In Daraa, the regime returns to war

4 AUGUST 2021
People fleeing the shelling of neighbourhoods in Daraa. Photo via @freedom4daraa on Twitter.

Last Friday we received this voice message from a doctor in Daraa, sent to us by WhatsApp:

Hello. The medical situation in Daraa is very difficult. The sole clinic that was serving people is closed because of regime shelling, and all the roads leading to it have snipers.

We already had significant shortages even before the latest attacks. We were completely depleted of medical resources, medicines, tools and equipment. We didn’t have anything.

There was a charity that promised to provide us with some of our needs. But the shelling started, and they didn’t provide us with any of our needs, any medicines or ways to treat patients.

Now, there is no medical care.

We have established a new medical point away from the areas under attack, but we are just putting bandages on, changing bandages on wounds.

All the long term illnesses, we can’t treat, and we don’t have the necessary medications, including anti inflammation, antibiotics and painkillers. All medicines required for long term diseases are completely lacking as well.

This crisis that the doctor describes is taking place within sight of the Jordanian border. But the border is now closed to aid, closed to the wounded, closed to families fleeing bombing. The UK has an immediate opportunity to help alleviate civilian suffering through its local ally.

Daraa’s decade

There is war again in Daraa. Assad regime forces and pro-regime Iranian militia are again inflicting siege, artillery and air bombardment on Daraa’s neighbourhoods.

Daraa city is in the very south of Syria. Its suburbs reach up to the border with Jordan. This is where Assad regime forces first opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in 2011, killing people in the street, and igniting the Syrian revolution.

After the revolution turned into full scale war, Daraa was for several years under the control of Free Syrian Army opposition groups. These groups were supported by the US government and its allies with training and arms via Jordan from late 2012 on.

In 2018, the Syrian regime together with Russian military forces regained nominal control of Daraa under a deal which gave a degree of autonomy to locals. The 2018 deal had an international aspect, where the Russian government as guarantors undertook to keep Assad’s other ally Iran out of the area. In return, the US and allies withdrew backing for the armed opposition in Daraa.

With their new offensive in Daraa, the Assad regime and its Iranian backers are now tearing up that deal by force.

There has been very little international attention given to Syria in the last year. Some, such as the Danish government which wants to pressure refugees to return, have indulged in the fantasy that the Syrian war is over. But every year since the war started someone or other has been saying it’s all over, and every year they have been proven wrong.

Previous years have shown that the Assad regime is incapable of achieving stability through force. This year, the collapse of the Daraa settlement is demonstrating Putin’s failure to secure stability.

A voice from Daraa

Later on Friday, we spoke to Sara in Daraa. She identifies herself as an aid activist and a media spokesperson. Sara is not her real name. We started by asking her, what is happening in Daraa now?

“The regime has besieged the area for a month now,” Sara said. 

“Three days ago the regime was shelling Daraa Al-Balad, the southern part of Daraa city, as well as Mukhayyam—The Camp. They also stopped the entry of any medical or food supplies.

“Fifty thousand civilians  are being besieged right now, including women, children and elderly. Medical supplies, infant milk, food and diapers are starting to run out from shops and from people’s homes.

“We had a single medical care clinic. It was bombed and snipers were positioned around it. So it’s not providing any services anymore. This was just a very basic medical clinic. It wasn’t equipped to treat victims of bombardment. We have a lot of civilians injured because of the shelling. We also need treatment for those with long term illnesses like heart conditions, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and those with kidney disease.

“When the road was open to the National Hospital, people who needed hospital treatment went there. People only went to the local medical clinic if they had something really simple to be treated.

“We were not besieged then. Daraa was open, but the regime forces were not allowed in. You could say that we had independent governance. Let me give you an idea about the area, Daraa Al-Balad, Al-Sad, and Mukhayyam. It’s under the control of the opposition. The regime forces were forbidden from coming inside. And this was agreed on in the 2018 settlement. 

“The people here kept their end of the agreement. And it’s been three years. It was calm. There was no bombardment. There was not a complete sense of security, but people living in this area felt a little bit of safety, because we were mostly out of regime hands. The regime did try to harass civilians, especially by detaining young men on checkpoints. But a calm persisted until this recent escalation.

“When Assad’s election happened, I’m sure you’ve heard, the whole of Houran—which is another local name for Daraa—Houran refused to participate in the election. There was no ballot box in all of Houran. And this is when the shelling started. The regime wants to force the people of Daraa to submit to its control.”

Evacuate the wounded

We asked Sara about civilians who have been injured in the bombardment. She said that their injuries are really severe.

“Yesterday there was someone who was injured and he needs an urgent surgery to have both his legs. We have no idea what to do, where to take him. Even if we had medical supplies, we can only treat very basic injuries. We can’t do operations. We can’t handle it.”

We asked whether it might be possible to evacuate injured civilians across the border, if the Jordanian government allowed access?

Sara explained that the area between the Jordanian border and Daraa city centre is Daraa Al-Balad. The border area west of that is Tal Shihab, and to the east is Nassib. “If they want to avoid Daraa Al-Balad, because that area has been under severe bombardment, the injured could be evacuated through the Nassib border crossing,” she said.

