Recently, regime forces launched an attack against the Daraa al-Balad area in south Syria. The attack aimed at fully recapturing the area after it has been under the control of the locals since the June 2018 reconciliation agreement between Assad regime and opposition forces under Russian auspices. Reconciliation agreements are reached by local opposition forces and regime forces under Russian auspices that allow the regime to retake opposition-held areas in exchange for guarantees for there to be no detention of locals. The Assad regime and Russia have been using these agreements as tactics to take control of besieged opposition-held areas throughout Syria since 2016. From eastern Aleppo neighborhoods in January 2017, to Eastern Ghouta in March 2018 to Daraa, the agreements allowed the regime to retake control of these areas while local population, opposition fighters, and civilians who refused to stay were forcibly displaced to north Syria—despite the regime’s pledge not to arrest locals, to end the siege, and to allow displaced civilians to return to their areas. The June 2018 agreement in Daraa nevertheless allowed locals, civilians, and fighters to control specific areas such as Daraa al-Balad with the presence of the regime institutions but without its military or security forces.
June 2018 reconciliation
The June 2018 settlement agreement was preceded by a de-escalation agreement in southern Syria between Russia, Jordan, and the United States in 2017. Under this agreement, Jordan and the United States stopped supporting the opposition factions, some of which rejected this agreement, in exchange for Russia’s pledge to remove Iranian militias from a distance of up to 60 km from the Israeli border. The de-escalation agreement was signed before the Assad regime launched a military operation in southern Syria in April 2018. The military campaign ended with a new reconciliation agreement between the regime forces and representatives of the opposition factions and local dignitaries in June 2018. The agreement conditions included the return of state institutions to southern Syria, Daraa and Quneitra governorates, the recruitment of opposition fighters in the Fifth Corps of the Syrian army, the forced displacement of those who rejected the agreement to northern Syria, as well as the release of detainees and the disclosure of the fate of the forcibly disappeared from this areas.
Moreover, the agreement, which was sponsored by Russia, following talks with Jordan and Israel, allowed the newly reconciled areas to remain free from the control of the Syrian regime—despite its recapture of the areas—and allowed former fighters of the opposition to join local forces affiliated with the Syrian regime. These conditions were a first in the Syrian context, as previous reconciliation agreements usually led to the forced displacement of the population and the return of the Syrian regime to rule over these areas.
Continuing violations despite reconciliation
Despite the new status and a much higher degree of freedom and independence, the June 2018 reconciliation agreement was nevertheless marred by the commission of human rights violations against the local population; this includes the arrest of hundreds of citizens, some of whom were forcibly disappeared or killed under torture, despite regime guarantees that anyone who would settle their status through the reconciliation process would be safe from any arrest. In addition to the violations by regime forces such as detention and torture, the region witnessed numerous assassination attempts against former opposition members, local leaders, and civilians—reaching to around 1,000 assassination attempts since 2018, and resulting in the death of around 500 people. It is unclear who is responsible for such attacks— but since the majority of the targets are former opposition fighters, the regime’s security apparatus may very well be behind them.
Since the signing of the reconciliation agreement in June 2018—and in response to the fact that some areas remained under the control of locals without the presence of the regime forces—Iranian-backed regime forces, such as the Fourth Division began attempts to expand their presence in the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra. This expansion was met with widespread rejection by locals, as they refused to accept entry of the forces that were previously the spearhead force in the military escalation against their communities. In order to defy the local opposition, the Assad regime deployed the “encircle, surrender, and displace” policy, following the same pattern employed in other former opposition-held areas, from which these areas were spared in the earlier military operations in 2018.
The first military operation after the reconciliation agreement of June 2018 occurred in March 2020 in the city of al-Sanamayn, where regime forces encircled and attacked the city after the death of a regime officer. The clashes between regime forces and the locals ceased following negotiations under Russian auspices, which resulted in a new reconciliation agreement that included the forced displacement of 20 former opposition fighters and their families to northern Syria, in addition to local fighters handing over their weapons and joining the forces of the Fifth Corps. The al-Sanamayn agreement was followed by a similar agreement in the eastern town of Karak in November 2020, which led to the forced displacement of 14 people with their families to the north. The city of Tafas also faced a military attack by the forces of the Fourth Division in January 2021, which ended with an agreement between local notables and the regime under Russian auspices ordering the forced displacement of 12 people to the western countryside of Daraa, in exchange for the entry of regime forces into the town. In May 2021, an armed group attacked one of the bases of the local defense forces linked to Hezbollah near the town of Umm Batinah in the Quneitra governorate.
