Southern Syria has been descending into security chaos since the Syrian government and armed opposition groups signed the so-called settlement/reconciliation agreement in August 2018. In the years following the agreement, several phenomena prevailed, primarily organized child kidnappings, carried out largely in western and eastern rural Daraa — namely the areas of the province where checkpoints of the Syrian security services spread. In addition to kidnappings, the area has been overwhelmed by recurrent assassinations.
Since the beginning of 2020, there has been an acute rise in kidnappings in the province of Daraa, especially of children, while playing outdoors or on their way to school or the marketplace.
In this regard, the field researcher of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) documented no less than 31 kidnappings, four of which were failed attempts, between January and August this year. Parents were mostly coerced to pay the kidnappers a ransom in exchange for their children’s release, the researcher reported, adding that the number of kidnappings is most likely higher since several parents are unwilling to comment on such incidents, preferring to handle the matter in secrecy for family-related reasons.
STJ’s field researcher reported that much of these kidnappings were carried out not far from checkpoints of the Syrian security services that operate in the province. This gives rise to various suppositions, for it is either that the checkpoint personnel are involved or the security services are willfully complicit in these kidnappings. Furthermore, eyewitnesses and relatives of the kidnapped children have informed the concerned authorities in their areas, which failed to reach any conclusions about the incidents or arrest the kidnappers, the researcher added.
According to the information obtained by STJ’s field researcher, which he cross checked by approaching several sources, in late June 2020, locals in Ibtta town observed three strangers, a woman and two men, boarding a taxi, whom they suspected for being a kidnapping gang. The strangers were subject to such suspensions since the number of kidnappings rose over the same month, not to mention that the group has been showing at locals’ door begging for money. The townspeople finally handed over the strangers to the police station, which released them only two hours later after the Air Force Intelligence Branch intervened.
The increasingly growing phenomenon has inspired terror among the locals of Daraa province, for kidnappers are still unidentified. In response, dignitaries in various areas across the province called on locals to be on high alert, which triggered parents to prevent their children from playing far from home, attending remedial courses and private lessons, or going to marketplaces unaccompanied.
For the purpose of this report, numerous open sources were consulted and a total of 12 interviews were conducted, five of the interviewees are either relatives of or people close to the families of the kidnapped children, three are informed media activists, two are local Daraa-based sources, one is a resident of Daraa province, and the last is a legal expert, who addressed kidnappings under domestic legislations.
The sources were interviewed between May and early August 2020, either in person or online.
About 31 Fulfilled and Attempted Child Kidnappings in Daraa Province
The kidnapping phenomenon in Daraa province is not new, as it grew more overt and organized since 2017, when the area was yet held by the armed opposition groups. Several civilians, militants and children were kidnapped either for revenge or ransoms. The last of these incidents took place in February 2018, a few months after the government regained control over southern Syria. Abdulaziz al-Khatib, a little boy, was kidnapped at the Jizza town. Back then, the kidnappers sent the family photos and videos of their son being tortured, blackmailing them into paying a million dollars to release the child. The family indeed paid the money after one armed group coordinated the exchange operation with the kidnappers, according to the information obtained by STJ’s field researcher.
Concerning kidnappers, the Daraa-based activist Masoud A. said:
“Everyone recognized the kidnap gangs before. They were protected by a number of armed opposition groups and sought ransoms, exploiting the general lawlessness in the area. They mostly kidnapped children, since parents would be willing to pay all they own to save the life of their dearest persons in the world. Additionally, kidnapping children, rather than adults, was a lot safer for kidnappers, since children would not be capable of recognizing their kidnappers. However, as the settlement agreement was signed, a large number of kidnappers soon declared their loyalty to the regime once it was back in control. They opted for a legalization of status, including Khalid H., Abdulsalam H. and Muhammad H. The three were actually accused of kidnapping and looting.”
Commenting on the rising number of child kidnappings in Daraa province, the activist added:
“Child kidnappings have been rising in number again lately. Kidnappings have actually turned into the kidnappers’ source of income. Many parents do not have the slightest idea about their kidnapped children’s whereabouts today, for kidnappers have not reached for parents, asked for a ransom or even explained why they kidnapped the children. The kidnappers’ reluctance to communicate poses greater risks than ransom kidnappings, for it appears that the kidnappings are carried out for further alarming purpose, which might be organ trafficking.”