We asked Sara if she was afraid of a long term siege?

“Of course. A siege is death,” she said.

“We are afraid the regime will enter and commit massacres. They will kill the people. I’m sure you know, when the regime enters an area there is no mercy. No woman, no child, no baby, can receive mercy.

“We are calling for this military campaign to stop, and for us not to be forced to submit to the regime’s new conditions. And if that can’t happen, we want to be displaced. All of us, displace all of us, all the people of Daraa.

“We’ve been asking for this since day one of the latest military campaign. We want fifty thousand civilians to be taken outside of Syria to somewhere safe.”

We asked Sara if she thought this was a realistic demand? 

“Is what’s happening to us now realistic or logical?” Sara responded.

“We are being attacked by monsters with no reason. There is no reason for the regime to come and bomb an area of fifty thousand civilians. It has been non-stop from eight in the morning to ten at night. People have died. People have been injured. Is this realistic?

“If we are not allowed to live in our home safely with our dignity, it’s better for us to leave. All of us. A mass migration, a mass displacement. This is what we demand. If they can’t stop the attack on us, we want to be displaced.

“Just allow fifty thousand people to go to safety. Because everyone is watching. All these nations around the world are watching us. Nobody is doing anything. We’ve been asking them for a month.

“We are people of peace. We are not people of war. When the settlement happened, we agreed to conditions that were unfair. But we wanted to stop the bloodshed. And after the siege began, the Central Committee had said it was better to try to get an agreement and to implement it. Better than seeing people suffering. But we were betrayed by the regime. On the first day we started implementing the agreement, the regime betrayed us and bombed us.

“They surprised us with the entry of militias like the Radwan militia, Iranian and Shia militias, the Fourth Division, the Ninth Division, and the National Arab Guard. This is documented. You can see pictures of them. This is all over social media.”

The people of Daraa

We asked Sara to tell us more about the role of the Central Committee. 

“They are local people from Daraa, civilians, a lawyer, a doctor, a retired army officer,” Sara explained. 

“Their task was to communicate with the regime when it was needed. They were supervising the rebuilding of infrastructure, the return of water, the return of communication and phone networks, how aid was entering and being distributed to people. They were controlling the area, especially young men who had deserted the regime army and who had got a deal with the regime. The Central Committee made sure they didn’t break the terms of the agreements, so that no violation happened from our side that might give the regime any excuses.”

Daraa is a city that was already suffering hardship. Under the 2018 settlement, people were supposed to be allowed to return to their work, but most people in government employment lost their jobs, Sara tells us. Only a very small number were allowed  back. “You could count them on one hand,” she says. So some worked as day labourers. Some as drivers of taxis, or vans and trucks. But this was before the roads were closed. Most people have been living day to day. People who have relatives outside of Syria rely on them sending money.

“Ten years of war had wiped out all our infrastructure,” Sara says. “After 2018, there was some sort of rebuilding, some rehabilitation of the area. And every three or four months, aid from the UN would enter Daraa, the food baskets, which I’m sure are familiar to you.”

These UN aid convoys were coming from Damascus, and so were subject to regime permission to reach Daraa. Were the food baskets enough, we asked? 

“Of course not,” Sara replies. 

“Do you know what the contents of the basket was? It had six bottles of cooking oil, five kilos of sugar, two kilos of lentils, two kilos of chickpeas, and rice—but it was inedible, really bad. The aid baskets were only very basic food essentials, every three or four months. How would this be enough for a family? It could last for a month or so. But people can’t live just on that. Can you live just on that?”

A message for the UK government

Did Sara have any direct message to the British government?

“To be honest, the British government used to help us a lot. I worked in a lot of organisations funded by the UK government, Syrian civil society organisations, the White Helmets, and Halo Trust, I used to work there as an employee. 

“But the UK government has a very negative role on the whole. If they wanted, they could put pressure on Jordan, either to provide us with a path to seek asylum, or at least to get the injured evacuated.

“The British government could still help the Syrian people because it’s a great nation and it has its way in the region. But it’s not doing so.”

“The thing I really want to say is how much bitterness I have inside. The international community, the humanitarian organisations, they know what’s happening. They have known for the last ten years. And they did nothing. They didn’t help us.

“And maybe they couldn’t. I don’t know the reason why they’re not helping. But we did reach out. We did make our voices heard. We’ve been making our voices heard since day one.

“We don’t have trust in them anymore. That’s what is heartbreaking. We have no trust whatsoever. They all could put a stop to the regime’s aggression. But they are all just watching.”

Did Sara think that Russia’s role as the guarantor of the 2018 agreement had been successful? 

“No,” she said. 

“No, because they’re not a true guarantor. They have no role in what’s happening right now. They completely vanished. The Russians stood in front of one hundred and twenty world nations and said they were going to guarantee the safety of this area. They were going to bring peace and nobody was going to be attacked or harassed. That was the agreement. Where are they now? Where is the Russian guarantor? 

