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Damascus’s False Reconciliation Failed in Daraa

Continuing revolt shows the hollowness of Assadist peace claims.

By , a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.
A man rides a motorcycle past destroyed buildings in an opposition-held neighborhood of the southern Syrian city of Daraa on Oct. 2, 2018.
A man rides a motorcycle past destroyed buildings in an opposition-held neighborhood of the southern Syrian city of Daraa on Oct. 2, 2018. Mohamad Abazeed/AFP via Getty Images

The city of Daraa, the dusty provincial capital of Daraa governorate in southern Syria, is located just eight miles north of the Jordanian border. More than a decade ago, as protests erupted across the Middle East in a series of democratic uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, it was the first place in Syria to cast off the shackles of 40 years of Ba’athist dictatorship.

After more than 10 years of conflict, conservative estimates of more than 600,000 dead or disappeared and more than 12 million displaced, the spark that lit the fuse in Daraa was a group of teenage boys spray painting anti-Assad graffiti on the schoolyard walls of the al-Banin boys school.

Moawiya and Samer Sayasina, two of the 15-year-old boys who scrawled “Your turn, Doctor”—a reference to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s medical training—were subsequently arrested and held for more than a month by the regime’s security services, triggering protests in the heart of the southern province. This small act of defiance and the community response that followed ultimately christened Daraa as “the cradle of the Syrian revolution” after the regime opened fire on protesters.

The city of Daraa, the dusty provincial capital of Daraa governorate in southern Syria, is located just eight miles north of the Jordanian border. More than a decade ago, as protests erupted across the Middle East in a series of democratic uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, it was the first place in Syria to cast off the shackles of 40 years of Ba’athist dictatorship.

After more than 10 years of conflict, conservative estimates of more than 600,000 dead or disappeared and more than 12 million displaced, the spark that lit the fuse in Daraa was a group of teenage boys spray painting anti-Assad graffiti on the schoolyard walls of the al-Banin boys school.

Moawiya and Samer Sayasina, two of the 15-year-old boys who scrawled “Your turn, Doctor”—a reference to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s medical training—were subsequently arrested and held for more than a month by the regime’s security services, triggering protests in the heart of the southern province. This small act of defiance and the community response that followed ultimately christened Daraa as “the cradle of the Syrian revolution” after the regime opened fire on protesters.

While Daraa’s defiance in 2011 came as a shock, only a fool could doubt it in 2021, even after losing an entire generation to bloodshed and brutality. Daraa’s resistance is continuing, despite Russian-backed Assadist victories. A new generation of fighters are willing to pay the price of defying the regime again—putting paid to Damascus’s hopes of returning to the quiescent Syria of the past.

Daraa, one of the first provinces in Syria to push regime forces out in the early stages of the civil war, was recaptured by a Russian-backed Assad regime offensive in July 2018, forcing the province’s population into a “reconciliation” deal. Those who did not accept the regime’s presence in Daraa were to be forcibly displaced to northern Syria, while those who remained were subject to regime rule with Russia acting as a guarantor.

Daraa’s reconciliation and security arrangement with Damascus was unique, gifting opposition forces a degree of provincial autonomy under nominal Russian supervision not seen in other formerly rebel-held territories. But this agreement was always an unsustainable proposition, both for the regime and the opposition, one further doomed by the callous disregard for human life displayed by its guarantors in Moscow. The situation is complicated by Iran’s regional ambitions, particularly its desire to create a built-up military force across Israel’s northern border. As such, tensions have been rising between Iranian- and Russian-backed forces as they vie for influence over Daraa’s frontlines.

These “reconciliation deals,” which normally follow an indiscriminate mass bombardment and “siege and starve” campaign, were another component of the government’s sectarian cleansing campaign and a mechanism to mete out further punishment against its already broken populace. Damascus’s priorities were laid bare in Daraa by its decision to seek the punishment of members of the Syrian humanitarian group, the White Helmets, offering amnesty for armed groups in Daraa but hunting the paramedics to extermination. Several hundred members of the group were subsequently smuggled out of Syria in an international operation.

But unlike other former rebel-held provinces reconciled under regime control, Daraa remains defiant and its citizens continue to openly challenge the regime. During May’s sham presidential elections, Daraa was in public revolt, rejecting the regime’s legitimacy and boycotting the process.

The local leadership of the neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad, the birthplace of Daraa’s 2011 revolution, consists of a council of former (now reconciled) rebels and civil society activists, known as the Central Committee, formed in 2018 to implement the Russian-brokered agreement. However, more than three years after the reconciliation agreement, key promises made by the regime regarding public services have not been met, leading to further dissent and hostility between the regime’s security apparatus and the population of reconciled territories.

