With Damascus and its countryside cleared of insurgents, the Syrian government has now turned its attention towards the southern province of Deraa. The western and eastern countrysides of Deraa are still mostly held by rebel forces. There have been reports of the mobilization of government forces, prompting a sharp rebuke from the U.S. State Department, which has warned against infringement on Syria's southwest de-escalation zone that was agreed primarily between the U.S. and Russia. For Jordan, an all-out military campaign raises the concern of potential new waves of refugees trying to pour through its northern borders.
Of course, the Syrian government does not only have military means in mind to try to reclaim the insurgent-held parts of Deraa countryside. Another method the government has in mind is to try to encourage 'reconciliation' agreements. To encourage reconciliation, government helicopters have dropped leaflets on the villages and towns of the northern and eastern Deraa countrysides in particular.
When speaking collectively, rebel groups and other opposition bodies often proclaim rejection of reconciliation. The fact that they issue warnings against people trying to promote reconciliation does show that there are significant elements residing within the rebel-held areas who are in favour of reconciliation.
In Deraa province, the town of al-Karak al-Sharqi in the eastern countryside presents an interesting case to examine. In March 2018, a controversy emerged over the fact that the mukhtar of the town- Jihad Sultan al-Nu'ama- visited the military intelligence (al-Amn al-Askari) in al-Suwayda' to agree with the government to keep al-Karak al-Sharqi neutral in any fighting between insurgents and the government. That is, the rebels of al-Karak al-Sharqi would not launch attacks on government positions, while the government would refrain from targeting the town. For this mission, the mukhtar received authorization from people of the town and even the town's rebel factions. The Dar al-Adl, the main rebel/opposition judicial body in southern Syria, issued a notification requiring that the mukhtar appear before its court.
Though the mukhtar's mission did not involve striking a reconciliation agreement with the government, the mukhtar is in favour of reconciliation. Born in 1965 in al-Karak al-Sharqi, he once lived in Kuwait, where his deceased father- a notable of al-Karak al-Sharqi- owned a restaurant and shops. Jihad left Kuwait in 2002. Since returning to Syria, he has worked as a farmer. He became the mukhtar of al-Karak al-Sharqi in 2012.
It must be emphasized that despite the mukhtar's support for reconciliation and his criticisms of the insurgency, opposition bodies and general idea of revolution in Syria, he generally maintains good relations with leaders and members of the factions inside al-Karak al-Sharqi, who respectfully disagree with him on reconciliation. In fact I was introduced to the mukhtar by my friend in al-Karak al-Sharqi who has done media work for the opposition-affiliated local council. This friend is himself on good terms with the mukhtar. These points tell us something about how local ties and relations can transcend sharp divergences in opinion. Outside al-Karak al-Sharqi, of course, the mukhtar faces problems at the hands of the rebels and the Dar al-Adl.
I interviewed the mukhtar on 30 April 2018 regarding his role and views of the current situation in the south of Syria. The transcript is below, with some editing for clarity and some omissions by the mukhtar's general suggestion for reasons of sensitivity. Explanations of any terms or explanatory insertions for clarity are in square brackets.
Q: Firstly can you tell me generally what is the role of the mukhtar in any locality [municipality] in Deraa?
A: Yes. The mukhtar's role is to certify a birth certificate, a death certificate, a guardian document and any government documents and to resolve every problem in the locality.
Q: I see. So if there is a clan disagreement for example, the problem is referred to the mukhtar firstly?
A: No, but the mukhtar and some of the notables of the locality intervene to resolve it.
Q: So what are the specific problems that the mukhtar must resolve?
A: The requirement is that he sign and stamp the locality's documents that go to the government. And among us the mukhtar is considered one of the locality's notables and the one who resolves most of its personal problems. And also I am the only one in touch with the security branches for the locality's interest.
Q: Yes. With regards to government documents you are dealing with documents from the government in Damascus or the interim government?
A: No, the official government, and not the interim government because with me is the stamp of the official state. But they [the opposition] have appointed a mukhtar for the interim government.
