A Forgotten Tragedy: Will War Return to Southern Syria?

By David Isaly

Syrian Democratic Force soldiers patrol with U.S. Army Soldiers in Syria in May 2021
Photo Credit: Spc. Isaiah J Scott/DVIDS

Tensions in Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, violently boiled over last month but garnered little international attention.

Perhaps due to the Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan, the fighting that has gripped the Daraa region in recent weeks has largely gone unnoticed by journalists and governments alike. Although heavy fighting largely ended both in Daraa and the rest of southern Syria after a government offensive in 2018, the area has experienced an unsustainable status quo of assassinations and reprisal attacks.

Three years after the supposed end of the war in Daraa, it seems more likely than ever that the government will attempt to extend its rule over all of Syria by any means necessary.

The lack of attention given to Daraa is unfortunate, as the area is critical in both the context of the Syrian civil war and the broader Middle East.

Ten years ago, when the revolution began, the city of Daraa saw the first protests of that revolution. With the onset of heavy fighting in 2012, the area became one of the most significant fronts in the Syrian conflict.

Daraa sits on the borders of Israel and Jordan, giving it particular geostrategic importance. Both countries are wary of the Assad regime’s full return to the border areas, mainly due to Iranian influence within the Syrian army. However, the urgency assigned to Daraa in the past by Jerusalem and Amman might be changing. 

On July 27, 2021, clashes erupted in the city of Daraa between government forces backed by Iran and opposition fighters, causing an explosion of violence. Following the initial clashes in and around Daraa al-Balad, a set of besieged neighborhoods in the southern part of the city, rebels managed to overwhelm lightly-manned government checkpoints across the region on July 29.

Though the regime of Bashar al-Assad did not expect such a swift military response, government forces were still prepared. The Iranian-backed 4th Armored Division, an elite unit of the Syrian army led by al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad, besieged Daraa al-Balad in June before the onset of serious hostilities. The regime continued to send reinforcements after the first shots were fired. Over the course of about a day, it looked like the civil war had returned to southern Syria in full force.

Catching government soldiers off guard, this was the first time rebels had seized any meaningful territory in the south since 2015. They even captured the Nassib border crossing, the main ground route into Jordan that is an essential piece of Syria’s economic infrastructure. The government retaliated in the following days by deploying tanks, artillery, and rockets to pound opposition-held territory.

The government also cut electricity, water, and food to the besieged neighborhoods, putting residents under extreme duress.

As civilian deaths have mounted, more have been forced to flee due to the fighting. Those trapped in the besieged neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad can only travel through the Saraya checkpoint in the city center. Government troops either block the crossing or force residents to pay them exorbitant bribes to escape the regime’s bombardment.

Civilians from Daraa al-Balad have unfortunately not been the only ones forced to seek refuge in regime-held territory. Due to the intensity of the bombardment launched by government forces, swathes of civilians from across the governorate have become refugees.

Why is this all happening now, as opposed to any other point in the last three years?

In all likelihood, the situation in southern Syria has been approaching a confrontation like this since the first months after the 2018 offensive. The reason for that has everything to do with how the regime returned to the south in the first place.

In order to appease Israel and Jordan, which did not want Iranian forces in their backyard, Russia employed a mixed strategy to preserve Assad’s regime. Moscow utilized a ground campaign with heavy air support, transfers of opposition fighters to rebel-held Northern Syria, and, most importantly, reconciliation agreements with the government that allowed rebel fighters to either go back to their old lives from before the war or even switch sides to fight for the regime.

The reconciliation process allowed Russia and the regime to co-opt more moderate rebels against their enemies, which include the religious extremists who rule Idlib and Islamic State sleeper cells in the Syrian desert. The agreement allowed rebels to give up their heavy weapons and essentially end their war with the regime in exchange for safety guaranteed by Russia.

Some of these reconciled rebels decided to join the regime’s intelligence agencies, known collectively as the Mukhabarat, while others joined the Russian-backed 8th Brigade that essentially administers a cluster of towns and villages in the Eastern Daraa countryside.

However, many rebels, reconciled or not, decided to continue fighting the regime via an insurgency.

By the beginning of 2021, hundreds of government and rebel fighters had been killed throughout Daraa, and the regime was running out of patience. On top of that, during the recent elections, many in the south protested what they believe to be a fraudulent elections. Most importantly, Russian policy regarding Daraa subtly changed.

With new leadership in Israel that is less focused on Southern Syria, and Jordan inching closer to the Syrian regime diplomatically, Russia has had greater freedom in how it handles the situation in southern Syria. It supported the regime’s calls for full rebel demobilization in Daraa al-Balad it had previously rejected, allowing Assad’s forces to besiege the opposition-held neighborhoods and demand an agreement. However, this has not worked out in anyone’s favor as of yet.

Outside of maintaining the status quo, one of Russia’s primary goals in the area is to check Iranian influence. Many believe that Iran and Hezbollah seek to entrench themselves in southern Syria purely to intimidate Israel, but this erases the economic incentives that play a significant role in their geopolitical logic.

Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian regime are behind one of the largest smuggling operations on the planet, dealing primarily in hash and captagon. After years of war and sanctions, as well as the recent collapse of the Syrian and Lebanese economies, most of the Syrian regime’s economic activity stems from drug trafficking. The government utilizes its borders with Lebanon and Jordan to move narcotic shipments on a massive scale.

Once produced and processed in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley, the narcotics cross through the Qalamoun mountain range to the northwest of Damascus. Once in Syria, they head south, reaching the as-Suwayda governorate East of Daraa, where they are then moved across the border into Jordan. If Iran, Hezbollah, and the regime wished to expand their smuggling operations, it would undoubtedly be advantageous to fully secure southern Syria.

In the last few days, the situation has reached a fever pitch. Not even a week ago, it looked like an agreement between the regime’s 4th Armored Division and the Central Committee, which represents the people of Daraa al-Balad, was about to be reached.

However, clashes erupted when negotiations fell apart on August 27 and the regime deployed rockets to escalate its bombardment of Daraa al-Balad. Just the day before, government forces transferred unreconciled rebels and their families to rebel-held northern Syria.

This breakdown is not the first time negotiations have collapsed, as previous disagreements have caused talks to stall. However, the regime’s most recent escalation has led to the heaviest bombardment of Daraa since the supposed end of the war in the south three years ago. Using heavy weapons such as anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-surface missiles, the regime is signaling to the opposition and Russia that time is almost up.

On August 24, the regime shelled Daraa al-Balad immediately after Russian Military Police had been in the area, sending a clear message that Russia would not be able to prevent a regime offensive if a deal was not reached.

As of right now, Russia has still been unable to impose a comprehensive ceasefire in the area. Scores of government troops, rebels, and civilians have been killed by fighting over the last month, and many are starting to believe that a regime offensive is imminent.

Indeed, on August 29, opposition groups in Daraa called for the mobilization of rebel forces in the Western and Eastern countryside of the governorate in solidarity with the people of Daraa al-Balad.

There is still time for an agreement that ends the siege peacefully, but it is about to run out. The world will know soon whether these clashes will end in diplomacy or war.

David Isaly is a recent graduate from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he specialized in domestic and international security with a strong focus on the Middle East.

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