In Daraa al-Balad
The Daraa al-Balad area, a large district of Daraa City that remained under the control of the locals after the June 2018 reconciliation agreement, is considered one of the most important neighborhoods of the Syrian revolution since 2011. It is home to the Omari Mosque, one of the most important landmarks of the Syrian revolution, as locals started their protests from this mosque. For this reason, the fact that it remained free from the presence of the Syrian regime through the 2018 reconciliation agreement, represented an important form of symbolic victory for opposition communities.
The regime violations like detention, in addition to the deteriorating living situation and the regime’s lack of interest in providing basic services, prompted the residents to demonstrate in Daraa and to boycott the presidential elections in May 2021. In early August 2021, the Fourth Division closed the neighborhood’s entrances and exits with checkpoints before trying to storm the area at the end of August. The clashes and shelling killed about 15 civilians before the Central Committee of Daraa Governorate, composed of local notables and former leaders of the opposition forces, and the regime reached an agreement that includes transferring about 20 people left for northern Syria in exchange for regime forces entering the area and carrying out a new settlement/reconciliation process for the population.
The continuous implications of the regime’s false reconciliation
Through the new agreements in areas in south Syria that were signed after the June 2018 agreement, the regime imposed displacement against civilians—without proof of their involvement in the hostilities—merely because of their public opposition to the regime or the refusal of former opposition fighters to join the ranks of the regime forces. Forced displacement in Syria has significant effects on civilians in terms of families being shattered and civilians forced to live in IDP camps that lack basic necessities. Additionally, forced displacement also contributes to and even exacerbates the impact of housing, land and property right violations on civilians. In the case of Daraa al-Balad, the regime displaced locals within a few days, preventing them from selling their properties or even transferring their ownership to relatives—which de facto deprives them of any right to protect and claim back their property after their displacement. Indeed, according to laws previously issued by the regime, Syrians are not allowed to delegate their relatives to sell their property, but this authorization can only be issued through embassies outside of Syria or following their return to their areas of origin. This situation forces civilians once again to make a difficult choice between losing their property and risking their lives to return to the regime’s areas.
In addition to displacement, the recent reconciliation agreement also ordered male citizens to undertake a new process to “settle your status.” Such a process requests individuals to undertake a security vetting and to sign a document pledging not to take up arms nor carry out hostile acts against the state and its armed forces, in return for safety from arrest or prosecutions for any crime, including terrorism-related charges, committed during the conflict. This process is imposed on civilians living in areas that were under the control of opposition forces or refugees who wish to return to Syria, especially those who left illegally, through illegal border crossings. However, despite the regime’s guarantees, all the areas that reached the settlement agreements, such as Eastern Ghouta, southern Damascus and southern Syria, witnessed the arrest of residents, men, women, former opposition fighters and defected soldiers, as well as activists. The security apparatus uses this process to impose their control over the local community by forcing individuals to provide detailed information about their relatives or acquaintances inside or outside Syria, whether they are within the opposition forces, activists, or civil society organizations. This helps the security services to build and expand a detailed database about the population, which allows them to expand the arbitrary detention campaigns. Such a process also leads to the violation of freedom of movement of civilians undertaking such a process and results in potential further persecution and discriminatory. In Eastern Ghouta, for example, the regime forces required residents to always carry a reconciliation card so that they could pass through the checkpoints to Damascus.
Achieving reconciliation in Syria
Achieving reconciliation in Syria is essential to establishing peace and ending the conflict. It requires a lot of work from all parties in cooperation with the civil society. It also requires achieving justice by investigating violations and holding the perpetrators accountable. However, these agreements—which Russia and the regime call “reconciliation”—are nothing more than surrender agreements forced by military operations and a long-term siege; they expose the regime’s continuation of violating the commitments it signed itself, adding to a long record of human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the regime. Therefore, the international community must take into account that there is no solution to the Syrian crisis with the continuation of these violations, and must always be cautious regarding the promises of Russia and the regime without a real change. And soon we may see this pattern—military operation followed by displacement in reconciled areas—being repeated in other areas with similar agreements such as Damascus countryside and Homs northern countryside which witnessed similar tension. On the other hand, European countries and neighboring countries should not push the refugees to return to Syria as long as the regime shows how it doesn’t adhere to the terms of the settlement agreements and Russia’s lack of interest in fulfilling its obligations regarding the security and safety of Syrian citizens.