Scorched Black Lands: Preliminary Review of Recent Developments in Southwestern Syria, August 2019
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By STEPHANE COHEN
By the end of July 2018, the rebel forces in southern Syria collapsed under the regime’s attacks and surrendered. Seeing no alternative, some rebel groups joined the Syrian army in the battle against the local ISIS affiliate in the Yarmouk Valley, Jaysh Khalid ibn-al Waleed. On August 1st, the regime announced it had retaken the last ISIS-held town and thus regained control of southwestern Syria entirely[i]. During the same period, a reconciliation agreement under Russian auspices has reportedly been reached in Bosra al-Sham between rebel and regime forces. The agreement suggested that the rebels’ “Central Operations Room of the South” would hand over their heavy weapons to the regime and settle their situation, agreeing to the return of state institutions, and return the border crossings to the regime’s control. In return, arrests will cease, and detainees will be released. Elements refusing to reconcile with the regime shall be evacuated to Idlib.[ii]
International media reported the Syrian regime’s victory in southwestern Syria, the origin of the 2011 rebellion against Assad, and the end of Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor. However, since then, reports indicated an increase of unrest among the southerners due to the regime’s violation of the terms of the agreement, continuation of arbitrary arrests of locals, recruitment of forces and sending former rebels to fight their compatriots in northern Syria.
On October 15th, 2018, the two border crossings in southern Syria were reopened after being closed for a while; the Nassib Border Crossing between Jordan and Syria opened to people and goods, and after four years, the Quneitra Border Crossing between Israel and Syria, was reopened mainly for UN forces’ movements. On October 25th, Iran openly outreached to south Syria when Supreme Leader Khamenei’s personal representative, Abolfazl Tabatabai, visited Daraa, met local dignitaries and promised that Iran would contribute to the region’s reconstruction.
On November 15th, 2018, a new group appeared publicly in Daraa’s social media under the name of Al-Muqawama al-Shabiya (Popular Resistance)[iii], aiming to respond to the regime’s violations and attacks on civilians through attacks on the regime’s security centers and against local “traitors." The announcement of the group coincided with the increasing numbers of anti-regime leaflets, profanities, and graffiti on buildings and streets across the south. Also, another group appeared, dubbed The Southern Brigades. In December 2018, residents unhappy with the regime protested at the Omari Mosque in Daraa. In light of the unrest, the regime sent representatives in a bid to calm the protests; for example, on February 24th, 2019 the head of Daraa’s General Intelligence, Muhammad Muhallah, met with Tafas residents and promised to work towards the release of locals detained by the regime. March 2019 marked the eighth anniversary of the Syrian rebellion. On March 10th, hundreds of Syrians in Daraa protested the erection of a new statue of Hafez al-Assad in the city's Tishrin Square, which had been pulled down nearly eight years earlier, at the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion. On March 13th, 2019 Israel’s envoy to the UN sent letters to the UNSG indicating a “vast Hezbollah terror network positioned” on the Syrian Golan to establish a front from which to attack Israel. At the beginning of April 2019, Russia sponsored talks in Damascus between dignitaries from Daraa and the regime, including Ali Mamluk, then Head of the General Security Directorate, and Defense Minister Ali Ayoub, to discuss the fulfillment of the promise to stop the arbitrary arrests and military pressure on the local population. In parallel to the above, the IDF continued to act against Hezbollah in the area, and beyond.
Chaotic Security Situation
Despite the return of the Assad regime forces, stability has not returned to southern Syria, and the situation remains unstable and violent.
Reports of targeted assassinations by gunfire, RPG, or IEDs have become the norm. The so-called “Popular Resistance” and “Southern Brigades” have claimed attacks targeting regime forces and their centers, including Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI), the 4th Division, former opposition leaders and rebels who sided with the regime, and pro-Iranian forces. While opinions remain divided over who is behind these factions, violent clashes are continuing in al-Sanamayn, Jallin, and Nawa.
