The Battle For Daraa

Published September 8th, 2021 - 04:31 GMT
Daraa under bombardment
Smoke rises above opposition-held areas of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces, southern Syria, July 5, 2018. (AFP)

To the cynic all well that ends will. But sadly there is nothing well in the Syria southern city of Daraa, except of the possible end to the bloodshed and the aversion of the imminent starvation of civilians.

In all probability, the siege that has been imposed by the Syrian authorities since last 25 June, 2021 on Daraa Al Balad will now probably be lifted and so life might just return to as near normal as possible if cool heads are allowed.

This is because the rebel fighters that have been holed in this part of the city that is occupied by 9000 civilian families – 18,000 members – have just agreed to give up their weapons in return for remaining in this part of Daraa that has long been divided across two main sections.

Darra has long been an eyesore for the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad in Damascus. It is here where the spark of the uprising that swept through the whole of Syria in 2011 and at one time looked as if deluging the Baath government in popular moves that anchored that whole of the Arab region.

In its subsequent fratricidal civil war that resulted in around 500,000 deaths and millions displaced – a great many of which were civilians – Daraa was left in relative loneliness and limbo. But this was only because the regime in Damascus – government, army, its security apparatuses – crushed the so-called popular uprising in this part of the country. The protesters, here and there, were no more than teenagers and youths involved in school pranks but the regime was taking no chances.

In 2018 when government had gained its military strength, largely through Russian intervention and Iranian help, it started to flutter its military wings once again all over the country. It already crushed the opposition and holed them in one area in Idlib in the far northwest. There, these motley collection of fighters that included strands of Islamists like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Syria opposition groups as well as the Free Syria Army, could be controlled. There, they would be no threat to the regime despite their large numbers dubbed in few millions.

Daraa though had never ceased to be a problem, it was never tamed, or conquered, staying as a hotbed of subdued opposition. In the different stages of the country’s cruel civil war that moved across geographical areas, Darra had never relented. And the government in Syria, thought it was time to do something about bringing this populace into line but it wasn’t easy because rebels, revolutionaries, fighters with ideologies, including those from the Free Syrian Army, retreated to Daraa, and a specific area of the city called Daraa Al Balad.

The regime in Damascus could only control one part of the city, what become Daraa Al Mahata but couldn’t control the rest of the city which had a population of around 50,000. However, in 2018 an agreement was reached through Russian mediation in which rebels would be able to stay where they are if the give up their medium and heavy weapons. They were allowed light weapons on the understanding they would recognize the sovereignty of the regime over these areas. Otherwise they would be transported to Idlib.

And so the situation continued till the present day when fighting again started this summer. Many say the present-day problem relate to the fact that nobody in this part of the city voted in the May presidential elections for Bashar Al Assad. This once-again upset the regime which started to flex its muscles over this part of the city. What this meant as well was the 2018 agreement reached through Russian mediation was also jeopardized, something that is upsetting Moscow which has long believed in balancing and containing the precarious deteriorating security situation in Syria.

It has been argued Moscow thinks strategically, it doesn’t want to upset the internal balance of power that has become complicated through the involvement of regional states and great powers like itself. There is Turkey in the north-west, United States troops in the north-east bordering the oil fields and Iraq as well as Iran and Hizbollah both of which sought to prop up the Damascus regime, and to the south, there is Jordan and Israel with the latter being a security threat by itself waiting to pound on the regime.

Israel believes Tehran is involved in mischief-making forcing the Al Assad government to press on the rebels in Daraa which is near to the Golan Heights that has been under occupation since the 1967 War. But this doesn’t mean Iran with its military experts and personnel is ready for war with Israel, maybe only in keeping the tensions up and thus Tel Aviv continues to strike Damascus and the surrounding areas in calculated strategic military moves, to keep the tempo up but not for an all out war.

Still, to the south of Syria is Jordan which keeps opening and shutting its border there, depending on the security of the situation. Whilst Jordan wants an open border because of trade and economic relations, the Kingdom is only 14 kilometers from Daraa and any problems there could affect the security on the border with limitless and unforeseen consequences.

For Jordan as well, it already hosts a large number of Syrian refugees – 670,000 registered and around 75,000 in Al Zaatri, seen as the largest camp in the world -  and prefers not to have any more. But the current fluid situation in Dara Al Balad could see another mass exodus that is already happening as many civilians continue to leave to avoid being targeted by regime attacks, and/or caught in the crossfire with the rebels. However, for the time being they are looking northwards.

Thus, this is the situation so far with reports of latest reprieves as developing news suggest that over 400 rebels agreed to give up their weapons in return for remaining in Deraa Al Balad but it is still touch and go because of the other fighters who may or may not follow suit. The regime has already said if they refuse to give up their arms they would be forced to move to Idlib but this is not easy to do because of the different bloody scenarios that may follow.

But leaving that aside and putting on a positive perspective, the latest deal means the rebels have also agreed that eight regime checkpoints would be placed in the disputed area and that basically means government forces have established de facto control over Daraa and the whole of Syria.

It is early days. Has the 2018 agreement been saved. Are the rebels now subdued through their own will, will the human exodus be stopped and will the siege on Daraa Al Balad be lifted? The coming days and weeks will be crucial. Assad’s forces will certainly be in the implementation stage with the help of the Iranians and doubt and the Russians are watching.


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