STJ’s field researcher, for his part, documented about 31 child kidnappings between January and August 2020 in Daraa province, while four failed, the rest mostly ended with the parents paying a ransom in exchange for their children’s release.
There was a pattern to the kidnappings, the researcher added, for they differed according to their aim — theft, blackmail or ransoms. The kidnappings were carried out in various areas in Daraa, but they primarily took place in western rural Daraa, where a large number of former armed opposition militants are based, yet keeping their light weapons, and eastern rural Daraa, where there are fewer former armed opposition militants. However, checkpoints of the Syrian security services spread equally in both enclaves.
Going by the pseudonym Muneeb al-Ammar, another Daraa-based activist said:
“Various security services, including Air Force Intelligence, State Security, 4th Division, and the 5th Legion among others, operate in the province’s cities, towns and villages. They have all densely set up checkpoints and posts there, but still kidnappings could not be carried out any easier and in plain sight. Moreover, the security services and the concerned authorities did not often intervene, leaving the victims’ relatives to sort out the matter on their own, offered no support or any follow up. A number of the kidnapped persons’ relatives were even subjected to interrogation by the security services, when a family member is a draft dodger or is wanted for security reasons.”
The activist added:
“Most of the time, security services would financially blackmail the victims’ families, especially when a family member is a draft dodger or is the subject of a security report, pledging they would not carry on with the investigation in return for the money. A large proportion of the families usually succumbs. At best, the services would suffice with hilwan, a little treat, which Daraa’s locals identify as sums of money the family pays to security officials when the kidnapped returns safe and sound from captivity, increasing, thus, the victim’s financial burdens.”
Closer Look into the Kidnapping Motives
Daraa is one of the provinces hardest hit over the course of the war in Syria, particularly as it broke out of the Syrian government’s control earlier than other provinces and then fell to the control of over a hundred armed opposition groups, not only Islamist, but differently indoctrinated. For years, the province has been enduring escalating security tensions, instability and ever deteriorating living conditions which were the main reasons to the rise of the kidnapping phenomenon, several locals agreed.
A. Rampant insecurity
The Syrian government did sign a settlement agreement with the armed opposition groups in August 2018, but since then it failed to bring the province completely under its control. Due to this, light weapons are still excessively possessed by a few armed opposition groups across the province, which thus kept fueling the rampant insecurity and escalated assassinations, kidnappings and attacks aimed at the security posts of the Syrian government. These incidents took an upward trajectory since the end of 2019 to the point this report was being prepared in August 2020, for STJ’s field researcher has documented about 240 similar incidents, which claimed the lives of over 163 people and rendered others injured, both civilians and militants.
These assassinations targeted militants and civilians, some of whom were affiliated to or operated on behalf of the Syrian government, including members of reconciliation delegations, directors of municipalities, mukhtars, Syrian security personnel or Russian police. Other assassinations aimed at either former opposition militants, both commanders and fighters, or former media activists and current relief workers.
B. Deteriorating living conditions
In addition to security chaos, much like other Syrian provinces Daraa was affected by the overall economic turmoil. In the past a few months, the Syrian economy received several blows, caused by the imposition of the Caesar Act, which legislatively sanctions the Syrian government and its allies, and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These circumstances, paralyzed economy and hampered the economic interests of civilians, giving rise to unprecedented unemployment rates and spiraling living conditions.
The economic downturn affected civilians’ living conditions in every respect, prices hit beyond record levels, unemployment prevailed, cultivation in the Houran Plain went into decline, and several civilians lost their savings and jobs. Unable to cope with these circumstances, a large segment of Daraa’s locals fell below the poverty line. Furthermore, thefts, mugging, banditry and kidnapping spread throughout the province.
It was not only unemployment and security chaos that deprived locals of their quasi economic stability, but there was also the Syrian government’s draft policy, under which young people were recruited to perform the mandatory military service, as well as the illegal immigration of a large number of young men, who chased after better opportunities. Therefore, many families were robbed of their breadwinners, which increased their economic burdens and coerced many of them to take up rather extreme measures to live.
Relatives’ Accounts of Child Kidnappings
While documenting kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of children in Daraa province, STJ’s field researcher faced several challenges. A large number of people refused to provide an account of the incidents; others, however, refrained from disclosing the kidnapping or attempted kidnappings that aimed at some of their relatives’ children. The approached witnesses were all afraid of the kidnappers’ retaliation or the security services’ reaction, which might put them to thorough interrogations, risking the lives of family members who might be wanted by these services.