Since August 2018 more than 130 people have been assassinated[iv]. The Syrian army threatened several times to launch military operations should the attacks on their forces persist. Forced recruitment, arbitrary arrests, and detentions are common; as of July 2019, about 650 people have been arrested in Daraa by the regime’s security services within one year. Regime security services, among them the Military Intelligence (MI) and SAFI, continue to launch raids and arrests across the southern provinces to interrogate, and to locate army defectors or elements that fought with the rebels before the return of the regime. When arrested, relatives contact reconciliation committee members, who in turn seek the Russian MP officers’ help in an attempt to release the detainees. Naturally, many still pay bribes to the security services to secure the release.[v] In May 2019, UNHCR received several "worrying" reports on human rights violations and abuse by the different players, including looting, seizure of properties, executions, kidnappings and more, some by MI or SAFI. When the Military Intelligence issues clearance papers and removes cleared individuals from the “wanted” lists, other services such as SAFI or State Security often ignore the clearance papers due to lack of inter-agency coordination. Therefore clearance papers do not always protect the bearer from arrest at regime checkpoints.
Southern fresh recruits were often sent to the Idlib frontline, but many defected and sided with rebel forces across the lines. If this was not enough, the lands are still littered by explosive remnants of war; people, among them children, continue to be injured or killed by landmines or UXOs. The fact that the regime is not fulfilling the terms of the reconciliation brokered by Russia fuels in part local grievances, as the population struggle with the weak regional economy and the lack of essential services.
Appalling Socio-Economic Conditions
The outcomes of the war, the ongoing regime violations of the settlement agreements, alongside the weather and depletion of resources, continue to have disastrous effects on southern Syria. On August 8th, the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria acknowledged the increasing tensions and the deteriorating situation in southern Syria[vi]. Many residents fled to surrounding cities due to the worsening quality of life, seeking better living conditions. The social and economic fabric has been broken, and some 960,000 people continue to require support in the three southern governorates according to UN figures.
As the regime regained the southern provinces, it cut off humanitarian and “stabilization” aid from Jordan-based organizations, and rejected cross-border assistance claiming that it is a violation of its sovereignty. Many foreign and local NGOs that provided services, job opportunities, medical-care and financially boosted the local economy, shut down their activities, or left the area. So far, the regime has proven unable to provide essential services in the territories it regained. Towns suffer from economic crises and the collapse of the Syrian Pound. Many services and commercial sectors have deteriorated or suffered from paralysis. Local residents report that the regime refuses to open markets as it seeks to maintain control over the goods that flow in and out of the area. Many are supported by other Syrians from inside the country or relying on relatives living in the diaspora. The south is hit by growing unemployment, while the cost of rebuilding homes falls on the local resident’s own shoulders.
The price of food and commodities increased over the past year, sometimes twofold. Similarly, the Syrian Pound value has dropped against the dollar, with a pre-war exchange rate of SYP 50 per dollar, dropping to a low of SYP 600 in May 2016. Despite a slow recovery, up from an SYP 434 per dollar in November 2017, the Syrian Pound traded at SYP 550 in May 2019. Fuel, sugar, rice, oil, and vegetables are becoming more and more expensive. In May 2018, a kg of sugar cost SYP 260, reaching 450 SYP in June 2019. A kg of rice that was worth 750 SYP in May 2018, reportedly increased to 1800 SYP in May 2019. Gas cylinders are distributed through cards by the regime and cost SYP 3200 in June 2019. In the black market, cylinders can be found for SYP 5000 SYP. It becomes harder for the locals to secure their basic needs. Many in the Golan are even criticizing the quality of bread, after they must wait in a queue to buy some.
The price of food and commodities increased over the past year, sometimes twofold.
Infrastructure damage still impacts the local population. Damage to water facilities has negatively affected the availability of safe water. The worst situation in Syria is observed in both Daraa and Idlib, where only about 13% of the population has access to piped water. Electricity has also become a luxury; while Daraa enjoys longer hours of electricity, other areas receive only two to five hours per day. Some farmers are resorting to solar panels as a substitute for costly diesel, and some households use car-batteries to generate electricity for their homes. In several locations, telephone service has not been re-established.
Even traditional economic activities are under pressure; for example, beekeeping and fishing have declined. Following the drought of several lakes, such as Zayzoun, many fishermen became dependent on the Lake Mzeirib as a source of livelihood. Lake Mzeirib is also one of the most important sources of water for irrigation; however ongoing unauthorized drilling of wells destroys the aquifers of the Yarmouk basin and its lakes. Local experts express concerns that the situation could lead to further water crises.
