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Southern Syria's Yarmouk Basin after the Syrian government's return

Battles between the Syrian government and Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in the summer of 2018 (MECRA)


These days there is scant information to be found in media on the situation in southern Syria, and even less based on the testimony of those who still live in the area. Here I want to provide a view as to the security situation in my region.

I am from the village of Koaiya in the Yarmouk Basin, which used to be controlled by the Islamic State (aka Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed- JKBW). I lived in Koaiya throughout the time of JKBW’s control there and have previously written about life under the group.

By mid-summer 2018, many of us were expecting the end outcome to be that the Syrian army and its auxiliaries would enter our village and take over the entire region. After all, the rebel factions outside the Yarmouk Basin had quickly collapsed in the face of the Syrian government’s campaign backed by Russian airpower. In many places those factions had agreed to ‘reconciliation’ deals in a bid to prevent bloodshed, but we knew there would be no ‘reconciliation’ between JKBW and the Syrian government.

The rebel factions outside the Yarmouk Basin had quickly collapsed in the face of the Syrian government’s campaign backed by Russian airpower.

While many of us wanted to be rid of the oppression of JKBW, we also had fears about airstrikes and mortar rounds. We were also worried about what would be the future of the area after the return of the Syrian state. Many people who had not borne arms during the events were still wanted for military service or defection, for example. What would be their fate?

As it turned out, JKBW was rapidly defeated by the Syrian government and its auxiliaries. Koaiya and the nearby villages of Bayt Arah and al-Qusayr were the last to fall during the offensive on the Yarmouk Basin. In fear of the intense bombing, we fled our village and set up camp in an area alongside the Yarmouk River. Some former rebels who had ‘reconciled’ with the Syrian government were participating in the offensive as auxiliaries. These forces included some people who originated from the Yarmouk Basin. For example, there was one person from Bayt Arah called Jawdat al-Ali. He was killed during the offensive fighting in the ranks of the auxiliary forces. Today his family continue to receive payments from the Syrian state in recognition of his rights as a ‘martyr’.

Once my village and the others in the area had been retaken, we were able to return home fairly swiftly. However, there were two problems of note at the time. First, there were many stories of revenge killings in the wider area. In the case of my own village, one member of the auxiliary forces killed a member of the al-Ashawasha sub-clan (most of whom had joined JKBW) in revenge for the killing of Awdh Abu Raqah, who had been affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and had been killed by members of the al-Ashawasha. Second, as has occurred in many other areas, there was widespread looting by the Syrian army and its allies. From my family’s house, furniture, a washer and gas canisters were stolen.

Following the end of the Syrian government’s military campaign in the south, some people have enlisted for regular military service. Some others, who had previously defected from the military, have regularized their status and returned to their military service.

But many other people- including former rebels- have become involved in auxiliary groups that are supposed to provide local security. These groups are mostly affiliated with the Russian-backed V Corps, the Syrian army’s 4th Division and the Military Security (Amn Askari). For example, from my village, some people have signed up to a local group led by a man called Abu Kinan from the neighbouring village of al-Qusayr. Abu Kinan’s group is affiliated with the 4th Division. But this does not mean that the government’s regular forces maintain no presence in the Yarmouk Basin: in fact, they run two checkpoints in Koaiya.

Initially, many of us were relieved at what appeared to be a calm security situation and a return to normal life following 7 years of war. Roads were opened and there were hopes for the return of regular services like electricity. The women also felt no more fear of JKBW and removed their niqabs.

An atmosphere of fear has taken hold as we have begun to hear stories of assassinations and murder elsewhere in the region.

But more recently, an atmosphere of fear has taken hold as we have begun to hear stories of assassinations and murder elsewhere in the region. To date, thankfully, there have been no such cases in Koaiya. Yet in the neighbouring village of Bayt Arah, a civilian man called Mutlaq al-Khalid was recently murdered. Mutlaq had never borne arms during the civil war and had actually been living in Latakia. He came for a visit to his home village and then his body was said to have been found dismembered with a bullet in his head.

There are many rumours that circulate about who is behind the assassinations and killings as well as the reasons for them. Some say it is an issue of settling personal scores and cycles of revenge, others that JKBW and/or other insurgent sleeper cells are active in the region.

Whatever the truth of these matters, the fact that there are so many rumours only contributes further to the atmosphere of fear and unease.

Umm Elias resides in Koaiya, Yarmouk Basin.

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