The Remnants of Civil War: Daraa Slips into Mayhem
The Syrian civil war is etched into history forever. The decade-long conflict has claimed around half a million lives, razed towns, and displaced millions. While the Arab Spring is touted as the flicker of angst that sparked the catastrophe, the Syrian uprising began in the quaint city of Daraa. A southwestern city bordering Jordan, Daraa is widely attributed as the birthplace of the upheaval that upended Syria back in 2011. However, while the devastating chaos has since mostly subsided, the city remains the epicenter of insidious instability as rebels maintain a stronghold despite government resistance.
The rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad seized control of Daraa right after the skirmishes turned into conflict before finally escalating into a full-fledged war. Their grip, however, lasted until 2018. With the fall of ISIS and the diffusion of Kurdish fighters to the northern frontier, the Russian-backed regime besieged multiple cities across Syria. The government campaign lasted months as brutal fighting undertook major cities under the control of the rebels. Weeks of fighting eventually led government forces to overpower rebels in Aleppo, Daraa, and Idlib. With no alternative, the rebels resorted to surrender. While Moscow brokered a peace agreement, also known as the “Reconciliation Accords,” all was not well – especially in Daraa.
The Russian-backed forces took control of the city and most of the rebels either joined the government forces or handed over heavy weaponry in exchange for a safe exit to government-controlled regions in Syria. However, a few rebels retained control over a slew of areas within the city. With the help of influence within the forces of the regime, the rebels managed to hook control of the southern half of the city; which eventually became known as the eponymous district of Daraa al-Balad, while the northern half stood as the stronghold of the Assad regime.
Since the government seized the city, the escalation has developed into a routine for the civilians. While genocidal tendencies no longer run rampant in Syria, artillery still rains like purgatory over the civilians as government forces try to permeate the southern region. The government forces have tried to impregnate the outskirts of Daraa al-Balad yet have continuously failed to topple the hold of the opposition leaders. In response, the roads are barricaded to surround the rebels, strangle their ammunition, and subdue their resistance. Instead, civilians have suffered starvation and casualties. Recently in July, an escalation resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians at the hands of the government forces as violence engulfed the city while the government forces attempted to breach the city.
A question is frequently posited; why do government forces want to infiltrate the city so badly especially when the rebels have already surrendered heavy weaponry to the Syrian army? The foremost reason is the strategic location of Daraa al-Balad. The city is extremely close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: a strategic front touted as a key ground eyed by Iran’s proxies in Syria. The Iranian forces in the echelons of the Syrian army are driven by a motivation to gain access in the city to deploy forces on the southern front of Daraa. Meanwhile, the Russian offensive is at play to completely subdue the rebels to gain overwhelming influence over Syria. Thus, the ulterior agendas of Iran and Russia could be labeled as the primary catalyst behind the raging military action around the city.
Another reason could be the desire of Bashar al-Assad to crush the opposition in every which way possible to avoid another uprising in the future. The offense is clear in Idlib, Aleppo, and Daraa as government forces are prudent in maintaining a pivotal position over the rebels to allow leverage if any faction decides to coagulate against the regime. Even during elections, almost a third of the Syrian population was barred from voting, including Daraa al-Balad, where mass demonstrations were staged to denounce Bashar al-Assad.
With his fourth stint in office, Assad has geared a renewed strategy to infiltrate the city of Daraa. The government now aims to deploy more forces in the city, run more rigorous checks and searches while gaining control of the frequented checkpoints of Daraa al-Balad. Moreover, the regime has demanded a surrender of soft weapons as well as a handover of the wanted opposition figures. However, the rebel negotiators have called out for a peaceful transfer of all opposition leaders to Jordon or Turkey: a key point of contention. Furthermore, the leaders of Daraa have voiced their right to hold soft weapons and deny a thorough house to house search under the conditions of the Russian brokered accords. The impasse, however, exists as negotiations are teetering on a thin rope to somehow avoid chaos and bag a mutual consensus.
Since 2018, the Assad regime is accused of severing necessities from the city of Daraa al-Balad. Human rights observers have voiced concerns as government forces continue to weaponize aid to bend the rebels to their will. International humanitarian organizations have cited that the government forces don’t differentiate between civilian and rebel fighters as hundreds of innocent civilians have been brutally killed since the government’s siege of northern Daraa. Now as the negotiations falter so does the standard of living of the civilians. Their lives have been forced to get accustomed to a constant fear of bombardment while barely surviving without food, medicines, or electricity.
Approximately 24,000 residents have been displaced while close to 12,000 still remain entrapped as government forces perpetually clash with the rebels. The harrowing reality is if the negotiations fail to settle the dispute, and the government’s assault progresses further, then surely the city of Daraa al-Balad would fall into a humanitarian crisis. A lasting solution is required, not a ceasefire, as both rebels and the government forces are not civil enough to maintain a passage of peace without going ballistic. The government (and the allied forces) should stop using civilians as scapegoats to lure the rebels and achieve geopolitical objectives. Instead, the government should strive for an inclusive society to put an end to the spiral of civil war – once and for all.
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi is a current affairs writer primarily analyzing global events and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor's degree from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, with majors in Finance and Capital Markets.