The southern Syrian province of Deraa has recently witnessed the fiercest fighting between rebels and regime forces since 2018. A subsequent ceasefire brokered by Russia remains shaky, while cut-off Syrians continue to suffer.
At least 15 civilians were killed in an artillery attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces at the end of July when the Syrian military and Iran-backed militias attempted to violently subdue Deraa, considered the birthplace of the 2011 uprising.
The primary reason for the renewed violence was the presidential election on May 31, in which the people of Deraa did not participate. While citizens voted in most of the areas under the regime’s control, casting their votes for al-Assad out of fear, people in Deraa organised a demonstration against the government at the Omari Mosque on the day before the election.
The mosque remains a place of great symbolic importance. In 2011, the first significant demonstrations of the Syrian revolution occurred in its vicinity. When regime forces engaged and opened fire, the mosque itself became a field hospital. Atrocities by the military there sparked outrage across the country and led to large-scale demonstrations in various cities.
However, the rebels were also defeated in Deraa in 2018. Subsequent reconciliation deals were facilitated in exchange for the fighters handing over their weaponry to the Syrian military. But Russia, the Assad regime’s main ally, did not accept a complete occupation of the province by Assad forces because it did not want to jeopardise its relations with Israel by allowing the Iranian militias fighting alongside al-Assad’s troops to establish a foothold so close to Israel.
“Deraa is the point of connection between the Syrian and Jordanian lands on the border to the occupied Syrian Golan, and this particular line explicitly drew an important Israeli-Jordanian red line in preventing Iran and its allies from spreading and approaching the Golan Heights and the borders of Jordan,” Samer Bakkour, lecturer of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.
The lack of a Syrian military presence resulted in repeated rebel attacks, which led to Russia demanding new reconciliation deals to seize more weapons from the people of Deraa. But Deraa rejected the Russian demand and the Syrian armed forces besieged the neighbourhoods of Deraa al-Balad on June 25.
Al-Assad’s troops surrounded the 40,000 inhabitants of the historic district and cut off food, water, electricity and medicine. The routes to the city’s hospitals were also severed.
The tactics utilised in Deraa have been seen before, said Bakkour.
“The Deraa model that the regime followed has become reproduced from most of the areas that the regime has tightened its grip on, whether by destroying and using the scorched-earth policy, isolating the areas from each other, then displacing civilians for those who do not want reconciliation and imposing forced ‘reconciliations’ on those who decide to stay, and young men among them are led to the fronts. ”
During this escalation, the Central Committee of Deraa al-Balad met with Russian General Assad Allah, who has a prominent role in exacerbating the conflict, Bakkour said.
“The latest escalation was about the people of Deraa accusing the Russian forces of angering the people, especially the Russian officer Assad Allah, who demanded to set up barriers for regime forces in the city, search in homes for heavy and light weapons.
“Moreover, the regime sought to deport five armed opposition figures, such as Muhammad al-Masalma and Muayyad Harfush, to the areas controlled by the pro-Turkish opposition in northern Syria, and the Fourth Division started to bomb neighbourhoods, which strongly escalated the situation,” said Bakkour.
The infamous Fourth Division – currently in the area – has been accused of war crimes against civilians at the outset of the revolution.
After various meetings between the Central Committee and regime, both sides agreed on a five-phase agreement that includes handing over the remaining light weapons in exchange for lifting the siege and ending the military campaign, albeit keeping three checkpoints in the city.
However, Bakkour said he does not believe this equals a paradigm shift on the Russian side.
“The regime forces tightened the siege on Deraa al-Balad, as it wanted to subjugate Deraa. However, Russia still claims it will not interfere directly since it already has established itself in Deraa,” he said.
However, the ceasefire is unlikely to improve the situation. Although talks are to continue in order to be able to achieve a lasting solution, there are already various reports that both sides are in violation. The Syrian military reportedly bombed areas in Deraa in early August, while the rebels attacked Syrian soldiers days before.
The continuing instability further endangers the humanitarian situation in Syria.
“In the last few weeks, we have seen the humanitarian situation deteriorate rapidly in the country. Even with a tenuous ceasefire, the impact that the recent clashes have had resulted in massive displacement, and the apparently indiscriminate nature of some of the attacks has meant that civilians remain at risk,” Sara Kayyali from Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera.
Given the precarious situation on the ground, the international community needs to, as a bare minimum, stop the Syrian government from weaponising aid, Kayyali urged.
“The international community should first and foremost ensure that aid organisations operating in Deraa reach all individuals at risk of starvation and does not allow the Syrian government to use aid as a weapon in its clashes, which we have seen the government do time and again in other contexts.”
If the ceasefire is indeed only temporary, the forecast remains dire for the Syrian people of Deraa.
“Unless all parties to the conflict respect the rights and wellbeing of civilians, we will continue to see the situation worsen, much as we have in Aleppo, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta,” Kayyali said.