Home Human Rights Journalism Syria: The 75-Day Siege of Daraa al-Balad

Syria: The 75-Day Siege of Daraa al-Balad


Syrian government forces launched a military campaign in the besieged neighborhoods, killing at least 40

by z.ujayli
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Syrian government forces and their Russian allies launched a large-scale attack in Daraa, ultimately taking control of the entire city. The attack was accompanied by extensive shelling and a tight siege that lasted from 24 June to 6 September 2021. The military hostilities displaced approximately 80 persons, who fled their houses towards northern Syria. Additionally, the combat took a toll on both civilians and fighters. Attacks by government forces killed at least 25 civilians and injured dozens of others, while clashes killed at least 39 fighters on both sides—the city’s local fighters and government forces—and wounded many others.

Since hostilities began in Daraa, field researchers with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) have worked to monitor the military progress and its effect on the local populace on the ground, as well as record the casualties. STJ previously published a detailed report about the recent unrest in the province, which was later named after the Daraa al-Balad area that became a hotspot for military clashes between government forces and local fighters. The report covered the events leading up to the siege of Daraa al-Balad, the neighborhood of Tariq al-Sad, and the Daraa Camp for Palestinian Refugees between 24 June and 27 July 2021.

Building off the first report, our newest investigation addresses the upheavals the city of Daraa witnessed after 27 July and records how government forces eventually established complete control over the city on 6 September 2021.

  • Military Escalation Following the July 24 Agreement’s Collapse

On 24 July 2021, the Daraa Central Committee (DCC)—which negotiates on behalf of Daraa al-Balad’s residents—and the Security Committee (SC)—which represents the Syrian government—signed an agreement to stabilize the situation in Daraa al-Balad. While some of the agreement’s terms were fulfilled, the agreement quickly collapsed only three days later, on 27 July. After the agreement fell apart, government forces summoned massive military reinforcements, notably at least 1000 soldiers from the Syrian Army’s 4th Division, 5th Division, 9th Division, and 16th Infantry Regiments. In addition to army support, government forces were backed by several foreign militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Lions of Iraq, and Iranian paramilitary groups. Together, these forces stationed themselves around the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad, Tariq al-Sad, and Daraa Camp.

On 27 July, government forces indiscriminately bombarded the area with mortar shells, killing a civilian man and injuring a child. Additionally, the shelling triggered a massive internal wave of displacement. Many women, children, and elderly fled their homes and walked to a government checkpoint at al-Saraya. The checkpoint granted them access to the neighborhoods of Daraa al-Mahatta.

Two days later, on 29 July, forces from the 4th and 9th divisions attempted to storm the neighborhoods of Tariq al-Sad and Daraa Camp, as well as the peripheries of Daraa al-Balad, advancing from the front in al-Bahar area. The attempted invasion was accompanied by surface-to-surface missile (SSM) attacks—locally known as the elephant missiles—on Daraa al-Balad. The shelling killed two men and injured eight people, among them two children.

In retaliation, a group of local fighters—former armed opposition fighters who signed a settlement agreement with the Syrian government— attacked a Military Security Detachment and a government checkpoint near the Saida Hospital, both located in Daraa’s eastern countryside. During the attacks, the local fighters captured at least 25 fighters and two officers from among the Syrian government forces.

Local fighters carried out similar attacks in the western countryside of Daraa, particularly in the town of Yadouda. The fighters attacked several checkpoints in the town and the Irrigation Corporation facilities, which government forces had converted into a military station. The attacks escalated tensions in the area. Government forces responded and indiscriminately hit the town with SSMs. The shelling killed three children, a woman, and two men.

Additionally, in Daraa’s western countryside, another group of local fighters attacked government checkpoints in the towns of Om Elmiathin, Jasim, Tafas, al-Karak, and Nawa. The fighters and government forces exchanged fire. The clashes killed five local fighters and at least 10 from among the government forces.[1] In addition to the deaths, the local fighters captured at least 70 members of government forces and seized two tanks and light and medium weapons.

On 30 July, the area witnessed a relative calm after the DCC and the SC agreed to a ceasefire and began a new round of negotiations. On the same day, local fighters released all government forces they captured in the attacks they carried out the day before.  Additionally, the SC demanded the relocation of local fighters to northern Syria.

That day, the DCC and the SC reached a temporary agreement, pending an overall agreement that applies across the province, on the condition that representatives from the central committees in all towns and villages in Daraa province attend the upcoming rounds of negotiation. The representatives were to merge into a new committee, called the Negotiations Committee (NC).

On 1 August, the NC and the SC conducted two rounds of negotiations. The first was held in the morning at the Municipal Stadium in Daraa city. During this session, the SC insisted on the relocation of Muhammad al-Masalmeh, known as Abu Abdo al-Hafou, and Mouayad al-Harfoush, known as Abu Ta’jeh, along with the approximately 75 fighters they commanded to northern Syria.[2] However, al-Hafou rejected the relocation. Consequently, government forces breached the ceasefire and indiscriminately bombarded Daraa al-Balad with mortar shells and elephant missiles (SSMs).

The SC and the NC held the second round of negotiations at noon, in the presence of a Russian officer, believed to be Assadullah, a Chechen officer. The two committees agreed to extend the ceasefire for 48 hours.

On 2 August, government forces boosted their presence around Daraa al-Balad and spread military machinery, tanks, and vehicles equipped with medium weaponry. The government also brought reinforcements to the eastern and western sectors of Daraa city.

In addition to these reinforcements and heightened military measures, the government’s Minister of Defense, General Ali Ayoub, visited Daraa city and met with the SC.  At the same time, a Russian military delegation entered Daraa al-Balad and met with the NC. The NC proposed replacing government forces with members from the Russia-founded 5th Legion. The NC’s proposal obtained initial approval from the Russian delegation, who were to discuss the suggestion further with other Russian commanders in southern Syria.

