Syria's Assad regime and its Russian allies are leading a new campaign against the city of Daraa in the country's south, the wellspring of the Syrian revolution. Since June 25, several neighborhoods in the province have been placed under a brutal siege aimed at exerting pressure on its residents in revenge for their popular movement against the presidential election held last May.
The election, which the regime declared Bashar to have won with sweeping figures, was widely deemed to be illegitimate, with many citizens choosing to boycott in order to register their dissatisfaction.
Along with the security restrictions imposed on Daraa's neighborhoods (including the eastern district of Tareeq Al-Sadd), its refugee camp, IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps and farms close to the area, the siege suffocates 11,000 families or 50,000 people according to activists’ and journalists’ estimates.
Hassan Al-Hariri, President of the Syrian Council for Change and a member of the opposition on the country's Constitutional Committee, confirmed in an email interview with Global Voices that many areas in Daraa are now experiencing a tightening of the siege by the forces of Assad's regime, as punishment for the city's rejection of the election process and its outcome. This rejection, he said, was significant since it happened not just in the city center, but also in the area's eastern and western countrysides. The result was a failed election in the whole governorate, said activists, — an unprecedented occurrence in the history of the Assad regime (both father and son).
The Syrian right activist Ahmad Abazeid tweeted:
صور من السواتر الترابية التي رفعتها قوات النظام على مداخل #درعا_البلد
بدأت إجراءات الحصار وقطع الطرق منذ 24 حزيران الحالي، بعد ضغوط روسية وطلب تسليم السلاح الخفيف من الأهالي #فكوا_الحصار_عن_درعا_البلد pic.twitter.com/JDqWMX62B9
— أحمد أبازيد (@abazeid89) June 29, 2021
Images of the mounds of sand which forces of the Assad regime erected at the entrance of Daraa Al-Balad
The blockade and road closures began on June 24 after the Russians’ pressure and their demand that the people of Daraa surrender their light weapons
Speaking to Mohammad [pseudonym used for security reasons], a member of the Central Committee of Daraa assigned to negotiate with the Assad regime and Russia, Global Voices learned that the targeting of Daraa began immediately after the elections. It gradually became a total siege, he said, that included the closure of roads—with security barriers and earthen berms—leading to the neighborhoods of Daraa and Tareeq Al-Sadd, except for a single outlet at which military security forces are stationed, where they exert pressure, issue threats, and detain and kidnap civilians.
Describing the humanitarian situation there, Al-Jazeera correspondent Omar Al-Hourani wrote:
Provocations and security procedures
Mohammad said that the Assad regime is standing behind this escalation with the support of Russia, which has assumed the role of the guarantor in the 2018 settlement agreement negotiations, under which the regime gained control of Daraa. According to Mohammad, Russia supervised the recent escalations, led by Chechen general Assad Allah, who was put in charge of the operations in southern Syria two months ago.
As far as the Central Committee goes, Mohammad said it has resisted entry of the Assad regime's army for inspection purposes, and rejected its demand for weapons to be relinquished:
What remained of weapons are for personal use by some individuals. There are no longer any weapons left after the dissolution of the opposition factions and them handing over their weapons under the Settlement Agreement in exchange for the agreed conditions of the army withdrawing from cities and villages, the release of detainees, the lifting of the security grip and the return of employees to their jobs. However, none of these terms have been met.
The military escalation was expected, he said, especially after the deployment of security personnel and the threat of warplanes flying over the area. Nevertheless, negotiations continued with the Russian general, in which residents confirmed that their weapons were not for warfare purposes, but for self-defense. “We do not want war, we want security and stability,” he added.
The ‘politically useful Syria’
Geopolitically, southern Syria's strategic position is very important. Al-Hariri calls it the “politically useful Syria” due to its sharing of borders with more than one Arab state, most importantly Palestine.
Since the Assad regime regained control over southern Syria within the framework of the 2018 settlement agreement, it has launched, along with Moscow, numerous military campaigns and continued threats of escalations in Daraa governorate. There have been no humanitarian or security improvements; rather, the region has experienced violence, arrests, and assassinations over the past three years. Naba News, citing the Martyrs’ Documentation Office—an independent entity that monitors regime and pro-regime violations in southern Syria—reported that 173 people have been killed and 75 others wounded, with nearly 279 assassinations being documented in the first half of 2021, most of them in western Daraa.
Under Syria's dire economic conditions, the siege has exacerbated the humanitarian situation. Lawrence Abu-Adam, a journalist based in the besieged area, told Global Voices that living conditions are plummeting. Referring to the worsening of the health situation after severe shortages of essential items and the closure of the only roads leading to the city's hospitals and medical centers, he called the situation “tragic”. He also said that journalists working in the besieged areas are receiving threats and, after the Assad regime included their names on assassination and terrorism lists, their lives are in danger.
As a result, calls for solidarity with Daraa have grown worldwide. One was made by German-based Syrian doctor Maysoun Berkdar:
Ten years ago, Daraa gave us the right to talk. Give it a voice today. Daraa is besieged and threatened.
Using the #break_the_siege_on_Daraa hashtag, many Arab and Syrian activists and journalists have launched social media campaigns in solidarity with Daraa. Others have organized calls for peaceful demonstrations demanding the lifting of the blockade.
Palestinian journalist Mona Hawwa tweeted:
درعا تبعد عن القدس مسافة 3 ساعات و20 دقيقة بالعربة، تبعد مسافة أغنيتين لأم كلثوم، وصرخة.. في عالم آخر كان يمكن في نفس اليوم أن نأكل المليحي في حوران ونشرب القهوة مع الكنافة في نابلس. درعا المهد والحب المسكوت عنه والصرخة اليتيمة. باسمها وباسم أحرار الأرض من فلسطين، هنا #درعا.
— مُنى حوّا • Muna Hawwa (@MunaHawwa) June 28, 2021
Daraa is three hours and 20 minutes away from Jerusalem by car, (that's equal to two songs by [Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum and a cry). In another world, on the same day, we could eat Al-Malehi in Horan and drink coffee with Kunafa in Nablus. Daraa is the cradle, the unspoken love, and an orphaned cry. In her name and in the name of the free people of the land from Palestine, here is #Daraa.
Efforts and appeals
Internationally, states that have been involved in the Syrian issue have remained silent regarding the current events. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition, through various bodies and institutions, has appealed to the international community to intervene in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Al-Hariri's France-based Syrian Council for Change has met directly with several political figures to press for a decisive stance on the situation, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition has addressed foreign humanitarian organizations and international policy-makers.
In defiance of the regime and as an expression of steadfastness, demonstrations took place in Daraa al-Balad on July 2, the ninth day of the siege. Various parts of the country—including several villages in northwestern Idlib—also joined in the demonstrations, calling for the lifting of the siege and the downfall of the Assad regime:
— Omar Alhariri (@omar_alharir) July 2, 2021
With beautiful cheers, Daraa's protests continue amidst threats by the regime to storm the city. #Daraa_the_cradle _of_the_revolution