50,000 under Syrian regime siege of Dara’a as crisis grows in the south
According to various reports, the tensions go back to June as the regime forces have increasingly imposed a siege on areas around Dara’a that they view as resisting the regime’s authority. They have sent militias to collect arms, which has provoked former Syrian rebels who reconciled in 2018 to resist more. This came to a head on July 26 with more clashes. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wrote on August 4 “we condemn the Assad regime’s brutal assault on Dara’a and call for an immediate end to the violence, which has killed civilians and displaced thousands suffering from shortages of food and medication. We reiterate calls for a nationwide ceasefire in line with UNSCR 2254.”
The full story of what is happening in Dara’a is difficult to know because there is no media access. What is known is that there has been more than a year of tensions. This has included many small attacks on Syrian regime elements and anger from citizens at certain units of the regime. This is because key former Syrian rebels such as Ahmed al-Oudeh, who joined the Russian-backed 5th Corps, are chaffing under regime rule. Local reports note that over the last years, large numbers of men in Dara’a have enlisted in the 5th corps, particularly its 8th brigade. Oudeh has met with Syrian regime figures and sought more unity for forces in the area.
On August 6 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that “a Russian delegation met, today, with dignitaries of Dara’a and members of the central committees in Hauran (Hawaran), after a statement by Hauran clans was issued yesterday.” The same report said the regime was shooting at residents of Dara’a. “Meanwhile, al-Saraya road was closed and Dara’a had been still besieged as a kind of pressure to meet demands of the Syrian regime.”
Meanwhile clans in Hauran also released a statement. “In line with the difficult conditions that Hauran is currently going through and the suffocating siege that is being applied to most of its cities and villages, and since we have spared no effort in seeking a solution that achieves security and safety so that they [our sons] can be active actors in their communities positively in their dealings, we condemn the increasing military buildup on the land of Hauran under any pretext. We also denounce the unjust siege that is being applied to the people of Dara’a al-Balad and the rest of the besieged areas and narrows their livelihoods, and we reject the constant threat of killing, destruction and intrusion.”
Meanwhile Ankara’s Daily Sabah newspaper reported that. In a joint statement, the Syrian NGO Alliance said: “We, the undersigned Syrian humanitarian NGOs, call on the United Nations and the international community to act immediately to cease the latest aggression by the Syrian military on Dara’a al-Balad, to protect civilians from indiscriminate attacks and lift the siege imposed on more than 11,000 families, depriving them of the most basic needs, including food, water, and medicines.” The report says 50,000 have been affected, many fleeing and others under siege. “As of July 27, the violence caused roughly 10,500 people to be displaced from Dara’a al-Balad with people reporting being forced to pay bribes to the military checkpoints to be allowed to flee to a safer place.” Anadolu in Turkey reports that “about 80 percent of the residents of the neighborhoods (about 50,000) that are being bombed by al-Assad forces and his allies in the city of Dara’a, southern Syria, have been displaced to other neighborhoods in the area.”
Of interest here is that pro-Turkey media says that some Syrians in southern Syria want Turkey to play a larger role. Turkey occupies part of northern Syria and has recruited former Syrian rebels. Turkey has also used Syrians as mercenaries in Libya and has ethnically cleansed Kurdish Syrians from Afrin. Daily Sabah reports that “Muneef al-Zaim, the spokesperson for the opposition forces in Dara’a, stated that Turkey should take over as guarantor in the area as Iran and Russia have been failing to fulfill their duties by protecting the Assad regime, the Turkey daily reported on Thursday.” This appears to be a shift from relying on Russia to broker the peace.
According to other Arabic media Russia has sent a delegation headed by a new officer to meet with “tribal dignitaries” in Dara’a. Abu Ali al-Mahamid, a dignitary of Dara’a, said this in an interview with Al-Souria.net. Members of the reconciliation committees formed in 2018 continue to meet with the Russians and Syrian regime, presenting their demands.
Sky News Arabia which has said that eyewitnesses told them that recent “displacement movement of people comes after the failure of negotiations between the Syrian regime on the one hand and representatives of the negotiating committees on the other, and the failure to reach an agreement on a ceasefire in the city of Dara’a.” Meanwhile Al-Hurra has quoted al-Mahamid as well about the negotiations. He told them this is the 43rd day of the siege. Much of that siege has gone unreported abroad. “The electricity is cut off and there is no medical clinic. There is no food or flour.” This report says that the Syrian regime’s 4th division, backed by Iran, wants a more hard line policy, while the Russians try to mediate. In this telling the Iranians want the locals disarmed and former rebels to hand over medium and heavy weapons or they will support more shelling.
With the UN saying some 18,000 have fled, the crisis is growing. Photos show barriers erected in Dara’a and say people are being forced to pay bribes to escape.
There are many competing interests in the south, not just the Iranians, Russians and former rebels and regime. Jordan also has interests in stability and security at its border. Many countries such as Egypt and Iraq and even those in the Gulf, want stability and normalization with Syria. Locals have blamed a head of state security and Sweida military intelligence as being behind the inability to solve the current crisis. Meanwhile video shows the 4th division firing indiscriminate rockets at civilians in Dara’a. Locals say the 9th division and others backed by Iran are responsible. One person writes on Twitter “Mr. Blinken, there is much more the United States can do with its allies. 50,000 people are under bombing by the three war criminals (Iran, Russia, and Assad regime), surrounded with no food or medication.” It remains to be seen if the international community will act to help the locals.
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN