Deraa suffers as Assad seeks international acceptance
Earlier this year, Syrians and others marked with sadness and anger the 10 years since the protests against the Assad regime broke out in the southern city of Deraa. Few thought then that, a decade later, the Syrian regime would be still bombarding its opponents in areas of this city. It has shifted from being the center of resistance and protest to being the center of the regime’s onslaught. A ceasefire agreed last week could lead to the end of opposition action in the area and the resumption of full regime control.
Why then does Deraa matter beyond its symbolic importance? No doubt the regime would like to recapture this ground zero of the protests against Bashar Assad’s rule. Yet this area is also of great strategic value. The Syrian regime wants to control all the territory up to the Jordanian border, as this would allow it to control the Jordanian-Syrian trade route. It is a further indication that the regime will never relax or take its eye off the ball in its quest to restore full control over every part of Syria.
Deraa has a strong tribal structure. This matters more than, for example, organized political Islam. Clan leaders have provided figures within the civic leadership of the city. Even the regime would be wary of entering into a dispute with these powerful figures. They were content to see the return of state services, but without the security control that goes with it. This is why the Russian-brokered deal of 2018 allowed weapons to be retained in Deraa.
This divided city has faced massive challenges. For example, if a person committed a crime in the regime-controlled area of Deraa, the criminal could quickly take refuge in the southern part of the city, which is under opposition control, by crossing checkpoints between the two areas. Sources on the ground indicate an increase in the number of murders in all areas, some of which have been politically motivated.
The Syrian regime started to impose a siege on the southern part of Deraa city, known as Deraa Al-Balad, at the end of June, with heavy shelling from the end of July. This was a breach of the 2018 ceasefire deal, which had seen the regime retake control of most of the southern province. The use of siege and bombardment tactics against Deraa Al-Balad’s 56,000-strong civilian population is a well-worn tactic of the Syrian Armed Forces.
The regime’s Iranian allies have enjoyed the opportunity to pitch up close to Israeli lines. Israel was keen to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from being able to do this.
The one actor that is noticeable for its silence is the US. Typically, one would expect the American administration to at least echo the Israeli position, let alone give voice to its own concerns. If Washington is not giving a green light, it is certainly amber.
Russia is the conductor of all the operations. It brokered the 2018 deal and also the re-entry last week of Syrian forces into areas of Deraa Al-Balad, with the transfer of opposition fighters to the north. Some 900 fighters surrendered their weapons and were allowed to stay in Deraa. Residents were assured there would be no reprisals. However, on their return, many discovered their homes had been flattened or, if they were still standing, stripped bare of all their possessions.
Russia had hitherto tolerated the opposition forces keeping their arms in Deraa. This was a unique arrangement in Syria. Moscow had preferred the Syrian opposition to be in the south rather than the regime, as this allowed Iran and its proxies to get closer to Israel. Now, however, the paramount Russian aim is to ensure complete stability, with no unpredictable violence. As the conflict in the south has quietened, the Russians have gradually increased their profile, including deploying military police.
A key theory as to all these changes and the US silence is the gas deal being negotiated to try and assist Lebanon in its energy crisis. A senior Lebanese delegation has been to Damascus — the first of its type since the conflict began. It was believed to have discussed this deal. Energy ministers from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon also met in Amman last week to thrash out an agreement.
Egyptian gas would be exported, via the Arab gas pipeline, through Jordan to Homs in Syria and on to Lebanon. The World Bank may cover the costs. The challenge is the state of the pipeline within Syria, which is in a state of disrepair. To return the line to working order, the regime needs two things: External technical support and full control of all the terrain from the Jordanian border to the Lebanese border.
As the regime’s security forces take control, many will fear greater repression and more imprisonments in the months to come.
So will the US ease sanctions that were imposed under the Caesar Act? This has, up to now, been an absolute taboo. Washington insiders have consistently stated that sanctions reform was out of the question. The US administration does not want to appear weak on the issue of the Assad regime; although from a humanitarian perspective many of these sanctions impinge more heavily on Syrian civilians than the regime. What is not clear is exactly what income the Syrian regime would receive in transit fees.
President Joe Biden has shown a strong realpolitik streak in Afghanistan and may, therefore, do the same with Syria. Assisting Lebanon in its current crisis matters; particularly doing so in a way that decreases Beirut’s reliance on Iran. Egyptian gas would make the Lebanese economy less dependent on Iranian energy imports. This would be the incentive to get the all-clear from Israel, which certainly would not want to see the further strengthening of Hezbollah. A concern for many Lebanese will be that this deal could hand Assad a degree of control over their energy supplies.
The residents of Deraa have paid the heaviest of prices for this regional deal. To repair the damaged pipeline, the regime requires complete control and stability throughout the province. Therefore, the opposition had to be crushed. As the regime’s security forces take control, many will fear greater repression and more imprisonments in the months to come.
For the Syrian regime, all of this is a further sign that a path back into the “international community” is not far off. Regional powers such as the UAE and Jordan are deepening ties. If the US were to start loosening its sanctions, others would surely follow.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech