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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Russia sides with former rebels in Daraa

Russia has been siding with former rebels in southern Syria [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 April, 2019

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Our weekly round-up of under-reported news from Syria focuses on how regime troops and Iran are treating Daraa and its territories as spoils of war.
Syria Weekly is a regular report focused on under-reported stories from Syria. Sign up at the end of the report to receive it automatically in your inbox every week and be sure never to miss an issue.


Although Iran and Russia have jointly helped Bashar al-Assad win back most of Syria during the war, the two countries could face a potential falling-out as both sides vie for power and money in the war-torn country.

Heavy rain in the region has also devastated camps in Syria's Idlib province, where a new humanitarian crisis is in the making. Meanwhile, Syrian activists in the US have won a symbolic victory against a "talking head" who has attempted to debase their cause.

Daraa troubles

Trouble is brewing in the southern Syrian province of Daraa, where clashes have broken out between Russian-backed former rebel fighters and the regime. The unrest centres on repeated violations against civilians by government troops and hint at growing tensions between Russia and Iran - which provides a huge chunk of regime-allied ground forces - in Daraa province.

Much of Daraa had been in opposition hands throughout the war, until last year's Syrian regime offensive and Russian-sponsored reconciliation agreements with rebel groups saw the opposition territory fall to the government within weeks.

Since the southern provinces came under regime control last year, there have been continued rumblings of unrest in the region. Civilians in Daraa city protested against the government rebuilding a statue of late leader Hafez al-Assad - something which would be unthinkable in areas under tighter regime control.

Former rebel fighters who have reconciled with the regime have formed local defence units, which have been absorbed into the Fifth Corps, a semi-autonomous section of the Syrian army effectively under the command of Russia. While much of Daraa is controlled by regime troops and Iranian-linked militias, the local defence units often operate alongside Russian military police and function locally without taking part in regime operations against rebels elsewhere in Syria.

In Daraa, these defence units have been viewed as something of a bulwark against Iranian influence in the southern regions of Syria, after Iran-sponsored militias hav been associated with corruption, torture, disappearances, forced conscription and generally operate with impunity.

In a sign of how hated the regime intelligence and Iranian militia units are in Daraa, locals have turned to Russian military police with complaints.

A number of assassinations have also been taking place in Daraa, highlighting the growing lawlessness of a region controlled by a hodgepodge of security forces operating with varying degrees of oppression.

The attacks have targeted all factions, from former opposition figures who still clearly resent Bashar al-Assad's regime to Hizballah and intelligence units. Shadowy insurgent groups such as Popular Resistance have been formed, according to Syria Direct, which have targeted regime forces that are unpopular with the local population due to their heavy-handedness or corruption.

Last week, at least two attacks on regime forces were reported, including a grenade attack on a regime loyalists home and a shooting on an army checkpoint outside Daraa city. Perhaps the most troubling for Damascus were fights - with weapons used - between members of the Fifth Corps and a regime checkpoint in eastern Daraa, which had to be broken up by Russian military police.
 
The attack came after "repeated violations" by the Syrian army against civilians, with the Russian troops reportedly siding with the former rebels and humiliating the guards, telling them to dismantle the checkpoint.

The clashes follow scuffles between the former rebels and regime fighters at other checkpoints in Daraa, after locals complained about bad treatment by the army, while images of Assad and regime flags have also been burned and anti-regime graffiti sprayed on walls, according to opposition media.

Locals have also reportedly prevented a convoy of Hizballah and Iranian fighters wearing Syrian army uniforms from entering the Yarmouk Basin area, with accusations of forced conscription and "spreading Shia Islam" levied against the Iran-linked groups.

Former rebel commanders have been detained, kidnapped and murdered by pro-regime intelligence units and militias, while regime media has stated that the Syrian army is threatening to launch a new offensive on the semi-autonomous areas of Daraa, in an attempt to gain control of the whole of the province.

It's unlikely Syria's regime will allow Daraa to remain autonomous and has repeatedly tried to exert its influence and to round up men for conscription. Some analysts believe Russia could become an unlikely ally for civilians and former rebel fighters in Daraa who will need powerful guardians against regime reprisals after years of opposition to Assad.

More hardships in Idlib

Torrential rain has caused further misery for refugees in northern Syria, with camps submerged in water. Floods have made at least 40,000 people homeless in the opposition province of Idlib, which has been struggling to cope with the displacement of residents from areas bordering regime-held territory due to heavy shelling and airstrikes.

The UN has said 14 camps have been affected in Idlib province, with White Helmets workers being used to rescue people from the flooding. Heavy rain frequently leads to flooding in Idlib, which has been overwhelmed by an influx of refugees from other parts of Syria. The population of the province has at least doubled in the past few years.

Last January, bad weather led to flash floods in northwestern Syria with makeshift refugee camps submerged by filthy water. Western aid cuts due to the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters in the province and continuing shelling have led to a breakdown in many services in bordering regions of the province. Schools have been closed in Idlib's 317 refugee camps and shelters, while tents and belongings of many residents have been swept away.

Flood waters in some areas have now receded and left deep mud with the next worry likely being a potential outbreak in disease.

Russian airstrikes are also mounting, with fears building about a potential regime offensive on the opposition province once the weather improves.

'Management of Savagery'

Writer Max Blumenthal was set to launch his latest book, The Management of Savagery: How America's National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump, this week in Washington. The book's title is lifted from a propaganda pamphlet of the same name published by Salafi-jihadi thinker Abu Bakr al-Naji in 2004.

The propaganda text set out a brutal strategy for winning control of Muslim areas through war of attrition against Western and government forces and has become an ghoulish textbook for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group commanders.

Syrians have petitioned Politics and Prose and The Wharf in Washington - who were due to launch Blumenthal's book - about the author's controversial views on the Syria war. His words have been replayed by pro-Assad activists such as Vanessa Beeley and he has been featured on pro-Assad channels such as RT.

In one tweet by Blumenthal last year he mocked an Al Jazeera video showing the desperate attempts of a Syrian father to manufacture makeshift gas masks out of plastic bags and paper cups for his children in Idlib, amid a wave of chemical attacks by regime forces last year.

Activists have attempts to highlight this tweet and his other disparaging comments directed towards the White Helmets appear to have been ignored by publisher Verso Books, which published Blumenthal's Management of Savagery - a book that appears to repeat alleged links between various US administrations and extremist Islamist groups, including some that operate in Syria.

This week, Politics and Prose cancelled an event due to take place on Wednesday, after they became aware of Blumenthal's views on Syria.

"Politics and Prose is postponing tonight's event at The Wharf with author Max Blumenthal as we work to address concerns that have arisen over the event's format, substance, and security. We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your patience and understanding," it tweeted on Wednesday.

After recent setbacks, this was a welcomed victory for hardworking Syrian activists.

Syria Weekly is a regular report focused on under-reported stories from Syria. Sign up here to receive it automatically in your inbox every week and be sure never to miss an issue.

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