With the rebellion in the south of Syria now defeated, an important question remains as to the political and military arrangements in that region, particularly regarding the problem of people in Deraa and Quneitra being wanted for military service. Given the key Russian role in the southern campaign in providing air support for the Syrian government's forces and negotiating reconciliation agreements, it is unsurprising to learn that the Russians are attempting to make inroads through their V Corps (Fifth Legion) project. The nucleus of the V Corps project in the south lies in the southeastern Deraa town of Busra al-Sham, where a reconciliation agreement was struck between the faction Quwat Shabab al-Sunna and the Russians.
Now, many former southern rebels and those wanted for military service ponder whether they should enlist in the regular army or the V Corps, which in principle is a volunteer force. Therefore, enlisting in the V Corps is not supposed to equate to military service. Have the Russians made some special promises to the southern rebels?
To discuss these issues further, I interviewed a former rebel in the east Deraa countryside town of al-Karak al-Sharqi. For his own safety, I refrain from publishing his name or mentioning the specific faction he was involved in. However, he has now become involved in the V Corps project in the south.
Below is the interview. Any inserted explanations are in square brackets. This interview was conducted over the weekend.
Q: First can you tell me a little about yourself? You were a commander in [redacted] in al-Karak al-Sharqi, right? What were you working as before the events and what was your opinion on the idea of reconciliation before the military campaign in the south?
A: I worked in the field of decorations and painting before the revolutions. I was not a commander in [redacted] but an administrative offiial because of my wound at the beginning of the events. I was with the opinion of the majority in not agreeing with reconciliation before the recent military campaign for we had all lost a brother or father or son and the idea of reconciliation in the view of all was placing your hand in the hand of the one who killed your family so it was very much ruled out.
Q: Yes. But when the mukhtar went to the Amn Askari in order to keep the locality away from bombing [neutralize: تحييد] were you with this step?
A: I was in the meeting yes with the mukhtar and it was agreed to keep the locality away from bombing [neutralize: تحييد] and the ceasefire between us was still in place. And I was with that step because al-Karak had received most of the displaced people of the villages in large numbers.
Q: Yes. Fine. Of course the choice in the south was between reconciliation and going to the north. Why did you choose to remain instead of going to the north?
A: The decision was difficult between the Russians' guarantee not to pursue here and between being made to depart to the north, with unknown fate. But the matter of the V Corps appeared, which was set up recently and has included all the revolutionaries who have remained in the area and Shabab al-Sunna in Busra [al-Sham] so I preferred to remain with them and that was so after all got to know that the international powers had agreed to end the crisis in Syria and work towards its stability.
Q: Yes. And also you feel that there is no dignity in a life of displacement and wandering in the north?
A: There is no one who can leave his land and home easily, and displacement is a harsh matter: in particular, the one who has a wife and kids knows that they will encounter torture and difficulty in displacement.
Q: Yes. Roughly speaking, most of the people who were in the factions of al-Karak have returned to al-Karak?
A: Roughly speaking. And some of them went to the north.
Q: Yes. Fine. Can you tell me a little about the formation of the V Corps in the south? What are the promises exactly? I heard for example that the Russians have promised that the one who serves in the Corps in the south need not serve outside the area and also the service is tantamount to compulsory and reserve service. Can you comment on this matter?
A: The Corps was formed by Russian oversight to wage war on the Dawa'esh [Islamic State] and extremist organizations and the Corps participated in the battles against them in the Yarmouk Basin and it is expected to participate in the badiya [desert area in Suwayda']. Some of the coordinators, transmitting from the Russians, informed us that it [service in the V Corps] will be reckoned as compulsory service for every person wanted for service by the regime from those who become affiliated with the Corps. And also many are submitting requests to affiliate, but until now no agreement has come, perhaps the reason being that the Corps is still in the process of formation and requires organization, and also for the reserve and the defectors, the matter is being applied to them. As for service inside the locality or region, there is no clear comprehensive view of this particular but as it has come to us: the Russians have agreed with the Corps to fight the Dawa'esh wherever they are.
