The Daraa Harbinger

James Denselow
James Denselow

Whilst the narrative for those not particularly interested in Syria is of a failed revolution and the restoration of authoritarian rule across most of the country, the people of Syria themselves continue to risk everything to assert their own story.

Nowhere is this more evident at present than in the province of Daraa. This is the part of the country that claims credit for the original uprisings against the Regime a long and bloody decade ago. The return of Damascus to the area was symbolic of the entrenchment of Assad in power, but it wasn’t a clear cut victory in any conventional understanding of the term.

Back in 2018 Russian military police entered rebel-held areas in Daraa and began negotiations for the handover to regime rule. The equation of Russian AirPower and indiscriminate Regime attacks was combined with the promise of some degree of autonomy and recognition if the rebels bended the knee to Damascus. Heavy weapons were handed over but so were amnesties, the license to leave to other parts of the country or become a part of new security forces responsible for the province.

The Russians clearly believed that rather than grinding down the opposition, diplomacy backed by violence was a far better options. ‘Deescalation Zones’ allowed the Regime and its allies to back to narrative of an inevitable return of their control across the country.

Yet fast forward three years and Daraa is again engulfed in artillery fire and the screeches of military jets as the uneasy balance of the 2018 ‘deal’ got out of control. Some 50,000 people are on the move forced from their homes, according to a ‘Reconciliation Committee’ that is some 80% of the population. The return of heavy fighting has also been accompanied by the ubiquitous use of siege tactics.

Humanitarian agencies warn that some 10,000 families are under siege with little to no access to food, medical care, medicine, or basic human needs. The city of Daraa has been under siege since June 24, 2021. They say the humanitarian situation is “deteriorating rapidly”. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the fighting is in and around Daraa, with the only route out strictly controlled by the Syrian regime; “The stark picture emerging from Daraa al-Balad and other neighborhoods underscores how much at-risk civilians there are, repeatedly exposed to fighting and violence, and in effect under siege,” said Bachelet.

The current violence in Daraa is linked to protests that emerged in the shadow of the most recent theatre around ‘elections’ for the Syrian Presidency. What happened next is an important harbinger of Syria’s future ahead. Of countries that go through a civil war, some 50% will relapse into conflict in future. In Daraa protests against elections led to the ubiquitous violent clampdown that in turn fuelled an increasing cycle of violence.

Just as the symbolism of the 2018 restoration of nominal Regime control over Daraa spoke to a narrative of Assad entrenchment, the events of today remind everyone how shallow that control really is. Some articles have speculated ‘is this the beginning of the end for Assad?’, but whilst such thinking is somewhat premature, the significance of a sustained unwinding of Assad’s ‘reconciliation’ strategy has serious portents for the future of the country.

The presence of strategic Iranian and Russian forces in the Daraa arena further complicates the dynamics of control. Disconnects between Iranian attempts to strengthen local allies versus Russian attempts to deescalate events may force tensions upstream to Tehran and Moscow, highlighting in the process the impotence of Damascus in events in their own backyard. This may in turn trigger the Regime to overextend its own hand to reassert power and attempt to fully control the area, destroying the foundations of the 2018 settlement and potentially opening up events to an extended period of fighting.

What is more the last three years in Daraa have highlighted the illusions of any talk of reconstruction and what buildings may have been repaired are now at threat of the latest bout of high explosives being liberally distributed in the province. In the long story of the Syrian conflict Daraa has long proven a central chapter and the descent back into violence is a harbinger of the country’s near future to come.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,
James Denselow