Death of journalist in Syria's Deraa puts spotlight on simmering unrest

Southern governorate has been gripped by revived insurgent violence, local vendetta killings and drug smuggling

A Syrian soldier is seen standing in the Nasib border crossing with Jordan in Deraa, Syria July 7, 2018.REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki
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Syria’s restive southern border province of Deraa remains in the grip of violence after the deaths of a reporter and three soldiers, who were killed in a roadside bombing this week.

Firas Al Ahmad, 31, a reporter working for the privately owned, pro-government Sama TV, was killed along with the soldiers on his way back from an assignment covering a narcotics raid.

“We condemn the terrorist attack, which targeted the team of Sama TV and led to the martyrdom of a field correspondent Firas Al Ahmad in Deraa governorate,” the Syrian Journalists Union said in a statement.

The official Sana news agency confirmed the group was killed in an explosion in Deraa’s Al Shiyah district.

Paramilitary leader Mustafa Al Masalmeh – nicknamed “Al Kasm” – was also killed. He had been the subject of at least eight failed assassination attempts since 2018.

The attack was not claimed by any group, yet comes amid a sharp rise in ISIS activity in the troubled province. The group has taken advantage of a spate of factional and criminal feuds as well as rampant killings to gather strength in the province.

“Firas Al Ahmad was an important figure in providing official government media coverage of the situation in Deraa,” Aymenn Al Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, told The National.

“I am sure however that the main target for the attack was Mustafa Al Masalmeh, aka Al Kasm, who was a former rebel commander tied to the Military Security and had been working with it to combat ISIS cells in the area.”

Embers of war

Deraa has been gripped by a simmering insurgency since a Russian-backed reconciliation effort in 2018 restored the Syrian government's rule in the province.

However, the majority of former armed rebel groups and Free Syrian Army units have remained in the same towns and cities.

The Free Syrian Army was an umbrella group of secular and Islamist militia groups that took up arms in the wake of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Al Assad.

“I think it’s plausible the attack was the work of ISIS, though the only way to confirm that would be if they issue an official statement,” Mr Al Tamimi said.

“The group, however, has a policy of underreporting its attacks in Deraa for reasons of operational security.”

The Syrian military carried out an operation in October on several ISIS hideouts, killing at least six of its members, in response to the bombing of a military bus that killed 18 soldiers.

Despite many areas of the country seeing relative calm, the embers of Syria’s 12-year-long war that has killed half a million and displaced about 12 million, are still glowing in some parts of the country.

Deraa is riddled with attacks and daily reprisals: last week, a Syrian soldier and another man were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in the western countryside near Nowa.

The attack was left unclaimed and is one of thousands of similar incidents.

Government reprisals are expected in the wake of the latest attack, but a full-scale military operation that has been touted in the past seems off the current agenda.

Lingering violence

A likely reason for this is the lack of culprits: with so many assassinations and security incidents, intelligence services are overwhelmed by the lawlessness.

The people of Deraa witness daily shootings and attacks on both opposition and government officials, local leaders and loyalists alike. Deraa has essentially turned into Syria’s deadliest province.

Militia groups, government forces, drug traffickers, former rebels and mercenary gunmen have been engaged in a free-for-all of retaliations and killings over local feuds and drug trafficking.

In 2021 alone, there were a reported 508 assassinations attempts, killing 329, while the year 2020 saw 409 assassinations attempts with 269 deaths and 102 wounded – a staggering amount for a “reconciled” province, according to a local monitoring group.

Among the main causes are narcotics smuggling, particularly Captagon trafficking, as Deraa borders Jordan. It has been singled out by Jordanian authorities as a major conduit for the drug.

Syria and Jordan have agreed to boost efforts to prevent smuggling but the issue remains rife. In the past week alone, Jordan seized dozens of batches of Captagon at the Syrian border as Deraa’s instability begins to spill across its borders.

Updated: August 11, 2023, 4:39 AM