Unrest in south-west Syria erupts into urban warfare

Pro-government forces have seized control of Sanamayn in Deraa, seen as the birthplace of the 2011 uprising in Syria

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A handout picture obtained from the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on February 20, 2020 shows a recovering Syrian Oxfam aid volunteer, wounded the previous day in an attack in Syria's southern province of Daraa, walking out of a hospital in the town of al-Yadudah after being discharged on February 19th. Oxfam said that two of the British aid group's local workers died in an attack yesterday in the government-held region of Daraa. The aid group said the two Syrian Oxfam aid workers were both killed when their vehicle was attacked by an unidentified armed group, adding that another Oxfam volunteer was also injured. -  == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SANA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==
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The Syrian government's recent military action against rebels in Deraa and a string of attacks targeting both sides has raised fears of a flare-up in a region considered to be the cradle of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Al Assad.

Pro-government forces seized control of the restive town of Sanamayn in Deraa province during an operation launched on March 1 and forcibly moved at least 25 former rebel fighters to the north of the country.

The attack triggered the first all-out urban warfare in Syria’s south-west since 2018, when the army and allied forces retook Deraa through a combination of military force and negotiated settlements.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights conflict monitor reported on March 3 that “fighters left Deraa [late the previous day] heading to north Syria under a deal, sponsored by Russia, to evacuate opposition fighters who refused to have their security situation settled with the Syrian regime”.

The government attack on Sanamayn blindsided many observers, coming at a time when its forces were suffering heavy losses in their offensive in the north-western Idlib region, the last major rebel enclave in Syria.

"To be honest, it was a surprise that they started the operation. It wasn't a good time," a former senior figure in the southern Free Syrian Army (FSA) told The National.

“Obviously the regime wanted to lift the morale of people after losing jets, losing soldiers [in north-western Syria] … to show that they’re managing, that the army is still strong. And they wanted to decrease the level of instability, because there were attacks in Sanamayn every week.”

As many as 30 rebels, pro-government fighters and civilians were reported to have died in the storming of Sanamayn, which involved tanks from the army’s Ninth Division. Videos posted on social media showed heavy fighting inside the city amid the rubble of bombed buildings.

The attack triggered a response across the province, including the setting up of roadblocks and assaults on security checkpoints. Rebels between the western Deraa towns of Tafas and Dael even reportedly conducted a daring daytime raid against an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint, kidnapping security officers in broad daylight.

Sanamayn, about 40 kilometres south of Damascus, reconciled with the government in December 2016 in a forerunner of the kind of Russian-brokered agreements that ultimately gave the Syrian government almost total control over the rest of Deraa in mid-2018.

According to a researcher who maintains contact with former rebels and local communities in Deraa, the deal stipulated that rebels could “remain armed and in control of the city, but would not launch any attacks against nearby regime locations” while the “regime would regain control of the nearby military sites, service provision and allow the flow of goods and services inside the city”.

A small band of local fighters partly led by Walid Al Zahraa, a rebel commander with ties to the Islamist faction Ahrar Al Sham, stayed on in a north-western corner of the town. Clashes eventually returned to Sanamayn and, in the weeks and months before this weekend’s operation, Sanamayn rebels and army units backed by government-linked security forces were more regularly engaging in tit-for-tat violence.

Since retaking Deraa, the Syrian army and its allies have been dealing with a low-level insurgency that has seen security officers, as well as reconciled rebels and reconciliation negotiators who rejoined the ranks of the Syrian government, targeted with assassinations, disappearances and bombings. Opposition-linked figures have also been targeted by the Syrian government's feared security branches.

Just last month, two Syrian volunteers for Oxfam were gunned down on a road near Daraa's Yadouda in the latest sign that the security situation in the province was deteriorating. And late last year, senior intelligence official Hussam Louqa was also appointed to a high-level Deraa security committee in a move seen as an attempt to quell the unrest.

Opposition supporters often point to the unrest in Deraa as signs of a renewed uprising. Confidence among rebel factions is much higher following Turkey’s devastating intervention against the government offensive in Idlib, where Ankara supports several armed groups.

According to Abu Fayez, an opposition activist from Sanamayn who moved to the north-west in 2018, Deraa has always had a very separate context.

When the Syrian army retook the area in mid-2018, “the factions melted away as if salt in water … prompting many young people to return as they were at the beginning of its revolution,” he said, referring to the widespread fear of repression from the authorities that existed in Syrian society before the 2011 uprising.

However, unlike in other recaptured territories, the government did not enforce the mass evacuation of civilians and surrendered fighters to the north-west, creating a different post-conflict environment in Deraa.

And while the Syrian government routinely claims that the capture of rebel-held areas is a sign of returning stability after nine long years of war, there are suggestions that pockets of unrest continue to survive — sometimes even deep in government-held territory.

On February 26, a bomb exploded outside the Baath Party headquarters in Qatana, a town in the western Damascus countryside, injuring an officer of the government-allied Palestinian Liberation Army.

The attack was only the most recent in a spate of unclaimed bombings in and around the Syrian capital in recent weeks. At least seven attacks, reported in the media or confirmed through sources, have targeted a combination of civilians and public sector employees as well as security officers and military installations on the outskirts of the capital. Several of the bombings were in the very heart of the capital.

Similar attacks in Damascus were previously claimed by rebel and hardline Islamist sleeper cells still operating within government-held territory. Last year, the Saraya Qassioun faction announced its formation and subsequently claimed a series of bombings targeting security officers within the capital. Similar so-called resistance groups have claimed similar attacks in other cities around the country, including Homs and Aleppo.

Last week, a pro-government checkpoint came under attack in the northern Homs countryside. The area has also seen a spate of attacks by self-styled "resistance" groups since fighting ended there in spring 2017.

Because there have been no claims for the latest bombings, observers suggest it cannot be ruled out that they may be the result of rivalry between pro-government actors including intelligence branches.

Still, pockets of resistance still exist across the south-west. One of them is Deraa Al Balad, the southern half of Deraa city where the 2011 anti-Assad uprising first began.

Since the launch of the pro-government operation in Sanamayn, Deraa Al Balad has seen protests against the government and reprisal attacks on security services.

The raid has raised questions about what will follow. The former FSA official said that while another armed rebellion is “very far from happening”, restive areas like Deraa Al Balad and the town of Tafas could see operations similar to the one in Sanamayn.

Abu Muhammad, an activist in Deraa Al Balad, is concerned. “If the regime continues on this path, the situation will only deteriorate further,” he said.

“The situation is critical now. And to be honest, I’m getting nervous.”