Q: I see. So currently you are the only recognised mukhtar in the locality?
Q: Generally the people of the locality deal with you as the mukhtar of the locality, and not the mukhtar of the interim government.
A: Yes. I do not deal with the interim government.
Q: When did you become the mukhtar of the locality? And how is the mukhtar appointed generally?
A: 6 years ago. The municipal office which is the local administration chooses a mukhtar with the agreement of the majority from the locality.
Q: I see. So the municipal office of the official government appointed you 6 years ago?
Q: The municipal office of the official government still operates in al-Karak al-Sharqi?
A: Yes. And life is very normal, except there is chaos because of those who have arms.
Q: Yes, but the personnel of the municipal office affiliated with the official government still work on the ground, or they can't work?
A: Yes and the head of the municipal office still works. You should know that I am in touch with the security branches and the provincial governor for absolute necessity so that I can help my people in Deraa and its villages. By God's grace, I have got out more than 300 men and women from the security branches and prisons in the face of God Almighty without recompense. And I have worked for the reconciliation of the sick, the employee separated from his work and the one wanted: for more than 800 people, but they are civilians and not insurgents. And after that the interim Gharaz court [Dar al-Adl] prevented me and they demanded that I be killed.
Q: These 800 have undertaken taswiyat al-wad' [sorting out affairs/regularizing situation]?
A: Yes, and at my hand. But they are from the villages of Hawran generally.
Q: I see. So not from the locality of al-Karak al-Sharqi only.
A: And you should know dear Aymenn that I was kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra for a period of two months and my car was fired at and praise be to God nothing struck me, and armed men got me out and took my car and it did not return. And they blew up the shop of my son in front of the house. And now the revolutionary factions in Hawran are threatening to liquidate me and kill me.
Q: So you went to the al-Amn al-Askari in al-Suwayda' for negotiations with the government?
A: Aircraft came and struck al-Karak after a long absence so the people of al-Karak gathered in my presence- civilians and factions- and we decided to go to the al-Amn al-Askari and we told them the armed factions in al-Karak have given us a message to bear to you and it is don't strike us and we will not strike you. And it was agreed. And those who went with me from al-Karak were 34 people, all of them elders and notables of al-Karak. After that the court [Dar al-Adl] demanded me. And after that the delegation that was with me went to the court and said we are the civilians and factions of al-Karak: we went with our mukhtar to the al-Amn al-Askari.
Q: Yes. And in the same meeting the negotiations were done concerning taswiyat al-wad' for 800 people?
A: No brother. The taswiya was an old thing: for two years I have not done taswiyat al-wad' for any person because the court in Gharaz [Dar al-Adl] has prevented me [from doing so].
Q: I see. So Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped you two years ago roughly?
A: Little more than that.
Q: Did they torture you?
A: Ohhhh, yes they tortured me a lot. And I was bound by chains on my leg.
Q: Oh. Is Jabhat al-Nusra [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] still present in the locality of al-Karak al-Sharqi?
A: No, they left al-Karak. After I was with the Jabha [Jabhat al-Nusra], pressure was put on the Jabha by the people of al-Karak and after that I was handed over to the Dar al-Adl for a period of 14 days and I was released. [Currently], they have not ceased to demand my head and I have not gone out [of al-Karak al-Sharqi]: if I go out of al-Karak, they will kill me. The Dar al-Adl put out a statement to arrest me and the factions [i.e. in general in Hawran, not in al-Karak al-Sharqi] say it has become obligatory to kill him [the mukhtar of al-Karak al-Sharqi].
Q: I see. And currently you cannot go outside the locality [of al-Karak al-Sharqi]?
A: No, not at all. It is the state of revolutions in our land. The one who works honestly, they do not want him, while the criminal lives the finest life.
Q: True. When you were with the Dar al-Adl two years ago, did they torture you as well like the Jabha [Jabhat al-Nusra]?