Amateur video in which the speaker mentions V Corps fighters participating in the capture of Sahm al-Jowlan and Jalin in the Yarmouk Basin from Islamic State. In the video, the speaker derisively asks: "Where is the Syrian army? Where is the 4th Division? Where is the Republican Guard?" This suggests the V Corps fighters are ex-southern rebels. Contact me if you wish to have a copy of the video in full.
Q: Yes. So possibly they will send you to the eastern region for example? Also have many of the youth of al-Karak become affiliated with the V Corps? As for the Corps' participation in the fighting in the Basin, I sensed that the groups were the 'taswiya groups' [rebel groups that agreed to reconciliation with the government and whose members underwent taswiyat al-wad'] from the factions of the south, right?
A: It's possible the Corps will participate but there is opposition to its participation from the regime forces. Around 50 people from al-Karak have sought to join. Yes, groups from some of the factions that did taswiya and groups affiliated with Shabab al-Sunna, the centre of the command of the Corps.
Q: You are saying that there is opposition to the V Corps' participation in the Deir az-Zor operations right?
A: No, I mean the badiya and not Deir az-Zor for the matter of fighting in Deir has not been suggested until now.
Q: I see. Regarding the units of the V Corps in the south is there a specific name for the formation whose centre is in Busra al-Sham? Like Dir' al-Watan or this thing.
A: Until now I don't know. No information has come on this specific. Perhaps it will be a project for an entire, comprehensive national army in Syria.
Q: Yes, it's okay. According to the promises what is the monthly salary for the person in the south who joins the V Corps?
A: Also this matter has not been mentioned.
Q: Yes. Most of the youth of al-Karak who have become affiliated with the V Corps were in the factions previously?
A: Not all of them. There are also civilians who evaded service and those who deserted and did not enter with any faction.
Q: Yes. In order to join the V Corps do you have to go to Busra al-Sham in order to register?
A: No. They have asked the official responsible for [each set of] ten insurgents in every locality to refer their lists to them.
Q: Who asked the official? The Russians?
A: Officials in the Corps previously affiliated with Shabab al-Sunna.
Q: Yes. So the foundation of the V Corps in the south is the Shabab al-Sunna faction.
Q: Is Hezbollah or the IRGC trying to recruit youth in the south? Or there is nothing about this matter?
A: We have not heard of this thing, but those who arranged the reconciliations prefer that the youth become affiliated with the regime and they do not like the idea of the Corps.
Q: Do you mean that those who arranged the reconciliation prefer the youth become affiliated with the regular army and not the V Corps?
A: Yes, they prefer the regular army, not the Corps.
Q: Of course the air intelligence had a big role in the operations of east Deraa countryside. Is it trying to recruit the youth in the area?
A: Yes it played a big role especially in the recent events in Deraa. It has recruited some for its interest among them leaders of factions as happened in al-Ghariya al-Sharqiya [locality in northeast Deraa].
Q: Yes, but the air intelligence is still present in east Deraa countryside.
A: Yes, present.
Q: On what basis do you prefer the V Corps to the regular army?
A: I don't prefer one over another. In the coming days there will be one army even if the names differ but most of those who have become affiliated with the Corps are those who who affiliated, as I told you, to escape the issue [of military service] because of a lack of clarity regarding the reconciliations and what is their end result and especially after most of the leaders of the factions fled to Jordan. And among them are those who desire to serve in their province.
Q: Yes. So you are saying that many of the youth have become affiliated with the Corps because they believe that they will serve in their areas only, despite the fact this thing has not been clarified till now, right?
A: Yes. The means has not been clarified but they said that his service will be within Deraa province.
Q: Who said this? The Russians? Or only the youth think this? Because according to what you told me the Russians said that the Corps will fight Da'esh in any place.
A: One of the coordinators in the Corps is the one who said these words.
Q: As for the Russians they said that the aim of the Corps is to fight Da'esh, correct?
A: Yes. The Russians said these words recently.
Q: Yeah, so not only in Deraa province.
A: Nothing clear till now.
Q: Lastly, in your opinion, did the idea of the revolution fail?
A: The failure was the arms of the revolution that were brought in by the hands of the West and those who claimed that they are friends of the people and who had a big role in all that happened from killing and destruction in Syria because of these weapons. But the revolution of thought and the people: I believe that continues and insists on reform and progress and attaining freedom.