state services have returned to Tafas, there seems to be strong local resistance to the notion of Syrian government forces entering the town; thus far those forces have stayed away. The Russians, however, maintain a military police presence both in Tafas and the nearby town of Muzayrib and are seen as important guarantors for the continuation of the Fifth Corps project.

Russian’s long-term ability to maintain security and stability as well as enforce the so-called “reconciliation agreements” is more questionable. For example, there have been many reports of arrests carried out by government forces in contravention of the “reconciliation agreements.” There have also been many incidents of assassinations and other kinds of attacks in the wider south, and the situation seems particularly bad in the west Deraa countryside. The reasons why specific people are targeted are not always clear, but the Russians seem unable to control or prevent the increasing breaches in security; this has led to an atmosphere of fear in the affected areas.

The Russians have also made promises regarding the release of detainees. Indeed, a Russian delegation came to my village, Koaiya, many months ago, where they met with locals and made promises for the release of detainees, many of whom are being held on accusations of affiliation with the Islamic State. That said, it is not apparent that those promises are actually being fulfilled, which raises questions over how much influence Russia actually exerts over the Syrian government’s decision-making process.

In sum, it is evident that Russia exerts more overall influence on our area than Iran. The latter’s role as a broker of reconciliation agreements would have been rejected by most of the people in the south, who are suspicious of what they view as Iranian attempts to spread their Shi’ite religion and political ideology. How far Russia’s influence goes, however, and whether it can use that influence to maintain long-term stability in our area remains to be seen.

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