Nonetheless, STJ’s field researcher managed to document no less than 31 kidnappings, four of which failed, in Daraa province between January and early August 2020.
A. Ransom child kidnappings
The kidnappings, carried out over the reported period, aimed at children for the most part in various areas in Daraa, including Tayibe, Jasim, Daraa, Saida, and Izraa among others. The kidnappings sought coercing parents of victims into paying ransoms.
- On the evening of 17 March 2020, unidentified persons kidnapped three girls of the al-Jibawee family in Jasim city, west of Daraa, indifferent to the checkpoints and military posts of the Syrian security services operating in the city. Commenting on the incident, a source close to the al-Jibawee family said:
“Driving a car, unidentified persons kidnapped the girls while heading to attend an evening private lesson. Later, we were informed that the girls were transported to a forsaken area in the al-Qazzaz neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. The next day, the kidnappers contacted the family, demanding a ransom of 70 million Syrian pounds (SP) to release the girls, and threatened to kill them should the family refuse to pay the money or report the incident to the police. The family paid the ransom and got the girls back, who were extremely traumatized.”
- On 4 May 2020, unidentified persons kidnapped the little boy Muhammad al-Sha’abeen, 9, in front of his house in Saida town, east of Daraa, where numerous checkpoints of the Syrian security services are set up. Recounting the details of the incident, a source close to the child’s family said:
“Muhammad was kidnapped for a day. He was abducted while playing in front of his house. A few hours later, the kidnappers called Muhammad’s father, Yousef al-Sha’abeen, and demanded a big ransom to release the child. The father reported the incident to the Criminal Security Branch, which managed to locate the kidnappers’ place through tracking the phone they used to call. Knowing that their operation was due to fail, the kidnappers left the child on the street and escaped. The police did not manage to arrest the kidnappers to the day.”
- On 2 July 2020, unidentified persons kidnapped another boy, 10, while playing outdoors in the Jbab town, north of Daraa. Describing the details of the kidnapping, a source close to the child’s family by the name Yousef A. said:
“The kidnappers called the child’s parents, asking for 10 million SPs to release him. Following a thorough negotiation, the ransom to be paid was six million SPs. The details of the release were kept a secret by the boy’s father. The kidnapping happened even though the Syrian government keeps a tight grip over Jbab town, while it has not been infiltrated by any militants of the armed opposition.”
B. Kidnapped children who went missing
- On 10 March 2020, unidentified persons kidnapped the third-grader girl Salam Hassan Khalaf, 8, while on her way home from school in the Tayibe town, east of Daraa, where numerous checkpoints of the Syrian security forces are set up. Commenting on the incident, a relative of the little girl said:
“A number of the neighborhood’s residents saw a black van parked on the road between Salam’s school, Tayibe al-Rifiye School, and her home. Salam was stuffed into the van, which instantly disappeared. We have no information whatsoever about Salam’s fate to the day. Her father offered five million SPs to anyone who provides information about her whereabouts or the slightest details that would help to locate her. He even pledged to forgive the kidnappers and not to harass them by resorting to his tribe or to the courts, on top of which they will be given all the money they want in exchange for Salam’s release. The kidnapping took place while the security services and the concerned authorities stood completely helpless, unable to do anything to address the matter.”
Salam’s relative added:
“Salam’s father raises and distributes chicken to the town’s stores. He has four sons and two daughters, including Salam. The kidnappers have not attempted any contact with Salam’s father, they did not even ask for a ransom, let alone explain their motives for kidnapping her. In mid-April, the family found Salam’s school uniform, bag and a few of her books on a farm near the Tayibe town.”
A photo of Salam, posted by her family onto social networking sites in March 2020, while searching for her. Credit: Local Facebook pages.
- In November 2019, the little boy Mayar Alaa al-Hammadi, 6, was also kidnaped in Jasim city. Commenting on the incident, a source close to the child’s family said:
“Two young men on a motorcycle kidnapped Mayar in front of the Banat Jasim al-Thaniya School. The child is still missing while concerned authorities could not do anything. At the time of kidnapping, the Criminal Security Branch was informed, but all efforts [at finding the little boy] were to no avail.”
The kidnappers contacted the child’s parents in August 2020, asking for a ransom of about US $100, amounting to approximately 200 million SPs, to release the child, according to STJ’s field researcher. However, due to their poor finances, the parents could not pay the money, and Mayar’s fate was yet unknown at the time of reporting, namely on 21 August 2020.