This round of negotiations also failed because the Syrian government’s representatives insisted on implementing the terms of the July 27 agreement. The agreement had been controversial because one of its terms allowed government forces to carry out arms inspections in Daraa al-Balad, as well as demanded that the area’s residents surrender all their weapons.

With the collapse of the agreement, government forces resumed their shelling of Daraa al-Balad, leading to further displacement from the besieged area. In response to the shelling, local fighters on 3 August blocked the Damascus-Amman International Highway near the two towns of Saida and al-Ghariyeh al-Gharbiyeh. Additionally, two other groups of local fighters attacked stations for the Syrian regular army in Nawa and Dael and assaulted checkpoints for the State Security Branch, Military Security Branch, and Electronic Battalion in al-Harah city.

In addition to Daraa al-Balad, government forces bombarded Saida, Nahta, Buser al-Harir, and al-Maliha in Daraa’s eastern countryside, as well as Tafas and Jasim in Daraa’s western countryside.

Amidst rising hostilities, hundreds of residents abandoned their homes, taking their furniture. Many of the residents were forced to pay government forces exorbitant bribes at checkpoints to be allowed to escape. Meanwhile, the NC provided the SC with a new proposal. The NC agreed to two terms they previously refused. The first is the presence of forces from the Military Security Branch, 15th Division and 5th Legion within the area; the second is allowing groups from the Syrian regular army to carry out inspections across the residential neighborhoods of Daraa al-Balad. Pertaining to the second term, however, the NC had a condition. They demanded that they accompany the army groups throughout the inspections. For their part, the SC refused the proposal. Ultimately, on 5 August, government forces banned fleeing civilians from passing through al-Saraya checkpoint to other areas.

Over 6, 7, and 8 of August, government forces launched artillery and missile shells, while incessantly attempting to break into the areas they have been besieging since 24 July through ground attacks.

  • A Russian Road Map

On 7 August, the Russian Command changed the officials in charge of the Daraa file. Instead of Assadullah, the command assigned managing Daraa’s affairs to a new officer, Alexander Alexandrovich Kinshchak, who is the director of the Middle East and North Africa Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. On 13 August, the Russian delegation informed the NC that they came up with a road map for the area and delivered them a copy the next day, on 14 August. Heedless of the negotiations, government forces on 14 August shelled the area, killed one man, and injured several other persons.

On 15 August, the NC and the SC held a meeting in downtown Daraa. The SC delegation included Major General Husam Louka —Head of the Syrian General Intelligence Division and the Daraa’s SC, Major General Marwan Sharbak, Governor of Daraa province, and Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, Head of the Military Security Branch. The NC and the SC agreed to initiate a fresh round of negotiations and a two-week ceasefire and deployed a Russian patrol to the area surrounding Daraa al-Balad to monitor the ceasefire.  Additionally, the two sides agreed to reopen the al-Saraya checkpoint for civilians escaping the area. Subsequently, the checkpoint allowed women and children—who had previously fled their homes and were stuck behind the checkpoint—access to Daraa al-Mahtta, where they were transported to makeshift housing centers. After the relocation of civilians, government forces closed the checkpoint again.

Negotiations over the proposed Russian road map included discussing the option of limiting the activities of local pro-government para-military groups through binding them to official service contracts with the Syrian government’s defense ministry. These discussions also addressed the SC’s repeated demand of carrying out weapons inspections.  The negotiators suggested that a Russian delegation enter Daraa al-Balad to scan the area to check whether the opposition-affiliated groups had retained any heavy weapons. Eventually, the road map talks resulted in the following terms:

  1. Surrendering heavy, medium, and light weapons, which armed opposition fighters retain, and that these fighters carry out settlement agreements [with the Syrian government].
  2. Searching for wanted persons who did not undergo settlements with the government, as well as searching for arms and ammunition warehouses.
  3. Deploying joint patrols, from the Syrian intelligence services and the Russian police, between the two sectors of Daraa city; namely, between Daraa al-Balad and Daraa al-Mahatta.
  4. Reoperating the government-affiliated executive entities/law enforcement agencies in Daraa al-Balad.
  5. Settling the status of army defectors by sending them to their concerned military divisions, with guarantees that they would not be prosecuted.
  6. Settling the status of military service evaders and granting them a respite to join the military (if necessary).
  7. Establishing checkpoints in the areas surrounding Daraa and organizing the movement of civilians.
  8. Providing former gunmen and their families with job opportunities and considering their employment a priority.
  9. Facilitating the reestablishment of the rule of the law and reoperating local administration directorates in the villages and towns that “witnessed unrest.”
  10. Laying the ground for announcing a general pardon for former gunmen.

Initially, the NC consented to the terms proposed in the Russian Road Map, and the NC and the SC agreed to prepare two lists of names—one with the names of people wishing to leave Daraa for northern Syria; the other with the names of people willing to sign a settlement agreement with the Syrian government. However, the next day, the NC revoked its approval and protested the term providing for the relocation of residents to northern Syria. The NC stated that they were unwilling to contribute to any operations aimed at inflicting demographic changes upon the area.

For their part, the SC presented a list of 180 names of persons wanted by the government’s security services and who resided in the besieged area. The SC gave these people two choices— either undergo a settlement with the government or relocate to northern Syria.

 

To read the report in full as a PDF, follow this link.

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[1] STJ obtained this exclusive information from a source in the Daraa National Hospital.

[2] Sources reported to STJ that the SC’s relocation demands covered 130 to 180 fighters operating in the groups of al-Hafou and al-Harfoush, and/or people wanted by the government’s security services.

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