Who’s to blame for ongoing assassinations in Syria’s Daraa province?
Assassinations of opposition and government officials and loyalists alike are proliferating in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, with the rival parties trading blame as to who is responsible for the spike in killings.
Daily assassinations in Daraa in southern Syria have recently increased in an unprecedented way, targeting leaders and members of militias affiliated with the Syrian government forces, drug smugglers and traffickers, government employees, gunmen and opposition civilians. This has been going on for the past four years despite the settlement agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition under Russian mediation in July 2018.
According to a report by the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, a local human rights organization that documents violations in Daraa, 508 assassinations and assassination attempts took place in Daraa province, killing 329 people, in 2021.
In 2020, 409 assassinations and assassination attempts were recorded, which led to 269 deaths and 102 wounded, according to the office.
Al-Monitor met with Abu Mahmoud al-Horani, spokesperson for the Horan Free League, a media organization that documents violations and reports current events in Daraa, which took stock of the situation in July.
“Assassinations continued in July 2022, according to the monthly report issued by the Violations Documentation Office of the Horan Free League at the beginning of August,” he said.
“The month of July witnessed 32 assassination operations and assassination attempts that resulted in the killing of 30 people and the injury of 17 others. With varying degrees of injuries, five people survived assassination attempts,” Horani said.
He noted that the office recorded the killing of 12 members of the government forces in July — five officers, including two captains, two lieutenants and one major, in addition to a noncommissioned officer with a rank of first assistant, one member of the Palestine Liberation Army, which is loyal to the Syrian government, as well as five government army soldiers. They were all killed by gunfire by unknown persons in Daraa, except for three who perished in improvised explosive device attacks.
“These attacks prompted Syrian government officials to hold an emergency meeting July 31 with the notables of Daraa province in the presence of Russian officers, to demand the extradition of wanted persons accused of carrying out assassinations, threatening to storm the cities and towns of the wanted persons if they were not handed over,” Horani said.
He added, “The assassinations have continued in August with three operations taking place Aug. 3. A young man identified as Samer Shehan Abu Salem was shot dead in the city of al-Harak, east of Daraa, after being accused of being involved in drug trafficking.”
Horani continued, “Another young man — Ali Abdel Karim al-Sayed from the town of al-Musayfirah — was also killed by gunfire by unknown persons on the road between the eastern towns of Karak and al-Musayfirah. That evening, the car of Capt. Ali Khaddour of the regime’s air force intelligence was hit with direct bullets near the bridge of the town of Jabab, north of Daraa. He and his accompanying operatives were injured.”
These operations coincide with an incendiary media campaign launched by government loyalists against the opposition in Daraa province. Jihad Barakat, commander of the Baath Brigades affiliated with the government forces, accused the opposition militias in Daraa of treason and subordination to the Israeli Mossad.
He called on the leadership of the government’s army in Daraa to “exterminate them,” amid calls by the families of the assassinated government officers to crack down on the armed opposition and avenge the death of their children.
Al-Monitor met Abu Ali Mahamid, a dignitary in Daraa city, to talk about the security chaos and the role of the town’s dignitaries in resolving the conflicts in the province.
“There is no way to keep the security situation in check in the southern area in the foreseeable future because of the multiple conflicting parties and the lack of an authority capable of rounding up weapons and controlling the situation. For us as tribal dignitaries, there is really little we can do amid the rampant spread of drugs and weapons,” he said.
A media activist from the western countryside of Daraa told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Most of the assassinations against the regime opponents are carried out through a network of cells affiliated with the Syrian regime, notably the air force intelligence branch.”
He said, “They target influential opposition figures in the area, such as leaders and members of the opposition factions, dignitaries and media figures criticizing the regime’s policies after the reconciliation agreements [reached in 2018]. There have been voice recordings of confessions by Syrian intelligence members about the formation of assassination cells financed by Syrian officers and those running Syrian regime checkpoints on the outskirts of the towns and cities in Daraa.”
Commenting on the role of the Islamic State (IS) in theses assassination, he noted, “The regime released a large number of former IS operatives who were arrested in 2018. They were freed on condition to carry out security operations targeting opposition figures in Daraa. They have indeed carried out several assassinations against vocal pro-Syrian opposition figures.”
Meanwhile, Munir al-Hariri, a defected brigadier general of the Syrian government army, told Al-Monitor, “The regime’s failure to extend its control over southern Syria after the 2018 settlement agreement under Russia’s auspices prompted it to place a security plan in cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the leaders of the Iranian militias present in the area.”
He said, “This plan aimed at recruiting security cells from the area’s population and former leaders in the opposition factions, and to arm them in a bid to carry out assassinations against the opposition figures. This plan is twofold: first to create an internal strife in the area and second to advance the pretext of fighting terrorism.”
Hariri explained Russia’s position on the security chaos in southern Syria, noting, “Russia’s presence in the southern area is only symbolic, as it intensifies its presence in other areas of its vital interests, specifically the Khmeimim air base [in Latakia] and the naval base in Tartus.”
He concluded, “Therefore, Iran is taking advantage of the absence of Russia’s role in the south, seeking to fill the vacuum by transferring its militias to areas where the Russian presence is weak, most notably the expansion along the Syrian-Jordanian border with the aim of imposing its military presence on the one hand and sponsoring the drug trade from those borders toward the Arab Gulf states on the other.”
By: Nawwar Horani
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.