Protesters in Daraa Province in southern Syria call for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces, May 13, 2020

There have been more than 500 assassination attempts, with 309 people killed, since Russia and the Assad regime reoccupied Daraa and Quneitra Provinces in southern Syria in July 2018.

The toll provided by activists, who note that the killings have risen in 2020, defy the regime’s narrative of “reconciliation” after an offensive forced the surrender of the last opposition areas in the south.

Omar al-Hariri of the Martyrs Documentation Office in Daraa, a local human rights organization, tells Syria Direct that the victims includes regime and Russian forces, Iran-backed militias, former rebels, and civilians.

Two members of the Central Committee in Daraa, which negotiates with the regime and Russian representatives, said the assassinations and insurgency have been spurred by the failure of “Damascus’ new policy in dealing with the situation in southern Syria”.

Daraa was the site of the initial Syrian uprising in March 2011, after the regime detained and abused teenage boys who sprayed “freedom” graffiti on walls.

An Attempted Crackdown

Last November, the regime appointed Maj. Gen. Hussam Loqa as head of the “Security Committee” for southern Syria. Ostensibly, Loqa was replacing Maj. Gen. Qahtan Khalil because of anger over his predecessor’s bloody repression of residents amid a rise in protests across the area.

But according to the members of the negotiating committee, Loqa promised force to “impose the state authority” and to “end armed activity and hand over wanted individuals and weapons”. State security services stepped up “assassinations, kidnappings and forced disappearances…in parallel with various pressures to regain control over the reconciliation areas”.

A military commander in a “reconciliation faction” of former rebels summarized Maj. Gen. Loqa’s tactics as “chaos justifies military incursion”.

Another former rebel military commander, now a member of a negotiating committee, says that as a result, “The most prominent groups carrying out assassinations are terrorist organizations [Islamic State cells] and the security services, in addition to Iran.”

But rather than quelling protests and insurgency, the regime’s tactics have only brought a corresponding increase in attacks on pro-Assad forces and perceived regime collaborators.

Can Regime Put Down Insurgency?

In May, assassinations reached their highest point since July 2018. Victims included nine policemen kidnapped by a commander of a military group in Muzayrib, who accused regime of kidnapping and killing his son and son-in-law.

The regime sent military reinforcements to Daraa Province and threatening to overrun the area. Negotiations, through a Russian guarantor, brought an agreement in late May for the regime’s 4th Division to deploy in western Daraa alongside local “reconciled” fighters. However, they would stay outside cities and towns.

The 4th Division has organized “settlement factions” into five battalions, hoping to supersede the role of the reconciliation committees.

One of the former rebel commanders also sees the 4th Division trying to “exploit the youth in favor of mobilization by opening the door to recruitment”.

He assesses that the regime is seeking to “limit the popular demonstrations that had started to escalate, and also to weaken particular personalities.”

But the Martyrs Documentation Office’s Hariri assesses, “The more time goes by without remedying the lawlessness and going after the assassins, the more they will feel able to move around, organize themselves, increase their numbers and come up with [new] methods.”

On May 27, three members of a “reconciliation committee” were assassinated. On June 20, at least nine troops from the 5th Legion, a pro-regime militia formed by the Russian military, were killed in a bus bombing in eastern Daraa.

Hariri says the situation is preventing recovery after almost 9 1/2 years of conflict: “[This] threatens the possibility of refugees returning. Nobody wants to come back to a place where they can be killed or robbed at any moment.”