The southern Syrian province of Deraa remains unstable as security incidents continue to occur on a virtually daily basis. One major concern is the risk of a military escalation as the government may try to carry out a wider assault campaign in a bid to force handover of weapons and deport any further elements deemed to be 'irreconcilable' to insurgent-held areas of Idlib.
A small version of these events played out in the north Deraa town of al-Sanamayn earlier this year, as a Syrian army assault on insurgent cells in part of the town compelled their surrender and transportation to Idlib. Despite these measures though, the threat of violence in al-Sanamayn has not receded entirely, as Tha'ir Mustafa al-Abbas, a former rebel commander who became leader of Military Security (military intelligence) auxiliary contingents in al-Sanamayn, was assassinated recently in the middle of the town. I had known Tha'ir since 2017 when I first wrote about 'reconciliation' in al-Sanamayn, and he had always been most cordial in talking to me.
The killing of several policemen in the al-Muzayrib area in western Deraa countryside has led to the Syrian government mobilizing forces from elsewhere- notably the Syrian army's Fourth Division- to send into western Deraa countryside. Negotiations have been undertaken with Russian mediation in a bid to resolve the crisis.
To discuss these matters further, I interviewed an auxiliary contingent commander in west Deraa countryside nominally affiliated with the Military Security. This interview was conducted on 16 May 2020. The interview is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: First can you speak a little about the general situation in the south? I mean in terms of livelihood, services and the humanitarian situation? Is the situation worse than a year ago for example?
A: Brother the people today are lacking many resources, among them gas, gasoline and mazout. There is a great rate of unemployment, and this has led to a great rate of poverty among the people today as they cannot bring one day's food. The people are in great need of work. There is great expensiveness as well as great difficulty in livelihood, especially after the rise of the price of the dollar, because the goods are connected with the price of the dollar. As for the gas upon which most people rely for cooking, there is a card of every two months such that the card entitles you to a canister of gas. And its free price [i.e. gas canisters sold outside government channels] is 20,000 Syrian pounds. As for electricity, it is present but there is rationing of 4 hours cut-off and 2 hours coming. As for water, there are many areas relying on buying water through tankers. And the price of the tanker is 7000 Syrian pounds. This is in summary.
Q: So in summary the living situation is worse than the situation a year ago?
A: Yes brother.
Q: Can you explain the security system adopted in the south? What are the reasons for the many security incidents? Who is behind the assassinations?
A: Brother in the south there is no control for the regime in the actual sense, but rather formally. And the reason for the incidents in the first degree is the lack of the regime's adherence to its promises. And the arrests are continuing until now. Behind the assassinations are multiple sides, among the regime, the Hezb [Hezbollah], Iran and Russia, of course to spread their influence over the south. In the area of the Yarmouk Basin and the western countryside, there are secret cells affiliated with the Hezb and Iran, but they are individuals. There is an increase but in an entirely secret sense because in the event of their affiliation being known, they are immediately killed by persons or groups rejecting their presence.
Q: But some of the assassinations targt people working in the Syrian army and the governmental institutions. Is this not because of Da'esh [Islamic State] cells for example and some of the insurgents?
A: Sure brother, it's possible, because there are Da'esh cells that have returned to invigorate activity in a great sense in the south.
Q: Yes. We have seen much talk about contingents affiliated with the Fourth Division, the V Corps and the Military Security etc. And it is said that these groups are responsible for security. What is the truth of these words and what is the nature of the relations with the different sides on the ground?
A: They [the auxiliary contingents] are not responsible for security but they have checkpoints on the peripheries of the villages and towns. The situation in the south is as it was a little before the agreement of the taswiyas [regularizations of status] but outwardly under the control of the regime. The Fourth Division, the Ninth [Division] and the Fifth [Division], most of their orders, instructions, personnel and leaders are at the hands of persons who are entirely belonging to the interest of the Hezb and Iran. Of course I mean [here] the Fifth Division and not the V Corps. All are striving to recruit from the sons of the south to seize by themselves the south and receive the borders with Israel.
Q: But you for example are a commander for a contingent belonging to the Military Security.
Q: What does that mean on the ground? For example does the Military Security give you a salary?
A: Salaries, no. Because we rejected to go outside Deraa, and it is not part of [military] service.
Q: They have not even given you grants of money?
A: Not at all. All the factions of the taswiyas who joined the security branches and rejected to go out on missions outside Deraa are not entitled to salaries and are not reckoned within compulsory service.
Q: So what are the advantages of joining one of the security branches?
A: Retaining our individual weapons inside our land.
Q: I see. Fine. Of course there has been an escalation recently as forces from the Fourth [Division] etc. have been sent to Deraa. What have been the reasons for the escalation? Has a new agreement been reached?
A: The reinforcements that have arrived recently, most of them are for the Hezb and Iran but under the cover of the Syrian military divisions like the Fourth Division and the Ninth and the Fifth in order to seize all the western region to receive all the borders with Israel. The reasons for the escalation are the killing of nine members of police by Qasim al-Subaihi Abu Tariq following the killing of his son and daughter's husband. Of course Abu Tariq claims that the regime is the one that killed his son and daughter's son. And here Iran and the Hezb found a pretext to spread their control over the region. They are trying to seize the western region by any means to receive the borders with Israel. And two officers of the 52nd brigade were killed along with another number in Basr al-Harir and the eastern region and we did not see these reinforcements to the eastern region, but they want the western region and found the killing of nine police members a pretext to assault the western area to receive the borders with Israel entirely.
Note the following:
The Lujna Markaziya [central committee] in Deraa rejected the regime's demand to spread military checkpoints inside the town of Tafas and al-Muzayrib and al-Yaduda. The regime requested for the handover of Qasim al-Subayhi Abu Tariq who was not affiliated with any side after the taswiya as he has been in flight currently, along with 14 of his men accused of attacking the al-Muzayrib station and the killing of 9 police personnel. The Russians pledged to block the reinforcements that arrive from carrying out any assault and to calm matters for mutual negotiation for a period of 15 das. The reinforcements have not been withdrawn until now.
The Lujna Markaziya has requested the withdrawal of the Fourth Division and the Ninth from houses of the civilians they seized days ago and turned into military bases and the Russians have pledged to remove them from them.
The Lujna Markaziya has requested to establish a Russian center in the western area for the purpose of the complaints of the citizens regarding the regime's violations it has been undertaking. Russian military patrols will be facilitated in the western area to monitor the reinforcements and prevent their entry into the region. The Lujna Markaziya has requested to extend the taswiyas and the Russians have agreed to them.
And there is the portfolio of the detained. The Russians have said they will pressure the security branches to release them. This is what happened in the meeting entirely and during 15 days a number of meetings will be held to complete the mutual negotiation.
This agreement happened yesterday and today there was a bulldozer clearing out the a garbage area in the locality of al-Yaduda and the reinforcements that came to the area threw fired two tank mortars at the bulldozer but they did not hit it and no harm occurred.
Q: What is the Lujna Markaziya in Deraa exactly?
A: A committee including the majority of the leadership in the southern region. It was formed a little before the taswiya agreement and its task remains to negotiate with the regime regarding the events in the area. It has brought together some of the leaders and notables.
Q: In summary what are your main demands and main message to the regime and Russians?
A: First, release the detainees from the dungeons of the regime, and stop the arrests, and second get the Iranians and the Hezb out of our land. They implement these things for us and the rest is easy.