A photo of the kidnapped boy Mayar Alaa al-Hammadi. Credit: A source close to the child’s family.
- On 4 June 2020, Hanin Imad al-Zou’bi, 25, and her little daughter Leen al-Masri, 3, both born in the Khirbet Ghazaleh town, east of Daraa, were kidnapped while in the al-Sabil neighborhood in Daraa al-Mahtta, activists told STJ, adding that the family searched the area comprehensively and appealed to people on social networking sites to help them find the victims. Furthermore, the family reported the kidnapping to the Criminal Security Branch, but all their efforts were to no use.
A photo of the kidnapped little girl Leen al-Massri. Credit: Media activists.
C. Kidnappings carried out near checkpoints of Syrian security services
Numerous attempted child kidnappings were carried out only a few meters away from military checkpoints set up by the Syrian security services in Daraa province, local sources reported to STJ, adding that the kidnappers might have at least passed through these checkpoints, including those who perpetrated the kidnapping in el-Karak al-Sharqi on 3 June 2020, around 1:00 pm. On that day, a little girl, 4, was a target to a kidnapping attempt on the el-Karak al-Sharqi-al-Ghariyah al-Sharqiya road, particularly a 100 m away from a checkpoint of the Air Force Intelligence Branch. On a motorcycle, two men approached the little girl near her house. Having noticed what was going on, the father shouted at the men, who immediately ran away.
On the same day, another kidnapping attempt targeted a boy, 13, while on his way to buy bread in the al-Ghariyah al-Sharqiya town. Two young men on a motorcycle chased after the boy, but fortunately the boy took a turn near his house, where a shop was located. The young men were thus coerced to flee cursing the child and his parents, according to Houran Free League, which stated that it is most likely that the same persons are responsible for the two incidents that day, not to mention that both occurred near a military checkpoint of the Air Force Intelligence Branch.
On the evening of 22 June 2020, another child, 15, was subjected to an attempted kidnapping in the Mhajjah town. On a motorcycle, two young men tried to captivate the boy, who stood close to his home and luckily run inside. It is noteworthy that the child’s house is only 200 m away from one of the Syrian security centers, while checkpoints are everywhere to be found around the town.
On 29 June 2020, residents of Ibtaa town observed three strangers aboard a taxi, two men and a woman. The strangers were suspected of being a child kidnapping gang since kidnappings were on the rise in the province, not to mention that the three were approaching the local houses pretending to be beggars. The locals handed the strangers over to the town’s police station, but they were shocked when the gang was released only two hours after the Air Force Intelligence Branch intervened, according to a local source. When locals inquired into the strangers’ early release, they were told that there was not sufficient evidence that they have carried out kidnappings and that they were merely beggars.
According to STJ’s field researcher, the kidnappings were not limited to children only, but they also targeted university students in Daraa province. On 13 June 2020, the student Christine al-Hazraq, born in Izraa city, northeastern rural Daraa, was kidnapped. After leaving the Industrial Technical Institute, near al-Kashef neighborhood in Daraa city, where security checkpoints are widespread, the student took a taxi and was out of reach since then. The student’s fate was still unknown at the time of reporting, on 21 August 2020.
On 15 June 2020, another kidnapping targeted two university female students in Daraa city in the al-Sabil neighborhood, where numerous checkpoints are set up. At the end of that school day, two young men tried to kidnap the students using a Kia Rio car. Their attempt failed, however.
STJ’s field researcher also documented four failed kidnapping attempts throughout the province. On 26 May 2020, a little boy in Umm Walad town, east of Daraa, managed to escape the persons who attempted to kidnap him. The kidnappers were riding a motorcycle and managed to flee, the reason why the townspeople failed to identify them. Furthermore, a little girl from the al-Ghariyah al-Sharqiya town, east of Daraa, survived an attempted kidnapping, as she managed to escape from the kidnappers. While in van, one of the gang’s members, a woman, called after the girl, but the latter refused to draw near the woman and fled immediately.
STJ’s field researcher documented two other attempted child kidnappings, one in Dael town and the other in Jasim city, west of Daraa, in April and May 2020.
The documented incidents are only a few of the kidnappings carried out in Daraa province, for several parents prefer not to disclose any details about such incidents for family reasons. STJ’s field researcher, for instance, documented an incident that took place in June 2020 of a child kidnapped in Jasim city, west of Daraa. The child’s parents, a source close to the family recounted, abstain from bringing up the matter before neighbors, for they are still negotiating with the kidnappers about the ransom to be paid in return for the child’s release.
