In the recent weeks, as the eighth year of the Syrian war drew to a close and with the Assad regime in control of most of Syria’s territory, media associated with the Syrian opposition has been reporting that popular and armed opposition against the regime and its allies has resumed in the south of the country, especially in the Daraa Governorate, where the protests first broke out in 2011. The rebel forces in Daraa were forced to surrender to the regime in July 2018 and sign “reconciliation agreements” with it, as part of which they surrendered their weapons, after the U.S. informed them that it would no longer protect them against the attacks of the regime’s army and the Russian forces. Reports indicate that the residents of the governorate are furious at the regime which, they say, is continuing to arrest locals and to send former rebels who have been conscripted to the army to fight in the north of the country, in violation of the reconciliation agreements.
The renewed popular opposition to the regime in the Daraa Governorate is manifested in defacing pictures of Assad and spraying anti-regime graffiti. In the city of Da’el, north of Daraa, graffiti saying “down with Assad” appeared, and a portrait of Assad hanging opposite the town hall was torn down. A graffiti message sprayed in the town of Ghabaghb said: “We will not surrender. Expect a new revolution. We will not forget our martyrs. Revolution is an idea and ideas never die.” In the city of Al-Sanamayn the regime flag was pulled down.
However, beyond the popular protests there were also armed operations, such as assassinations, shootings and bombings against targets of the regime and the militias aiding it, including Hizbullah. Most of the attacks were not claimed by any element, but some reports attributed them to a new group, the Popular Resistance, whose members remain anonymous and whose goal, according to opposition websites, is “to avenge the martyrs and oppose the Assad regime until it falls.”Another armed organization that emerged recently and has been acting against the regime and its allies is the Southern Brigades.
The protests in Daraa were exacerbated by the re-erection of a statue of Hafez Al-Assad in the city’s Tishrin Square that had been pulled down by locals in 2011.
The Suwayda Governorate in southeastern Syria, populated mostly by Druze, has also seen protests against the regime lately, over attempts to recruit locals to fight outside the governorate. The protesters also accuse the regime of attempts to “Shi’itize” the region and sow division among the Druze.
The renewed protests in the south also sparked reactions in other parts of the country. In the rebel-held city of Al-Bab in the Aleppo Governorate, a protest was held in solidarity with Daraa, in which demonstrators chanted “Daraa, Aleppo is with you until death.”
The regime, for its part, sent representatives to the Daraa Governorate in a bid to calm the protests. On February 24, 2019, the head of the General Intelligence office in Daraa, Muhammad Muhallah, met with residents of the town of Tafas and promised to act to release locals detained by the regime. On March 9, 2019, senior officials of the ruling Ba’th party met with Daraa locals to discuss the return of residents who had fled from their homes. However, according to opposition websites, the meetings were marked by controversy between the sides, and it seems that the regime’s attempts to quell the protests have not been successful.
At the same time, the state media has been publishing many reports claiming that the residents of Daraa welcome the return of the regime and that calm prevails in the region.
This report reviews the renewed resistance against the regime in southern Syria.
Renewed Armed Operations Against The Regime
As stated, the renewed anti-regime activity in the Daraa Governorate is not confined to non-violent popular protests. In the last two months, there have also been violent operations against the regime forces and the militias aiding the regime, among them Hizbullah. Many of the operations, which included the assassination of military officers and attacks on military convoys and positions, have not been claimed by any group. For example, on January 31, the opposition website orient-news.net reported that unknown persons armed with machine guns had opened fire on an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint in the town of Nahta, east of Daraa.On February 4, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported another attack on Air Force Intelligence personnel, this time in the Da’el area. On February 16, orient-news.net reported that dozens of unidentified gunmen had opened fire with light and medium arms on a bus carrying troops of the army’s Ninth Brigade on the road connecting the Al-Sanamayn hospital and Daraa. Two days later the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that a regime military vehicle had been attacked between the towns of Al-Sanamayn and Qita, and that this attack and the earlier one had caused the death of at least seven soldiers.
On February 14, orient-news.net reported that Nazir Abu Hassan, assistant-head of the regime’s Military Security militia, had been shot in his car en route to Daraa. Abu Hassan was in charge of the reconciliation arrangements in the towns of Tafas, Tal Shihab and Al-Mazairib in the Daraa Governorate. On February 18 it was reported that the commander of the regime’s Popular Committees militia had been wounded by a grenade as he drove through Al-Sanamayn. On February 20 a grenade was thrown at the vehicle of the Al-Mazairib mayor, who also survived the attack.
On March 12 it was reported that unidentified persons had bombed a Hizbullah vehicle, killing four operatives, including a military commander from South Lebanon.
New Armed Opposition Groups
It was also reported that two new military groups have begun operating in the Daraa Governorate against
the regime forces and have issued statements in which they pledged to continue the revolution and called on locals to join them.
The Popular Resistance In Daraa Calls On Young Men To Join Its Ranks
The Popular Resistance armed group was founded in the recent months, and little is known about it. According to an opposition website, the group’s actions are a response to the “false promises” of the Russians and the regime and the regime’s failure to fulfill the terms of the reconciliation agreements signed in Daraa in July 2018. In February the group issued a statement urging young men to join it, which said: “In light of the situation in the southern region and the fraud perpetrated by the criminal apparatus [the regime] and its violation of the agreed-upon commitments and reconciliation [agreements], and in light of the raids, the arrests and the drafting of young men to regular and reserve duty, and the forcing of defectors [from the Syrian army] to fight alongside the sectarian militias and kill our people in the north, while exploiting people’s economic distress and harsh living conditions, we in the Popular Resistance will serve as a shield for our beloved country Syria and its people, of all sects and in every place.