A: No, the group were very good with me, and helped me. As for now, the situation has changed. The civilian submits a complaint and does not benefit at all, while the armed one who is with a faction submits a complaint and the world arises and sits so that he can obtain his right. Chaos, chaos, chaos. Any service dear Aymenn I am under your command. You should know that I am with reconciliation to prevent bloodshed. We are all one people in one country. The crisis in my homeland must end.
Q: What are the best terms for reconciliation in your view? For example in al-Sanamayn in north Deraa, there is reconciliation with the preservation of most of the factions in the town, and the government does not intervene in clan problems.
Q: I heard from the people of al-Sanamayn that there are problems of thieves and criminality. This is not good.
A: In every place there is chaos.
Q: Do you expect that most of the people of the locality of al-Karak al-Sharqi are with the idea of reconciliation?
A: Not most of them, but rather 99% are in favour of an end to the war with the presence of security and the end of the armed chaos with reconciliation. But all are afraid of the factions. If someone thinks of doing reconciliation- even just a thought- they liquidate him- i.e. they kill him.
Q: I sensed this problem in the south. The one who wants to do reconciliation, the factions and Dar al-Adl arrest him.
A: True. They arrest him if they don't kill him. Most people in Syria are killed solely for expressing their opinion, and they are killed in treachery- we don't know who or how.
Q: True. Currently the leaders of the factions present in the locality of al-Karak al-Sharqi are still rejecting reconciliation?
A: Reconciliation is rejected among them.
Q: Also the so-called local council rejects reconciliation?
A: The local council changes every six months or year...They are not interested in reconciliation or an end to the war.
Q: Are there people from the locality serving in the Syrian army?
A: There are two or three only. And they no longer return to the area in fear of the factions.
Q: Yes, true. Before the events how was life in the locality?
A: Paradise and security. Nothing finer than this. My homeland was the safest homeland in the world.
Q: But some people say that there was no freedom and democracy.
A: Sir, the one who had 100,000 [i.e. Syrian pounds, as with all currency references in this interview] could get a car. Hospitals and schools. Life was very cheap. Security. We could get a taxi to take us and bring us for 50 pounds, and the state made everything available. A litre of diesel was for 7 pounds and gasoline for 20 pounds. And there was complete security. But ignorance and fear made people have doubts [and think that] there was no freedom.
Q: Also I heard that open heart surgery was only 50,000 pounds.
A: Not just that. Ask any Syrian: getting an artificial limb from the best types was between 75[,000] and 125[,000].
Q: When was the shop [of your son] blown up?
A: 17 Ramadan last year.
Q: Did the Dar al-Adl arrest the perpetrators?
A: No, the factions did it. You are distant and don't know the story and what happens here.
Q: By God I did not expect that the Dar al-Adl arrested the perpetrators. There is no rule of law in the areas under the factions.
A: The Dar al-Adl was made by the factions and is for them, and they are the ones who pay it money. For this reason, only a few of the civilians can obtain their due through the Dar al-Adl, and most of the civilians call it the Dar al-la-Adl [Abode of Non-Justice].
Q: With regards to the position of mukhtar, you remain in it until death?
A: Yes, but maybe I will resign, because I have become tired of this revolution and this people.
Q: The previous mukhtar died in 2011?
A: No, the previous mukhtar fled to Jordan because he is the brother of the head of the opposition military council. He fled out of fear.
Q: On the personal level how are your relations with the factions in the locality? Of course they agreed on your going to the al-Amn al-Askari to prevent the locality from being bombed.
A: Yes, my relations with all the factions of al-Karak are very good and now I have some of them sitting with me drinking tea and Arabic coffee. And I have helped most of them when their relatives are detained at regime checkpoints.
Q: In the end do you expect that the locality will reconcile?
A: Only when the army heads to the Deraa region will most think of reconciliation. And all say, Oh Lord, may the army come and rid us of the thieves.
Q: Yes, so if there is a military campaign, there will be reconciliation.
A: I think so.