A New Order Emerges in Southern Syria

Syrian Regime closes accounts with west- and Israel-linked rebels, as Iran builds and expands its presence in the area.

Evidence emerging from south west Syria indicates that the Assad regime has begun to ‘close accounts’ with former rebels who worked with Israel and with western countries during the years that this area was outside of regime control.  A number of prominent former rebel commanders in Deraa and Quneitra Provinces have recently disappeared after being apprehended by regime forces.   Other former rebels have been prevented from leaving the area for opposition-controlled Idleb province in the country’s north east.

The regime’s measures against those it deems unfit for ‘reconciliation’ are continuing parallel to the integration of rank and file former rebels into the regime’s security structures.  What is returning to Syria’s south, however, is not the status quo ante bellum.  Iran and its allies have a central role in the emergent power structure. Indeed, the emergent reality is one in which it is difficult to discern where precisely the Syrian state ends and Iran and its allies begin. Syria’s south west, which was the cradle of the uprising against Assad, is now being transformed into the birthplace of a new Syria, in which Iran and its allies form a vital and inseparable component.

Deraa and Quneitra Provinces were among the first areas of Syria to break free of regime control. The demonstrations that launched the Syrian uprising began in Deraa city in mid-March, 2011.  By the end of the year, the regime had lost control of the greater part of both provinces.  In the subsequent six years, a flourishing post-regime reality came into being.  International NGOs began to operate projects in the areas. A provisional local authority functioned.  Unlike in northern Syria, militias aligned with Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood style political Islam did not swallow up all other elements.  Rather, groups aligned with these streams existed alongside other less ideological formations.

Foreign governments also became involved.  Israel, determined to prevent the arrival of Iran and its proxy militias to the border with the Golan Heights, developed relations with a number of non-jihadi local rebel groups, and assisted their control of the border area.  Such organizations as Fursan al Jolan, and Ahrar al Nawa, among others, benefitted from the Israeli connection.  Further east, western governments including the US and the UK offered assistance to the opposition in Deraa Province.  Through such projects as the ‘Free Syrian Police’ force, the west sought to aid the development of rudimentary civil society structures to replace those of the Assad regime.

All this came abruptly to an end in the course of summer, 2018.  In June, the regime, having finished off the rebellion in Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, turned its attentions to the south west.  A massive aerial and ground assault began.   The rebels collapsed with unexpected speed.  By July, it was over.  Once the regime had captured key strategic areas, rebel groups were forced to choose between a bloody last stand or a negotiated surrender. They chose the latter.  Thousands then opted to board buses for rebel-controlled Idlib in the north west. Those who wishes to stay were given a six month period from August to visit a government controlled center and ‘normalize their status’ with the authorities.  The implicit suggestion was that if this was done, they would face no further retribution.

This assumption now appears to have been misplaced.  According to residents of the area interviewed by the Syria Direct website, a wave of arrests and disappearances of former rebel commanders and opposition activists is now taking place.  On November 7, the body of Ghanim al-Jamous, former head of the Free Syrian Police in the town of Da’el, was found by a roadside on the outskirts of the town.  Officers belonging to Assad’s feared Air Force Intelligence prevented bystanders from approaching the body.  Jamous is one of 23 former rebel commanders and opposition activists to have been detained or disappeared by the regime organs in recent weeks.  Many more young Syrian residents of the area with less clear links to the opposition have also been detained.

Among others affected by the regime crackdown are individuals formerly directly linked to Israel.  On September 7, Ayham al-Juhmani, former commander of the Ahrar Nawa group in the town of Nawa in Quneitra province was detained by regime forces.  He has not been heard of since.  Ahrar Nawa was among the groups to have cooperated most closely with Israel.  Juhmani himself spent some time in a hospital in Israel during the civil war, undergoing treatment for wounds received in combat.

As the regime’s security organs prey on former leaders of the fragile  order that emerged in the 2011-18 period, meanwhile, the new dispensation in south west Syria is emerging.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxy militias – including Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi groups such as Asaib Ahl al Haq- are an integral part of it.

A recent report on the Syria Observer website provided details of a large Iranian base under construction in the Lajat area of Deraa Province.  According to the Syria Observer, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Hizballah, operating on behalf of the Iranians, ‘destroyed about 650 houses and cleared out a number of villages in Lajat, levelling them to the ground, to create an area of 30 square kilometers. In these villages, the Iran-backed militias prepared training barracks and warehouses for weapons and ammunition, in order to make this area into a military base for foreign Iran-backed militias to be based. The first batches of weapons and ammunition reached the militias in the area by this route at the beginning of October.’

The report went on to describe the route taken by Iran-associated fighters from the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Albu Kamal to al-Lajat, under the supervision of IRGC personnel.

Evidence is also emerging of the presence of Hizballah personnel and other pro-Iranian Shia militiamen in Syrian Arab Army uniforms among the regime forces returning to the border area with the Golan Heights. This is despite the nominal Russian commitment to keep such elements at least 85 kilometers from the body.  This Iranian activity close to the border goes hand in hand with Teheran’s activity further afield, including the transfer of Shias from southern Iraq to deserted Sunni neighborhoods.

All this adds up to an emergent new post-war order in the regime-controlled part of Syria.  Those who hoped for one kind of new Syria are being rounded up, detained and disappeared.  Iran, meanwhile, is busy creating a very different kind of new order. In it, an independent Iranian presence is intertwined with and largely indistinguishable from the body of the Syrian state itself, in a way not coincidentally analogous to the situation in Lebanon and Iraq (minus the nominal institutions of representative government).

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer

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