Published at The Arab Weekly
In military terms, the fall of Daraa, in south-western Syria, to Iranian and regime forces last July eliminated the last insurgent-held pocket not dominated by jihadists. Politically, it had profound effects, demonstrating American disengagement and Israel’s misperceptions of the Syrian landscape, particularly Russia’s role in it.
Recent signs of renewed insurgency in Daraa, however, underline how far from over Syria’s war is and how badly the West has mishandled the crisis.
Daraa is the “cradle of the revolution.” It was there, in March 2011, that children were tortured after they daubed graffiti on their schoolhouse, including the “Arab spring” slogan “The people want to topple the regime,” triggering the first protests of the uprising.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime cracked down fiercely but within a year the province had risen again and by the end of 2013 large areas were controlled by the rebellion. In early 2014, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels combined as the Southern Front (SF) and created a model of humane governance that marginalised jihadists and settled civil-military matters.
The SF’s backers — the United States, Jordan and Israel — gave very limited assistance. Prevented for years from fighting the pro-Assad coalition, while simultaneously left unprotected from air attacks and forced to act essentially as Jordanian border guards, the SF lost legitimacy, cohesion and capacity.
Despite an American-Jordanian-Russian ceasefire put in place in July 2017 and an expectation that the United States would prevent Iranian forces surrounding Israel on another border, the rebels were left to face the pro-Assad coalition alone when the final offensive came in the summer of 2018.
Unlike the hard-fought Aleppo battle in late 2016, an exhausted, demoralised rebellion in Daraa surrendered quickly after token resistance.
Under the Russia-mediated “reconciliation” agreement, rebels turned over heavy weapons and accepted state authority, saving the regime a grinding military operation to conquer the area and the expenditure of its perennially overstretched manpower to occupy it.
In exchange, rebels could remain in their homes unmolested and, in some cases, were given local autonomy, albeit after they officially joined regime structures and took regime and Iranian patronage. Rejectionist rebels were deported to Idlib.
Daraa’s fall was a devastating symbolic blow to a rebellion that had been strategically defeated some time before. It was read by most outside powers as the beginning of the end of the war. They were wrong.
Writing for Al-Jumhuriya in February, Fidaa al-Saleh noted that numerous civil society activists had “disappeared” and others were brazenly killed. Dozens of rebel commanders were arrested and many were assassinated, as with Ahmad Hikmat Hamura.
The point, Saleh explained, was to destroy the rebel elite so the rank-and-file could be dispersed and returned to quiescence as the dictatorship resolidifies.
The same month, the International Crisis Group (ICG) made clear how grim the situation was. The displaced have not returned because whatever resources the regime has are devoted, not to providing services, but to reinstituting political terror, something which, as ICG bluntly notes, “Russia is doing nothing to prevent.”
It is little surprise that these conditions of economic ruin and suffocating political repression have provoked renewed resistance in Daraa. It is what did it the first time.
Around the time of the revolution’s anniversary this year, at extraordinary personal risk, large-scale anti-regime protests returned to Daraa. A month earlier, on February 11, the Popular Resistance announced itself, an armed movement using FSA-style symbolism.
After initial doubts over its existence, the Popular Resistance has attacked a series of checkpoints and assassinated several pro-Assad officials in Daraa over the last two months. The Popular Resistance blew up a convoy of pro-Assad forces on April 12. Four days later, insurgency returned to Damascus via “Saraya Qasioun,” which has carried out subsequent attacks.
The American acquiescence to the Assad-Iran system taking over Daraa has been, as could have been easily predicted, a grave mistake, no matter whether it is looked at as a narrow security question or a broader political one and this is even more true for Israel.
Putting aside humanitarian considerations, it should have been obvious Assad was incapable of stabilising the area. The regime remains brittle and short of men. If the escalating turmoil in the south draws in regime resources, it will open vulnerabilities elsewhere, perhaps with the Islamic State in the Badiya desert of the south-east and/or east, where Assad is at risk of losing territory, or with al-Qaeda’s derivative, which has proven capable of sophisticated attacks in crucial regime areas of western Syria.
Since Assad cannot be relied on to suppress terrorism or even provide basic stability, there is no conceivable benefit to US and Gulf moves towards re-embracing him. Such moves undermine the stated policy of US President Donald Trump to apply “maximum pressure” against the Iranian regime, as does allowing Tehran to expand its influence, as in Daraa.