What’s going on in southern Syria (Daraa)?

The latest in a series of basic explainers about areas of Syria that hit the news.

What is ”southern Syria”?
Southern Syria is an area of the country up against the Israeli and Jordanian borders that’s currently home to around three quarters of a million people. It includes a sub-district called Quneitra to the west, part of a town and district called Daraa, and goes over toward another called Sweida in the east. The areas have been under armed opposition control in some respect since early in the conflict, with the exact lines of control moving during battles waged through the years.

Daraa became known as “the cradle of the revolution” at the beginning of the peaceful uprising. In March 2011, protests were provoked by the arrest of several children and teenagers for writing anti-Assad graffiti on a wall. The event became a pivotal event in the trajectory of the Syrian conflict when the protests were met with violence from government forces.

What’s going on there now?
The government of Syria and Russia have launched a military offensive to take the area back from armed opposition control. Over the last few days, they have regained control of several towns, and there have been reports of attacks on hospitals, as well as schools. A lot of people in southern Syria are Internally Displaced People (IDP) already, but the current offensive has displaced tens of thousands more. Both Jordan and Israel are stopping people that are fleeing the fighting from crossing the borders into their countries.

What’s so important about that area?
For Jordan and Israel, the area is significant because it borders their countries, and instability and mass displacement can spread over the border.

For the government of Syria (and Jordan) the area is significant because of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan. The crossing has been closed to commercial traffic since April 2015, and both countries are keen to resume trading.

For armed opposition, the area is significant because it marks one of only two significant areas that remain under their control.

But isn’t that a “de-escalation zone”?
Southern Syria is a “de-escalation zone” per the Astana agreement last year. However, the “de-escalation” agreement was primarily a delaying tactic, and two of the four “de-escalation” areas have been subject to military campaigns at a time of the government of Syria’s choosing. Southern Syria is one of the two remaining.

I thought America and Russia were involved in that one?
Yes. America and Russia agreed on the Southern Syria de-escalation zone July 2017. Many people thought this made the southern Syria agreement more robust than the others. The US has been putting out statements through the State Department saying they are concerned about the increasing violence in the area, but told armed opposition in the south that they wouldn’t back them up militarily via a message from the US embassy in Amman.

And Jordan and Israel? Iran?
Jordan and Israel have both been involved in discussions about the future of southern Syria because of their borders with the area. Israel demanded that Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah, were removed from the area ahead of any military campaign.

Why couldn’t they reach a deal?
It’s complicated. It has been evident for some time that there is little international appetite to enforce “de-escalation” militarily.

While external actors like the US and Jordan may have seen a deal as a logical step for the armed-opposition and Syrian civil society in the south to make, a deal is a zero-sum game for many living there. Returning to government control means a large number of people will have to evacuate the area, probably forever. A deal has no security or protection guarantees for those returning to government control, and many fear arrests and reprisals, as well as concerns about military conscription in the male population. Without any ability to push for a safer and fairer Syria under the government’s control, some feel that waging a military campaign and trying to push for a deal where the opposition has greater power is a better option.

Additionally, some within the area were trying to negotiate a deal with Russia, but there has been a wave of assassinations and assassination attempts against those negotiating deals.

What will happen now?
It is likely that the military campaign will continue until the government of Syria takes back control of the entire area. Smaller negotiations are continuing on the side, and it’s possible some areas will negotiate deals to limit the direct conflict violence wrought on their residents.

Won’t that be bad for civilians?
Yes. Very bad. As we saw in eastern Aleppo, eastern Ghouta, Raqqa, and elsewhere in Syria, large-scale military campaigns on densely populated civilian areas have a high toll. They kill and injure people, displace tens of thousands, result in damage to infrastructure and property that’s currently not on anyone’s agenda to fix, and traumatize a population that has already lived through seven years of conflict.

Will people be displaced?
Yes. So far 45–50,000 people have been displaced, according to the UN. This number is likely to increase. At this point, they have nowhere to go as the borders are closed. Additionally, if and when a deal is made, a significant number of people — armed opposition, political and civil opposition, aid workers, media workers, civilians and more — will likely be moved to Idlib, as we have seen in every area of the country that has suffered this fate since August 2016.

What’s going to happen to all these people who have been moved to Idlib?
Excellent question. Idlib will soon be the only “de-escalation” zone remaining. The population of Idlib is nearly 3 million, and over 1 million of those are IDPs, tens of thousands of whom have been moved there from across Syria since August 2016.. They have nowhere to go if a similar situation occurs there in the future. Turkey’s presence in Idlib now may prevent a full-scale military campaign on the area, but if one does take place, there is little doubt that it would be a humanitarian disaster the likes of which we cannot even imagine.

What can I do?
In the short-term, you can continue to donate to Syrian-focused NGOs, and push for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in your country.

In the long-term, you can ask your elected representatives to focus on the current international push to reinvigorate International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). A lot of what has happened in Syria is because the international mechanisms designed to protect civilians have been ignored, and there has been no accountability for those who have ignored them.

If you would like to know more about Syria, you can subscribe to the weekly briefing “Syria in Context”, written by Emma and her colleague Tobias Schneider.

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