Since the reopening of the Nassib Border Crossing with Jordan last year, about 20,000 Syrian refugees have returned to Syria[vii], with two-thirds returning in 2019. However, many Syrian refugees in Jordan still fear their return to Syria due to the risk of forced military conscription. The economic situation and the lack of opportunities and services, further deter them from returning to the southern provinces.
The lack of services will have long-term consequences on the southern provinces. Many medical facilities have been heavily damaged or destroyed, and people must travel to larger cities, like Daraa or Damascus, for medical treatment. However, even active hospitals and clinics are short of doctors and nurses. Of the 95 schools in Quneitra, the only 30 that still operate are severely understaffed as 200 of the 386 teachers have been dismissed. Schools now rely on under-qualified staff with no experience.[viii]
Kidnapping, ransom, daytime theft of resources such gas cylinders from local businesses, are part of the Golan’s menu today. The economic collapse is a fertile ground for crime and smuggling activities; smugglers are flourishing, moving food, cigarettes, fuel, and gas across borders; the south is swamped with narcotics. No surprised - Hezbollah is involved in the narcotic business and have reportedly been flooding Daraa and Suweida with drugs. Nevertheless, Israel's primary concern is the Iranian attempts to penetrate the region through hard and soft power, using proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Last April, Brigadier General Amit Fisher, the 210th Golan Heights Division commander described the stages which Hezbollah, should they act unchecked, could transform the Golan Heights into a second front against Israel: collecting intel and building up operational capabilities, and then bringing in greater terror capabilities such as rockets, missiles, sniping and IEDs capabilities.
Iran and Hezbollah are already recruiting Syrian operatives to their ranks, reportedly receiving higher wages than others working for the regime or the Russians (about 250 USD per month). It is by now known that some of these elements are using the cover of the local Syrian formations, such as the 7th Division. In the end of the day, it is cheaper to recruit local Syrians than sending Lebanese operatives from home.
These developments in southwestern Syria wouldn’t be complete without a hint of Islamic State (IS): new UN and Pentagon reports indicate that ISIS is far from being defeated.[ix] On June 4th, 2019 two IEDs were activated against a Syrian army vehicle 14 km northeast of Daraa, where three Syrian soldiers were killed. On July 27th regime forces stormed an IS cell hideout in Malihat al-Atash, about 30 km northeast of Daraa. During the operation, a “terrorist operative” blew himself up with his explosive belt. ISIS in Hawran Province announced that a suicide bomber “Abu Malek al-Ansari” had exchanged fire with the Syrian army, and then blew himself up among the soldiers, claiming the lives of eight Syrian soldiers, and injuring ten others. IS has resumed its operations in the form of covert networks carrying out guerrilla warfare.
Instability and violence prevail in southern Syria
UNDOF is still seeking to redeploy in the border region. When UNDOF Force Commander Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri has unexpectedly died on April 19th, 2019 the UN SG announced on May 29th the appointment of Major General Shivaram Kharel from Nepal as acting Force Commander. The UNSC renewed the mandate of UNDOF on June 26th for six months, calling both Syria and Israel to respect the terms of the 1974 agreements. Lately, UNDOF has been strengthened with an additional 170 troops from Uruguay, reportedly to staff three UN positions on the Golan. A question mark remains regarding the relevance of the 1974 mandate of UNDOF, as it doesn't address the new reality on the ground.
One positive comment should be made, however, as the Russian army, the Syrian Red Crescent, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the WFP are trying to relief the hardship in the south by distributing food, rehabilitating infrastructures, and helping Syrian farmers and herders to recover or boost their food security.
The examination of the past year’s events indicates that instability and violence prevail in southern Syria. As of August 2019, security and living conditions not only remain precarious; they have declined despite the “return” of the regime to southwest Syria. You can find everything in the “all-inclusive” Golan’s menu: regime attacks & “rebel” assassinations, kidnapping, property & land confiscation, requests for ransom, cruel torture, forced recruitments, theft, government repression, mines & UXOs blast injuries, ISIS attacks, economic crisis, lack of essential services & resources, narcotics, Iran & Hezbollah subversive activities paired with IDF counter-operations. This article is too short to describe all the ills of southern Syria.
