February 19, 2021

Settlement pacts in Syria’s Daraa: A hunt for dissidents

Dissidents argue the agreement is the regime’s way of retaliating

A child plays near his house, destroyed by Syrian jets, in the city of Daraa. Photo by Okba Mohammed. Used with permission

Listen, this settlement of yours is worthless. It’s just a smart way for the State to distinguish civilians from armed militants.”

These were the last words an officer in the Special Tasks branch at Mazzeh airport in Damascus said to activist Zaid al-Haraki (who uses this alias to conceal his identity from the Syrian regime) before the officer began torturing him.

After the war ended in South Syria, members of the opposition agreed in July 2018 to the terms of a settlement sponsored by the Russian Military Police, which supports Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad. Left with no other choice, they thought that doing so would protect them from the regime’s security forces, which had recaptured the region.

According to the settlement, displaced Syrians could return to their cities and the Syrian regime was obliged to release hundreds of detainees, address mandatory military service issues, reduce arrests and violations, as well as improve services in those areas. Under the settlement, members of the opposition and defectors from the regime would also have the right to remain in Daraa and other regions, provided they surrendered their weapons.

However, more than two years after the agreement, the settlement has failed to achieve its goal of ridding the towns bordering Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories from any regime-supporting Iranian presence. Moreover, regime forces have failed to fully enforce its influence in the governorate of Daraa.

The city, which was the cradle of the Syrian revolution, continues to experience chaos and insecurity as clashes between regime forces and the remaining opposition pockets continue, with multiple assassinations, instance of torture incidents and other violations being committed against the opposition, and a complete absence of protective measures or supervision over the parties’ implementation of the terms of the agreement.

Al-Haraki, a native to Daraa, told GV: “I was headed to the city of Izra’a on 14 April 2019 carrying the settlement card which I thought was an official document that allowed me to move around freely and safely. Suddenly, a vehicle of the Syrian regime’s Air Force Intelligence department kidnapped me in Al-Hirak city, East of Daraa.”

Al-Haraki continues: “I was taken to the Special Tasks branch located at Mazzeh airport in Damascus. There, they interrogated me about my connection with the Free Army factions of the opposition and about my activism.”

Al-Haraki added that when he said he was part of the settlement and that he carried its card, which made his arrest “arbitrary, and the interrogation illegal or legitimate,” he was given the aforementioned response. “It was a clear statement by the officer that the Syrian regime is using this settlement at this stage to punish those who opposed it or carried arms against it once it gets a proper security grip over the area.”

ِA picture showing the widespread destruction of residential buildings in the Sadd Road neighborhood of Dara’a city in July 2018, after being hit by air shelling and missiles by Syrian regime forces over the past years. Photo by Oqba Mohammed. Used with permission.

The settlement: deception and victims

Al-Haraki described one of the methods of torture to which he was subjected: his arms were bound in metal chains attached to the ceiling, and he was left suspended for several hours.  During his nine months of detention, he witnessed the deaths of three fellow detainees as a result of psychological and physical torture. One of them, Mohammed Mahmoud Badran from Douma, was accused of liquidating prisoners from Syrian regime forces during the eastern Ghouta battles between the regime and opposition factions in 2018.

On December 18, 2019, Al-Haraki was released by the Syrian regime under an amnesty issued by the Security Committee in Damascus. He was subsequently conscripted into military service in the regime army.

Al-Haraki says: “I was sent to the fronts in northern Syria with a number of my colleagues. We received orders to liquidate everyone. They made us believe we were fighting IS only to find out that we were fighting civilians.”

Al-Haraki wanted to defect but did not succeed, until he received news that his brother, a defector from the regime’s army who had agreed to the 2018 settlement, had been killed under torture in Saydnaya prison in Damascus on June 29, 2020.

Al-Haraki says: “I was shocked and almost lost my mind. I applied for leave of absence to go home, and that’s when I decided to defect and never return to my unit.”

In a report titled “On the Ruins of the Second Settlement” published on 8 January, the “Daraa Martyrs’ Documentation Office” (DMDO) reported the assassination of 83 military dissidents who had accepted the settlement, in addition to 31 others who did not agree to it. One of the report’s authors, Syrian activist Abu Ghayas Al-Shara’s, says:

The Martyrs’ Documentation Office in #Daraa#On_the_Ruins_of_the_Settlement: number of martyrs in Dara’a governorate during 2020 : 275, this is 1.7% of the total number of martyrs since the start of the revolution and an increase of 25% from the number of martyrs in the previous year 2019.

While similar to the agreements signed in the same year in the eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside or the northern countryside of Homs, Daraa’s agreement had one main difference, which was, according to Syrian journalist Basil Al-Ghazawi, the regime’s reliance on figures considered to be in the opposition at the time, to promote these pacts.

Al-Ghazawi, who is native to Daraa, told GV: “The regime had deceived everyone. Some of those who were on the fronts fighting the regime had come to see the settlement as their only safety raft. But less than a month later, everyone felt deceived as detainees were not released; defectors’ settlement was not respected; mandatory military service issues were not addressed; services were not provided, and regime abuses did not end as arrests continued.”