“Here, every nation that has an interest works to its own agenda. Iran is doing its own thing, the regime is doing its own thing, and Russia is doing its own thing. In this latest escalation, Russia is just watching and doing nothing. What is the meaning of being a guarantor if they are going to do nothing? If you can’t control the area, if you can’t control the other forces, why are you playing the role of a guarantor? We have kept our end of the deal. We didn’t break any of these conditions. The only people who broke was the regime side. And the Russians know that. 

“Until now, the Russians are just watching us being attacked. It seems to us that they have left the door open to the Iranians. You know that the Russian guarantor, before the latest escalation, threatened us that if we don’t comply, they are going to allow Shia militia to come, Iranian militia?”

Sara said that members of the Central Committee were threatened when they were negotiating with the Russian general. “He said I’m going to bring Shia militia to fight you,” she said. “That’s why things escalated. This happened a month ago.” And this threat was issued personally to members of the committee? “Yes,” she said. “Yes, to them personally.”

We asked Sara why she thought that Iranian militias were interested in Daraa? 

“Because they want to do what they want to complete their Shia crescent project,” she explained. 

“I’m sure Iran works on long term plans. They want to occupy the whole Arab region. They want Daraa, because Daraa is a crossing toward Jordan and toward Saudi Arabia. This is an international political issue. It’s not just about Daraa. But people outside of Syria don’t understand that. They don’t understand that what’s happening in Daraa is going to affect other nations.

“Iran, if they could, would displace the whole of the Syrian people and replace them with people from Iran. They would be happy to do it. Exactly as they did in Ghouta.”

Cross-border aid

The last Syria event to catch some international attention was the debate at the UN Security Council in early July over cross-border delivery of UN aid. A resolution on the 9th of July authorised the continued use of a single route for UN aid, the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey to opposition-held Idlib province in northwest Syria, far from Daraa. This was the latest in a series of Security Council resolutions on cross-border aid that have come in response to Assad regime restrictions on humanitarian access.

The Assad regime was first seen to be restricting humanitarian aid access in April 2011 when its army first laid siege to Daraa. At that point popular protests had been continuing for over a month, and the number of protesters reported killed by regime forces was already in the hundreds. For at least eleven days, the residents of Daraa were deprived of food and water from outside.

The Assad regime’s siege strategy expanded over the following years, to a scale not fully understood by international agencies. In its March 2015 report, Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities Under Siege, the Syrian American Medical Society estimated that more than 640,200 people were then living under long-term siege in Syria, more than three times the number given at the time by UN OCHA.

By February 2016, Siege Watch, a research project backed by the Dutch peace organisation PAX, showed that there were well over 1,000,000 Syrians under siege. These sieges involved not just cutting humanitarian access, but also attacks targeting populated areas with artillery and air bombardment.

Against this background, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions calling for unobstructed humanitarian access.

Resolution 2139 in February 2014 demanded an end to “all attacks against civilians,” including “shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs,” and called on “all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas,” and also demanded that “all parties allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival.”

But with no enforcement of Resolution 2139, the bombing and the sieges continued. Resolution 2165 in July 2014 responded by institutionalising a system for cross-border aid, deciding that UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners were “authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use.” The authorisation was renewed in resolutions every year up to December 2018.

The use of these crossings meant that border areas outside Assad regime control were able to receive UN aid without the regime being able to block deliveries. Besieged areas further inside Syria that were surrounded by Assad forces weren’t so lucky. The Assad regime delayed and blocked aid deliveries from the UN’s Damascus hub to besieged areas in the suburbs of Damascus, in the hills near the Lebanese border, in the suburbs and countryside of Homs and Hama, and in eastern Aleppo city. Restrictions on aid were accompanied by Assad regime attacks on agriculture, water supplies, hospitals, and on populated areas as a whole.

In the first half of 2016, the UK government led in pressuring for unfettered humanitarian access to besieged areas, calling for humanitarian airdrops if the Assad regime didn’t allow full access by land. Despite initial indications that the UK might carry out manned or unmanned airdrops, following the Brexit vote UK government engagement waned. The Assad regime tightened sieges from 2016 on, forcing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from these areas, mostly to northwest Syria.

In 2019, after the Assad regime had regained nominal control in Daraa, the Russian government refused to agree to further renewals of the original list, threatening to use its power of veto at the Security Council. Resolution 2504 in January 2020 reduced the list to two border crossings in the north, Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa, for six months only. Resolution 2533 in July 2020 renewed only the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for one year. This year, China and Russia refused to even participate in a negotiating session, and only the single crossing at Bab al-Hawa was renewed.

At the same time as the Security Council was voting to renew the mandate for use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing last month, the Assad regime had already begun its latest siege in Daraa. With the UN no longer doing cross-border aid deliveries in the south, the Assad regime is again able to block aid deliveries from the UN’s Damascus hub, and has been refusing entry to World Food Programme deliveries.

Legal experts argue however that a Security Council mandate is not required for cross-border aid deliveries to take place. The UN could approve cross-border aid via the General Assembly, and individual states can legally deliver aid across the border to Daraa if UK ally Jordan allows access.