From Israel’s perspective, it seems that a new and murky rebellion against the regime and its Shiite cohorts has erupted; it’s hard to determine if a regional player is guiding them. Iran-aligned groups are attempting to establish a front against Israel from the Golan, part of an arc extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan border. Hezbollah recruitment of Syrian operatives, including Druze, tries to blur their operational efforts. In response, Israel’s military operations, including targeted killings, attempt to nip the potential Iranian threat in the bud. Stabilizing factors seem to have weakened, and destabilizing factors are on the rise.
The current situation reflects the city of Daraa described by T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), a century ago in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; he portrayed the city being deprived of “humanity, and full of vice and cruelty." The Syrian Golan became the Wild West, flooded with blood, drugs, misery, and destruction.
Whether Israel is behind the attacks on regime and pro-Iranian elements to keep them at bay, or the opposite, Iran fueling unrest to prove the Russian’s 5th Corp unfit to stabilize the south, Israel should think of reviving the idea of restoring Ghassania on the Golan, the Arabian kingdom of the Banu Ghassan who became a Byzantine ally in its wars against Persia in the 6th century. The Ghassanids fought alongside the Byzantines against the Persian Sassanids and their Arab vassals, the Lakhmids. The lands controlled by the Ghassanids also acted as a buffer against raids by Bedouin tribes; it’s about time to rebuild their capital near Tell al-Jabiyah[x], 10km from Israel’s border…
Stephane Cohen is co-founder of “NorthStar”, a geostrategic and security consultancy, a security analyst, an IDF Maj. (res.) and a former liaison officer to UN forces in Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
The term 'Black Lands’, or Terre de Suete, used in the headline were a given name to the Golan Heights common in Medieval times, James Schryver, Studies in the Archaeology of the Medieval Mediterranean, (Leiden, Brill, 2010), p.73
[i] لجيش يحرر قرية القصير آخر معاقل إرهابيي داعش في درعا ويعثر على أسلحة وعتاد إسرائيلي وأمريكي داخل أوكارهم في حوض اليرموك, SANA, August 1st, 2018, retrieved on 19/08/2019 from https://www.sana.sy/?p=791856
[ii] O. Peri, “As Syria War Enters Ninth Year, Anti-Regime Protests And Armed Operations Resume In Daraa Governorate”, MEMRI, March 18th 2019, retrieved on 11/08/2019 from https://www.memri.org/reports/syria-war-enters-ninth-year-anti-regime-protests-and-armed-operations-resume-daraa
[iv] Murad Abdul Jalil, Ahmed Jamal & Haba Shehada, “A Year After The Settlement: Who Is In Control Of Daraa?”, Enab Baladi, August 10th, 2019, retrieved on 17/08/2019 from https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2019/08/a-year-after-the-settlement-who-is-in-control-of-daraa/#ixzz5wraLvSnM
[v] Natasha Hall, “The Aftershocks of Reconciliation in Syria: Reflections on the Past Year," Atlantic Council, April 17th, 2019, retrieved on 19/08/2019 from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/the-aftershocks-of-reconciliation-in-syria-reflections-on-the-past-year
[vi] “Statement Attributable to the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria”, UN Relief Web, August 8th 2019, retrieved on 19/08/2019 from https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/statement-attributable-senior-humanitarian-adviser-united-nations
[vii] Elizabeth Turnbull, “20,000 Syrians have returned home since border reopening - UNHCR”, The Jordan Times, July 5th, 2019, retrieved on 19/08/2019 from http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/20000-syrians-have-returned-home-border-reopening-%E2%80%94-unhcr
[viii] Haid Haid, “Syrian public servants, idled in former rebel-held areas," Asia Times, August 13th, 2019, retrieved on 17/08/2019 from https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/08/opinion/syrian-public-servants-idled-in-former-rebel-held-areas/
[ix] Andrea Mitchell and Adiel Kaplan, U.S.-backed forces struggling to quell ISIS insurgency in Syria, Iraq: Pentagon report, NBC News, August 8th 2019, retrieved on 16/08/2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/u-s-backed-forces-struggling-quell-isis-insurgency-syria-iraq-n1040186 & “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities”, UNSC, July 15th, 2019, retrieved on August 16th 2019 from
[x] Irfan Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Part 1, (Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, 2002), p. 96