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Jean-Pierre Perrin Jean-Pierre Perrin
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Bachar al-Assad won in Daraa: what’s next after the battle?

A man gestures as he rides a motorbike in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018 Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

 

Jean-Pierre Perrin, former senior reporter at the french daily Libération, analyzes the new challenges that Bashar Al Assad faces after the fall of Daraa, one of the last strongholds of the Syrian opposition.

 A devastating defeat for the Syrian opposition. It has just lost the city of Daraa and a large part of the governorate of the same name. It was one of the last large Syrian regions not to have been taken by Bashar al-Assad. The defeat is both strategic and symbolic. On the one hand, the rebellion loses both the Jordanian border's control and its proximity to the Golan Heights. And Daraa, the provincial capital, is the birthplace of the popular uprising in March 2011, which morphed into a civil war from the summer of the same year.

This defeat also marks the end of the Southern Front, the more moderate component of the rebellion, which had the support of Jordan and the United States.

Because of the endless horrors committed on both sides, and even as the army of Bashar al-Assad (and his Russian and Iranian allies) end up taking most of the cake, we often forget how the uprising began. It was by an act of evil committed precisely in Daraa: the arrest of fifteen children – up to 26 of them, according to some sources – aged 7 to 13 years old, who, inspired perhaps by the "Arab Spring" who were then rising, had graffitied the walls with anti-regime slogans. They were then tortured so violently that one could hear their cries rise above the walls of the detention center. Chieftains and some parents went to meet with local political security chief Atef Najib, suggesting turning themselves in in exchange for the children's freedom. Najib (who happens to be Bashar Al-Assad's cousin) flatly refused, joining insult to injury by suggesting to those who had come begging for his clemency to forget their children and "go home to their wives. They will give you more. And if you are not able to father children, bring them to us. We will take care of that."  The Patriarch who led the delegation then laid his hatta (a type of Bedouin turban) on Najib's desk. The war was on. Not so much because of the tortured children, but for the insult proffered against the wives – ergo, to the honor of the tribe. Demonstrations were to follow, accompanied by shootings by anti-riot forces, and increasingly violent repression. The gears were in motion.

The Assad regime has not forgotten this first chapter. The watchword now given to soldiers is to seek vengeance for the years of fighting they had to suffer: "this is where the fitna [conflict in the highest religious sense] began. Let us now bury it.  The repression, therefore, promises to be a terrible one.

Yet, unlike Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta and many other places, Daraa did not resist the thrust of the loyalist forces and their Russian and Iranian allies. However, it was expected that the city would fight to the end, as is the case currently in the large nearby village of Tafas, which is part of the same governorate, where fighters still resist despite heavy shelling by Russian Air Forces. Without a doubt, this is out of a concern to protect the population and to prevent the systematic destruction that accompanied the recapture of other rebel territories. And, according to Michel Kilo, a famous historic regime opponent in exile today in Paris, there was also "the promise from Moscow that the population of the city would be respected, that it would be treated differently from other regions which were in the hands of Islamist insurgents" as part of a "de-escalation agreement" that Russian generals have already concluded in the past with several other rebel regions. An agreement that is also ideal for Russia at the time of the World Cup, when devastating images of a siege would have been bad press.  Yet, according to Kilo, this promise was not kept by the Assad regime, which as sent its men ahead of the deployment of the Russian military police, as was the case during previous de-escalation agreements.

Following this victory, the last rebel stronghold for Bashar al-Assad remains the Turkey-bordering province of Idlib, which is largely under the control of the Islamist armed groups, including the terrifying Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian Al-Qaeda faction).  Also out of reach for the regime is the vast semi-desert region stretching East of the Euphrates, with notably contains the city of Raqqa and represents some 30% of the Syrian territory. It is currently controlled by the US Army and its Kurdish allies.

But the most important battle that Bashar al-Assad must now carry out is elsewhere. Having won the war, he is sure to remain in power, at least for a while. But the Russians, who have saved his regime, require of him that he organize the departure of the Iranians – who would have, with the militia of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani, some 65,000 men in Syria – or at least shrink their influence. It is in part Israel that pushed in this direction by presenting the risks of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation on Syrian territory.  It is also the requirement of the United States and other less important actors, such as the Arab States of the Gulf, and some European countries. So, what will the Syrian dictator do? It is the fundamental question of the “post-battle of Daraa” era.

07/12/2018

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Smoke rises from al-Harak town, as seen from Deraa countryside, Syria June 25, 2018. Alaa al-Faqir/Reuters