Such open dissent cannot be tolerated in Assad’s totalitarian police state, and the regime responded by launching a new military offensive against the province at the end of June, and imposing a crippling siege against the neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad, endangering the lives of 40,000 civilians, after its residents refused to surrender and allow the regime to raid houses in the city.

Ammar, an activist and journalist living in Daraa who asked not to use his last name, said the situation for civilians was increasingly desperate. “Civilians are trapped in Daraa al-Balad and Daraa’s [refugee] camp,” he said via an encrypted messaging platform. “Because of the presence of regime forces and pro-Iranian militias near these areas, dozens of families are completely besieged to the extent that they are unable to leave their homes due to sniper fire.”

“These besieged neighborhoods have also lost access to the only medical point that was working due to a critical lack of medical supplies,” he said. Speaking on the international community, Ammar called for immediate action to protect civilians and “prevent the [regime’s] military campaign.” “The sectarian militias are obstructing agreements in southern Syria and are drastically escalating the military situation,” he said.

Regime escalation has been likely for some time given Daraa’s frequent challenges to regime control. A violent uprising has been fomenting in Daraa ever since it fell to regime forces, with insurgent attacks against security forces, assassinations and bombings common over the last three years. The Assad regime, true to form, has repeatedly tried to arbitrarily arrest, torture and kill as many people as it can to silence the province, but Daraa continues to defy Damascus even while its citizens live under constant fear of reprisals.

After weeks of siege, Daraa province erupted into a new round of armed conflict. A wave of militant groups posting video statements online in solidarity with the besieged provincial city and launching attacks against regime checkpoints. The surprise offensive shattered the regime’s illusion of control, and humiliating scenes of dozens of regime troops being rounded up by Daraa’s emboldened militant groups has further enraged Damascus.

At the time of this writing, the Central Committee in Daraa and the regime have failed to achieve a ceasefire after several rounds of negotiations in between rounds of intermittent fighting. The situation for civilians in the province is increasingly desperate, with an alliance of Syrian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) releasing a statement calling for immediate international action.

“With the rapid deterioration in the security situation and increased hostilities and atrocities committed against civilians over the past few days, Dara’a Al-Balad and its surroundings is facing the most intense offensive in southern Syria since the establishment of the de-escalation agreement in 2018,” said the Syrian NGO Alliance in a statement sent to the press last week.

“Doctors and medical personnel have been sending emergency calls for help requesting urgent openings of humanitarian corridors to refer the injured who need urgent surgical interventions, in light of the massive lack of medical supplies,” said the group, as it urged the United Nations to reopen cross-border aid operations with Jordan.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, released a statement last week calling for an “immediate ceasefire” in the “under siege” province to “alleviate the suffering of civilians in Daraa.”

This week, bakeries in Daraa al-Balad have been forced to close, as the supply of wheat to the besieged neighborhood has run out and food has become increasingly scarce. At the time of this writing, there has been no progress made, locally or diplomatically, to alleviate the regime-imposed starvation of Daraa.

The dictatorship is still playing the long game in Syria, as it hopes to kill, bomb, besiege, and repress its way to legitimacy. By focusing on winning the military conflict, with the help of its allies in Tehran and Moscow, and doing nothing to address the conditions that led to the Syrian revolution, the regime is sowing the seeds of a permanent insurgency. In Daraa, the regime has to contend with what is now the most fertile soil for revolt in all of the Levant.

The regime’s attempts to drive home its “War on Terror” narrative to justify its brutal war against its own population is also frustrated by Daraa, home to rebel groups, formerly backed by the United States and Jordan, who maintained their secular and democratic composition throughout the course of the war, even as Islamist and Salafi jihadi groups dominated. By continuing the protest for democratic freedoms, Daraa contradicts the government’s portrayal of itself as a force of order.

It was no surprise that Moawiya and Samer Sayasina, the two boys arrested for anti-Assad graffiti in 2011, eventually picked up arms to fight the regime. It should also be no surprise that, given the history of the province, even under a regime reconciliation agreement, that the people of Daraa have no intention of returning to life under regime subjugation.

As the continuing cycle of violence in Daraa today shows, a new generation, 10 years on from the start of the conflict, is picking up arms for the first time to continue the fight. While the “cradle of the revolution” remains a unique example of anti-regime defiance in Syria, the growth spurts of a new uprising represent the new status quo for Damascus. For as long as the regime still rules over a population that rejected it, Syria will continue to face a war without end.

Oz Katerji is a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights, and the Middle East.

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