Security in southern Syria remains precarious six months after Russian mediation limited the violence as the regime took territory back from rebels, an International Crisis Group report says.
President Bashar Al Assad is determined to reclaim other areas of the war-torn country, but whether more bloodshed can be avoided through similar mediation will depend on how rebels regard the southern precedent, the report says.
More than 50 interviews conducted last December with rebel commanders, opposition groups, aid workers and residents in southern Syria suggest the southern arrangement has been a mixed blessing.
Since the regime retook control with Russia's help last July, it has reopened the roads to traffic and trade with the south.
Merchants no longer need to bring in supplies through extortionate checkpoints or smuggling routes, reducing prices of staple goods.
But the regime has also re-established authoritarian rule and groups aligned with Iran may be trying to establish a presence near the armistice line with Israel, the report found.
There has also been an increasing number of assassinations of former rebel leaders, with little clarity as to who is behind them. In some cases, circumstances suggest that state security agencies are the culprits, the think tank says.
If negotiated solutions are to prevent further bloodshed, they will require far better conditions to enable safe refugee returns and rebuilding.
They will also need more involvement from outside the country to prevent regime reprisals and allow aid to reach vulnerable populations.
Six months on, two principal factors still discourage displaced populations from returning. The first is the lack of functioning infrastructure, services and employment.
The regime’s restrictions on international aid access to the south limited the type and quality of assistance to the area’s poorest and most vulnerable, and led to thousands of southerners losing their jobs with non-government organisations.
The second factor is the evolving security situation. The regime arrested hundreds of formally cleared rebels and civilians with a track record of unarmed opposition.
The Russian presence lessened this behaviour, but people are anxious about the future because there is no clear indication of how long Moscow's engagement will last.
The arrests also suggest the reappearance of unaccountable security agencies with no clear co-ordination between them.
In Deraa, the cradle of the revolution that began in 2011, military intelligence issued clearance papers and removed people from wanted lists it uses at its checkpoints.
But air force intelligence, political security and state security may not have received the updates on people who have been cleared. As a result, clearance papers do not provide any guarantee that their bearer will not be arrested.
A former rebel interviewed by the group said he was arrested when he went to military intelligence to register his new-born daughter, despite having clearance papers.
“They asked if I knew about hidden weapons and ammunition," he said. "They kept me for a week, after which I was released with help from my father who had gone to a Russian officer who made phone calls to get me released."
Russian officers often intervene but cannot in cases where people are apprehended as suspects in crimes perpetrated during the conflict.
This creates a loophole that security agencies can use to target former rebels or opposition activists, the report found.
A public employee in Deraa told the ICG that “the Syrian government wants to have full control of Deraa, more even than before 2011”.
Residents in the south also reported a covert presence of Iran-aligned fighters in state security forces, which suggests that the area could become yet another flashpoint in the confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria.
Some southerners, especially opposition supporters, say Iran and the forces it backs – in particular the Lebanese Hezbollah – have been quietly expanding their influence in the south since the government’s return.
They say Hezbollah and Iran are recruiting locals and building a base in the Lajat area in north-eastern Deraa.
There they run training camps to place the fighters in the state’s Iran-friendly branches, such as the army’s 4th Armoured Division and air force intelligence.
These groups offer better pay than the Russian-sponsored 5th Corps, greater protection from security agencies and a guarantee not to be sent to other fronts in Syria.
The locals say they also receive better food and equipment than regular units.
Iran is also reportedly reaching out to residents of the south-west. Israel has expressed concern about Iran-backed fighters seeking to infiltrate the south amid Syrian security forces.
Russia has taken steps to reassure Israel and aid a return to the pre-war status quo in Syria’s south-west, but accounts of an expanding Iranian role in the region seem to contradict those assurances.
The ICG said negotiated solutions would have to provide assurances that ease the tension over regional rivalries.
A senior Israeli official told the think tank: “So far, we have managed to target Iran’s presence without provoking an uncontrolled escalation. That is quite an achievement.
"But Iran seems willing to absorb the blows and keep trying to expand its presence. At some point, one of us could miscalculate. And then all bets would be off.”