The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Escalating violence in strategic Syrian city belies Assad’s claim that he’s in control

The sun sets over a rebel-held area in the southwestern Syrian city of Daraa on April 20, 2018. (MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Violence has erupted in recent weeks in a strategic Syrian city with government forces and former rebels clashing amid a wave of assassinations, revealing the difficulty President Bashar al-Assad faces in maintaining control over areas he says he has pacified.

The southwestern city of Daraa is considered the cradle of the Syrian revolution because it is where the first anti-government demonstration broke out in 2011. Seven years later, after peaceful protests had turned into a devastating civil war, Russian-backed Syrian forces recaptured Daraa, raised the national flag and introduced a program of “reconciliation” with rebel fighters.

But dissent continued to simmer in Daraa, even as government forces took their battle to other fronts. And the turmoil of recent weeks has become the latest challenge to Assad’s authority, which was already under pressure from a crippling economic crisis and growing dissension within the ranks of his traditional allies.

Tensions in Daraa spiked last month after gunmen attacked the car of a prominent rebel leader who had continued to voice opposition to the government even after Assad’s forces recaptured the area. The former commander, Adham al-Karad, and four of his companions were killed, sparking weeks of violence, according to opposition media reports corroborated by monitoring groups, analysts and social media posts.

Under pressure, Assad agreed to release 62 people who had been arrested for “incidents in the province,” the pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported two weeks ago.

But days later, the army’s Fourth Division, which is headed by Assad’s brother Maher, rolled into southern Daraa in search of wanted men, provoking clashes with former rebel fighters who later shut down roads leading to the city to prevent the military’s advance, local pro-opposition media reported. Days later, an air force intelligence checkpoint in a nearby town was attacked, prompting the Fourth Division to try to storm Daraa and triggering a battle with former rebels.

This month, at least nine former rebels who had agreed to join the Syrian army and seven others who had returned to civilian life were killed, according to Mohammed al-Sharaa, a member of the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office. The assailants were unknown, with suspicion falling in turn on government forces seeking to settle scores with former adversaries; opposition loyalists who feel betrayed by former comrades; and even Islamic State militants.

Reliable information about developments in Syria is often scarce because of the government’s tight media controls and widespread fear of the police state. But the documentation office, a Belgium-based monitoring group, has sought to chronicle the rising toll, reporting that 193 former rebel fighters who had put down their weapons have been slain in Daraa since government forces retook the city in July 2018, with the pace of killings accelerating each year. More than 200 other civilians have been killed, some under torture, the group reported.

These troubles in no way suggest that the civil war is turning against Assad. His military has reclaimed much of the territory that had been lost at the height of the insurgency, and rebel fighters are now bottled up in one remaining enclave in northwestern Syria. Nor is there any other obvious contender for the presidency of the country, ruled by the Assad family for 50 years.

But the unrest in Daraa comes at a time when Assad has been confronting the biggest challenges to his power since Syrians first rose up against him in 2011, including strains over the past year within his family and with his crucial Russian allies.

Syria’s Assad is confronting the toughest challenges of the 9-year war

The violence in Daraa is also eroding the image Assad has tried to portray as he urges Syrians who fled the country to return home to government-controlled territory. He has promised that no harm will befall those who come back. But many Syrian refugees remain skeptical, aware of reports that some who’ve returned have disappeared or died in custody.

During an international conference in Damascus this month, Syrian officials discussed steps they were taking to welcome returning refugees and blamed the regional Arab media for painting too negative a picture.

The Syrian government’s “proclaimed military victory and the physical return of its institutions does not mean the restoration of security and stability,” said Abdullah al-Jabassini, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “The situation in Daraa contradicts the ‘return of the state’ ideal narrative.”

Not only does Assad’s government continue to face violent opposition, Jabassini said, but it has yet to show that it can exercise meaningful control of the territory it has recaptured. The continuing turmoil in Daraa is fueled by a range of factors, he said, including unresolved grievances and score-settling, an unusually high number of former rebels, an abundance of available weapons, and local anger over the presence of fighters from Iranian militias and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which are aligned with Assad.

Daraa’s significance goes beyond symbolism. Daraa city is just north of Syria’s border with Jordan, and the province of the same name hosts a strategic border crossing. Two months after the city was recaptured by Assad’s forces, the government reopened the crossing to both people and commerce, seeking to swiftly restore a once highly profitable trade route after it was blocked for several years.

The weeks-long battle over Daraa was exceptionally fierce. After the opposition was defeated, some rebels chose to pack up and pile into the now-infamous green buses dispatched by the government to relocate fighters and their families to Idlib, a rebel-held enclave in the northwest of Syria.

Other fighters chose to stay. Some accepted reconciliation deals, with many joining the Syrian army’s Russian-sponsored Fifth Corps, created ostensibly to fight the Islamic State. Soon after, the government announced nearly 1,000 reconciliation deals struck in Daraa in a single day.

The pro-government media has trumpeted such reconciliation deals, saying they “preserve blood and return those who have lost their way to the homeland’s embrace.” But unlike in some other recaptured areas of Syria where former insurgents have been offered these agreements, the deals in Daraa did not put an end to resistance. Many former rebel commanders and fighters have remained openly defiant of the government.

Karad, the rebel leader assassinated last month, was one such commander. Even after the city fell, he continued to speak of revolution and criticized Iran and Russia, Assad’s biggest backers.

“We are rebels from the city that is the cradle of the revolution. We succumbed to reconciliation under international pressure, and we have not abandoned our cause,” he said in a Facebook post after surviving an assassination attempt last year.

In death, he leaves behind a 1-year-old son, named Saladin. On Facebook, Karad had written that he hoped God would allow his son to emulate the legendary Islamic commander who fought the Crusaders in the 12th century.

Nader Durgham contributed to this report.

Deaths of Syrian mercenaries show how Turkey, Russia could get sucked into Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Coronavirus is out of control in Syria, no matter what the government says

No sign Trump’s Syria outreach has made progress on missing Americans