“Oh people of Syria, especially the young people, the lights of victory are winking on the horizon and victory is not far off. We call upon you to join the ranks of the Popular Resistance that is acting to remove the oppressor from the oppressed and to continue on the path of freedom for which we have sacrificed blood and [suffered] injury and arrests.”
Among the operations carried out by the Popular Resistance was the January 17 attempted assassination of Syrian army officer Nidal Qoja ‘Ali, commander of the Nawa area west of Daraa. Earlier, on January 14, the group attacked a regime military checkpoint in the town of Ghabaghb, killing two soldiers and wounding three. On January 15 it claimed responsibility for an attack on a regime army base in the town of Tafas.
On March 3, the Popular Resistance announced on its Facebook page that it had met with Abu Zuheir Al-Shami, commander of a group called Secret Missions, and that the two groups had agreed to form a joint war room that would operate in the area between Damascus and Daraa and “attack regime officials, Hizbullah officials, and figures aiding Hizbullah.”
On March 11 it was reported that the Popular Resistance had ambushed and assassinated the head of the Air Force Intelligence militia, Hussein Al-‘Amari, in the town of Al-Mulayha Al-Sharqiyya in the rural area of Daraa.
The Southern Brigades: We Have Sworn To Realize The Goals Of The Revolution By Eliminating Assad And His Regime
The second group, which begun operating against the regime in the Daraa area in early February, is the Southern Brigades. In February 9 it posted a statement on its Facebook page, saying: “We, the Southern Brigades, sons of this homeland, have sworn before Allah and our [Syrian] brothers to continue realizing the goal of our revolution by eliminating Bashar Al-Assad, his criminal regime, his sectarian militias and everyone who supports him. [We pledge] to liberate the land and ensure a dignified life for this people that has suffered catastrophes at the hands of [Assad’s] criminal gang, whose only achievement is the manufacture of terror, murder and destruction.
“We stress that we are not subordinate to any element, local or international, as some claim against us. After everyone [else] abandoned the Syrian people and left it alone to face Assad’s criminal apparatus, his militias and his allies, we undertook to make sacrifices and defend our people. So stand with us, not against us. Our coming operations will [pour] fire and brimstone on this criminal regime. We will have no mercy on it. We will cause it great damage and avenge the blood of our martyrs. Be assured that we have no plan except the removal of this regime and the expulsion of the sectarian terrorist militias from our homeland, and that once the regime is gone, our mission will be at an end.”
On February 15, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on the Ba’th Party headquarters in the town of Umm Walad, east of Daraa. A post on its Facebook page said that the attack had been “a last warning and message to Assad’s dogs, who should realize its implications. We promise you that next time we will uproot any security facility of the sectarian occupation gangs and of Assad’s militias.” On March 9, fliers were distributed in Umm Walad threatening Ba’th Party members and security personnel in the town. The fliers were not signed, but a mention of the attack on the Ba’th Party headquarters suggests that the Southern Brigades group may have been behind them.
Protests Intensify Following Re-Erection Of Hafez Al-Assad Statue, Eliciting Statements Of Support From Political Opposition
In recent weeks the protests intensified and gained momentum after it was reported that the regime intended to re-erect a statue of Syria’s previous president, Hafez Al-Assad, in Daraa’s Tishrin Square. The statue had been pulled down by anti-regime protesters in 2011. On March 10, hundreds of city residents demonstrated against the plan to restore the statue. According to reports, they demanded Assad’s ouster and the release of detainees, and chanted “better death than surrender” and “long live Syria, down with Assad.” The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that the regime had tried to thwart the demonstration using threats and intimidation, but had failed. During the re-erection of the statue a bomb went off nearby, prompting the authorities to close off the area and place the statue under heavy guard.
Deraa residents protest against the re-erection of a statue of Hafez Al-Assad in the city (image: Twitter.com/SyriaCoalition, March 11, 2019)
After the demonstration, opposition activists in Daraa declared that the regime would not intimidate them. Activist ‘Ali Al-Masri told orient-news.net that the demonstration proves that the regime does not really control the south, as it claims, and that “the people of Daraa oppose the deification of the Assad family and the association of Syria with Assad…” Activist Muhammad Fares said that “it is patently clear that the Syrians, as a collective, are no longer afraid [of the regime], and that there is a great deal of tense [feelings] against the regime, which has evaded all its commitments… All this leads to a single result: that this blessing [i.e., the demonstrations] will spread to other parts [of Syria as well].”
Activists in southern Syria also launched a social media campaign with the hashtag “It Will Come Down,” referring to the statue in Tishrin Square. According to an opposition website, the activists hoped that the campaign would “rekindle the non-violent [protest] activity in Syria, especially in the parts controlled by Assad, ahead of the eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.”
The political Syrian opposition also expressed support for the protests in Daraa. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces called the activity in southern Syria “courageous,” and said in a March 10, 2019 statement: “The heroes of Horan [southwest Syria] have renewed their commitment to the revolution on the eighth anniversary of [its launching], and have stressed their loyalty to [the martyrs] sacrificed by the Syrian people… The regime, which has lost its legitimacy, cannot force itself upon the hearts of the free Syrians.”
Nasser Al-Hariri, head of the High Negotiations Committee, tweeted: “The city of Daraa, the cradle of the revolution, is relaunching its revolution. What can we say to people like these, who, while still under the yoke of steel and fire, have come out with great courage and heroism to call out the slogans of the first revolution? Let us rise up again, as one, without hostility or resentment [towards each other], for our conscience and our goal are one.”