Al-Ghazawi added:

إن الاغتيالات والاعتقالات والانتهاكات أفعالاً ليست جديدة على النظام، إنما هي حاضرة قبل وبعد التسويات، فأهالي درعا قتلوا بقصف جوي واستخدمت أسلحة محرمة دوليا ضدهم كالنابالم الحارق واعتقل الآلاف منهم، أما الجديد هو الموت الصامت الموت تحت شعارات الالتزام بالعهود والمواثيق.

Assassinations, arrests and violations were not new to the regime, as they have always happened, before and after the settlements. People of Daraa have been killed by air shelling, internationally banned weapons, such as napalm, and thousands were arrested. What is new now is their silent death; death under the banner of treaties and conventions.

The DMDO echoed Al-Ghazawi’s testimony, saying in its report:

شهد العام 2020 استمرارا لسقوط الشهداء والضحايا وارتفاعا كبيرا جدا في وتيرة عمليات الاغتيال بالتزامن مع استمرار عمليات الاعتقال والإخفاء والتغييب القسري للمدنيين ومقاتلي فصائل “التسوية” وأيضا للمنشقين المنضمين للاتفاقية،

2020 witnessed the demise of many martyrs and victims and a significant increase in the frequency of assassinations in conjunction with the continued arrests, forced disappearances of civilians and fighters of the “settled” factions as well as defectors who joined the settlement.

During the interview, Al-Ghazawi listed the regime’s most significant violations of the agreement since 2018. These included the erection of over 40 check-points for the Fourth Division West of Daraa, although the agreement stipulated the army’s withdrawal to the pre-2011 barracks. Added to this was the non-disclosure of the fates of pre-settlement detainees, the barring of thousands of employees from returning to their jobs, the security forces’ harassment of people, and the recruitment of the young men of Horan—the province where Daraa is located—into militias of the security branches of the regime.

Lawyer and jurist Asim Al-Zoubi, Director of the Documentation Office at the Ahrar Horan Assembly foundation, said in an interview with Global Voices that his local organisation had documented the arrest of 1,293 people by Syrian regime forces since the beginning of the settlement through October 2020. Of those, 183 were arrested while trying to illegally migrate to opposition areas in northern Syria to escape the Syrian regime’s failure to comply with the settlement agreement.

“The Office also documented 528 operations and assassination attempts that resulted in 378 deaths and left 230 wounded, most of whom were former members and leaders of opposition factions. Syrian regime intelligence is behind the majority of these operations. We revealed this in an investigative report we had published,” Al-Zoubi said.

A new settlement and an unchanged reality

On 7 December, following criticism of the settlement, Syrian regime forces concluded a new settlement in Daraa. Similar to the 2018 pact, the new agreement guarantees that those wanted by the regime would not be prosecuted, and removes the names of men who did not join the compulsory or reserve military service from the lists of regime checkpoints in the area.

Omar Al-Hariri, an independent journalist and rights activist from Syria who member of DMDO, wrote on his Twitter account:

IMP / regime forces expand the new Dara’a settlement to include a number of Daraa’s sons who have been arbitrarily detained for two years in the security branches and who have not been convicted or tried on any charges.

The released detainee signs a settlement paper similar to the one signed by those who join the settlement in Dara’a.

No further information yet

The new settlement followed an upsurge in clashes in Daraa after the assassination of opposition leader Adham Karad and the Syrian regime’s disregard of the commitments set out in the agreement.

It was the outcome of meetings between the central committee that is authorized to negotiate on behalf of Daraa’s people, officers from the Syrian regime, and Russian forces, under direct supervision of representatives from the National Security Office in Damascus, which is considered the highest security department in the Assad regime. A judge from the regime’s side, present during the signing of the new settlements, is tasked with handing over new settlement documents sealed by the Ministry of Justice, allowing their holders to move across checkpoints without being prosecuted, under Russian guarantee.

In an interview with Global Voices, a senior member of the central committee responsible for negotiating with Russian and regime forces in Dara’a, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said:

عدم الحصول على نتائج ملموسة من التسوية الأولى كان الدافع لإجراء التسوية الجديدة ولا يوجد نتائج حتى الآن حيث لم يتم شطب الملفات الأمنية لكثير من الأشخاص، وكذلك الكثير لم يعودوا إلى وظائفهم وأيضا لم يتم حل ملف المنشقين عن نظام الأسد وتم إجراء التسوية الجديدة لسد هذه الثغرات ومعالجة هذه الملفات لكن للأن لا توجد نتيجة ملموسة.

The lack of tangible results from the first settlement was the motivation for the new settlement. There are no results so far as the security files of many people have not been written off yet. Moreover, many have not been returned to their jobs and the file of the dissidents of the Assad regime has not been resolved yet. The new settlement was concluded to cover those gaps and address these dossiers; but we are yet to see any tangible outcome.

This view was shared by Omar Al-Hariri, who commented on the new settlement:

Clarifications on the new settlement in Dara’a:

Same old settlement, same results.

Clarification over.

In recent days, tensions have escalated as the regime pursues six individuals it says are connected to ISIS. The regime has given Daraa’s central committee till Thursday January 28 to hand them over, failing which it will launch airstrikes against the region in collaboration with Russian fighter jets.

According to opposition figures, the wanted six are free from these accusations, and the regime’s threats are a violation to the settlement pacts, both old and new.

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