Can Daraa be a model for the rest of Syria?
By Nour Samaha
The recently asphalted main government highway from Damascus to Daraa City is lined with high sand berms to limit any incoming sniper fire. At several intersections, the road has been diverted by large mounds of dirt or cement blocks, blocking travelers from accessing several towns within the opposition-controlled countryside of Daraa.
Numerous Syrian army check-points have been erected along the way, their points overlooking towns that have been partly destroyed in earlier clashes.
But unlike many other areas in Syria, there’s increasing movement from opposition-held towns and villages in the countryside into government-controlled areas, a result of locally agreed ceasefires between the government and rebels.
Today, trucks carrying local produce travel daily from opposition-held areas in Daraa’s countryside to the urban centers, both in Daraa and all the way to Damascus, too. Civilians in opposition areas also travel daily to their jobs in government held areas, using public transport.
Daraa was the province which kicked off the mass protests against the government six years back, igniting the sparks of what has become today a vicious civil war, and today it is witnessing numerous efforts of “local agreements” between the government and local opposition factions that ensure civilians and trade come in and out of opposition areas, in return for government services and no clashes (in theory).
The city itself has witnessed intense clashes over the years between opposition fighters and the government, resulting in immense destruction around the city. While the streets remain relatively quiet, residents claim life has picked up in Daraa in comparison to how it was a year ago.
“Daraa is different from other areas in Syria; the majority of the opposition fighters are from the area, and in Daraa every family can find at least one person who is with the government and one person who is with the fighters,” explains Mohammad Khaled Al Hanour, the governor of Daraa, sitting in his large office in Daraa City.
The large clans of Daraa have continued to maintain their family connections throughout the war, and as a result, it has been much easier to communicate with those in rebel-held territories and convince them to come to the table with the government.
Other factors have also contributed to the government-rebel dialogue, according to the governor. “This is a province where there is only a limited number of radical Islamist factions, and generally speaking it is an open society. The people of Houran are not extremists.”
“Families want to educate their children, and this can only be done when there is stability in the area,” he adds.
And many residents in opposition-held areas agree. Exhausted by the constant bombardment and clashes, residents in opposition controlled areas have convinced their local opposition factions to agree to the truces of the government, in order to have a semblance of normalcy back.
These truces—unlike full reconciliations found in areas such as Daraya—ensure that control of the town still remains with opposition factions. Government forces are not allowed to enter, and they have to supply services such as electricity and water to these areas. Neither side is allowed to fire on the other; instead, there are checkpoints set up approximately 300 meters apart from each other that lead in and out of the areas.
According to a source who has worked closely on these truces, the success is partly due to the fact that Jordan, which borders Daraa province, has maintained an iron fist along the border.
“Since late 2015 the government has been making offers to the opposition in terms of cooperation, because it feels more comfortable about the opposition groups in the south,” says the source.
Issam Rayes, the spokesperson for the Southern Front—a coalition of opposition factions based in Daraa and Quneitra who are backed by the Jordan-based Military Operations Command (supported by Jordan, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain)—says such truces serve the interests of the government more than those of the civilians of the area.
“The regime focuses on areas that are only of strategic value to them, like towns that are along key supply routes for example,” he says. “The truces are basically the regime saying ‘I’m not going to kill you in this area at this point. But tomorrow I may kill you all.’”
However, Rayes admits that “there are increasing numbers of people—traders, farmers, employees—coming in and out of these areas now. Before the truces, the regime used to arrest 15 people per day at checkpoints to use for negotiations, and now because of the truces, that’s not happening as much.”
And there are many residents from opposition areas who travel daily into government-controlled areas, despite having to take longer detours, which consumes most of their time.
Sabah Jahmani, 56, who lives in Daesh-controlled Shajara, a town located in the southern end of the province, spends at least four hours a day on a bus, commuting to and from Daraa city. On her way, she has to pass through several checkpoints, both government and opposition ones. As she lives in a Daesh-controlled area, she carries a niqab to cover her face once she enters their territory, and removes it once she passes the last checkpoint.
“They don’t tend to bother the women, only asking for IDs when we come in and out,” she says, adding that there are no guarantees that the journeys will be smooth either.
Ghassan, a computer student at university, has to wake up at 3am every morning in order to leave at around 4 a.m. to arrive in Daraa City by 8 a.m.
“We have to pass through several checkpoints, and at each checkpoint they check everyone’s IDs, which takes up a lot of time.”
But the truces have not reassured all civilians that it is safe to enter government areas, and many remain in their villages, adds Ghassan.