Locals Anxious as Child Kidnappings Rise
Child kidnappings have turned into a source of terror for the locals of Daraa province, since the kidnappers are still loose and unidentified. The kidnappings also held dignitaries throughout Daraa in a state of high alert, while families started to prevent their children from playing away from home, attending remedial courses and private lessons, or going to marketplaces alone.
Furthermore, the term a state-within-a-state has found its way to the locals’ everyday language, which they use to refer to the encroachment of armed groups and bandits on their life, as they continue to kidnap, loot and practice extortion without being held accountable in the absence of law.
These violations exceed kidnappings to killings with the intention of stealing. For example, in June 2020, Intissar Muhammad al-Mattroudi, 57, went missing in Daraa city, only to be discovered dead two days later. The perpetrators murdered and burned Mrs. al-Mattroudi with the intent to steal.
Theft-aimed homicide, in addition to the increasing burglaries, lootings and banditry, robbed the locals of their trust in authorities and enhanced the role of tribal and family relations in resolving disputes aside from the government. A large segment of the locals still opted for changing their places of residence or settling down in the capital Damascus, while others immigrated in search of security.
Another group, however, decided to obtain weapons unlawfully for the purpose of self-defense. Commenting on this, Qasem al-Barm, 46, a resident of the Saida village, west of Daraa, said:
“I am seriously considering getting a weapon, like so many others. The situation is unbearable, and the government is not protecting us. Everyone here is toiling to protect their children and themselves. Some people have immigrated; others abandoned the area. Nonetheless, the majority of the locals cannot just leave their jobs and escape!”
Kidnapping in Domestic Legislations
Under the Syrian Penal Code, the crime of kidnap is dealt with according to the provisions of the chapter entitled “Crimes against Freedom and Honor”, and it is defined as “depriving a person of his/her liberty resorting to one or several means of violence, and keeping him/her in a place subjected to the authority, protection and surveillance of the kidnappers to achieve certain political, religious or moral aims,” attorney and legal expert Hussain Fadlullah told STJ, pointing out that the legislator might give the perpetrator of the crime of kidnap a penalty ranging between those attributed to misdemeanor and death on specific cases detailed by the law. Fadlullah said:
“Articles 478, 481, 500, 501, 555 and 556, as well as Decree No. 20 of 2013 of the Syrian Penal Code explain how the legislator deals with the crime of kidnap. Furthermore, the Penal Code stipulates that whoever abducts a child under the age of seven shall be punished by imprisonment from three months to a year; whoever kidnaps a minor under the age of 18 shall be punished by imprisonment from six months to three years. If the minor has been abducted or removed by deception or force, the penalty shall be temporary hard labor.”
“The punishment shall increase from ten to twenty years’ imprisonment and with a fine of twice the value demanded for those kidnapped by violence or deception with the purpose of demanding a ransom. The kidnapper should be sentenced to twenty years should the kidnapped be a child and the kidnap be carried out with the purpose of demanding a ransom. Should the kidnapping be carried out with the intention of achieving a political or material goal, or with the intention of revenge or reprisal, or for sectarian reasons, the kidnapper shall be punished by hard labor. And the penalty shall be death if the crime of kidnapping resulted in the death of a person, a permanent defect befell the victim, the perpetrator sexually assaulted the victim.”
 “Fresh Wave of Violence Storms Already Vulnerable ‘Settlement Agreement’ in Daraa”, STJ, 10 May 2020, https://stj-sy.org/en/fresh-wave-of-violence-storms-already-vulnerable-settlement-agreement-in-daraa/ (last visit: 6 October 2020).
 The armed opposition groups controlled as much as 65% of Daraa province between April 2012 and August 2018.
 The head of a neighborhood, village or town.
 For further details, refer to the following link: The website of the Syrian Arab Republic-Ministry of Justice—the Syrian Penal Code, http://www.moj.gov.sy/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11%3A2013-10-01-20-45-36 (last visit:6 October 2020)
 For further details, refer to the following link: The website of the Syrian Arab Republic-People’s Council of Syria—the Legislative Decree No. 13 of 2013, 2 April 2013, http://www.parliament.gov.sy/arabic/index.php?node=55151&cat=4278 (last visit:6 October 2020)