Violence creeps back into major Syrian cities

As if the tension in Daraa was not enough, Damascus says “sleeping cells” are operating in the nearby city of Sweida, capital of the Druze Mountain.
Saturday 20/07/2019
A Syrian Army soldier stands next to a Syrian flag in Umm al-Mayazen in the countryside of Daraa. (Reuters)
Uneasy calm. A Syrian Army soldier stands next to a Syrian flag in Umm al-Mayazen in the countryside of Daraa. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Violence seems to have crept back into three major Syrian cities, in addition to Idlib, last of the opposition strongholds, which has been under joint Syrian and Russian attack since April.

Hasakah and Qamishli are viewed by many, including the Trump administration, as projections of Kurdish influence in the future of Syria. On July 11, a car bomb exploded at the entrance of the Virgin May Church in Qamishli, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, injuring 11 people. It was the fiercest attack on the city since explosions went off at three restaurants in 2015, killing 16 Christians. In Hasakah, three explosions rocked through the city, also on July 11.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the attacks are the dirty work of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who laid claim to the cities six months ago but was prevented from marching against them by the Americans. The Turkish-based opposition is blaming it on Syrian officialdom.

Locals, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, did not rule out the possibility of the terrorist attacks being carried out by the SDF itself. The SDF, they reasoned, would swiftly blame it on the Islamic State (ISIS), tailor-fit to shoulder all terrorism blame in the Syrian battlefield, hoping that this would inspire US President Donald Trump to keep more troops in Syria.

Last December, Trump announced that he was withdrawing the bulk of his forces from north-eastern Syria, claiming that ISIS had been thoroughly defeated, with its last stronghold, in Baghouz, dismantled in March.

The Kurds have clung on to Qamishli and Hasakah with particular valour, however, hoping they would form the nucleus of what they had hoped would be the Federal Government of Northern Syria.

That never materialised, mainly because none of the main stakeholders, including Russia, Iran and Turkey, let it pass and because the two cities were never fully under SDF rule, nor are they geographically linked to other towns in the Kurdish enclave. Government troops have never left the so-called security zone of Hasakah, which includes the palace of justice and the Presidential Square.

In Qamishli, government troops control most of their former security branches, parts of the city’s main market and its airport. Russia-sponsored talks between Damascus and the Kurds have been going on for more than a year, negotiating a phased surrender of Qamishli and Hasakah. The government side has been conditioning the surrender of all heavy arms, either to the state or to the Russians, and for government institutions to return to Qamishli and Hasakah, like hospitals, schools and police stations.

Last May, Abdullah Ocalan, the spiritual godfather of the SDF and historic leader of the Kurdish revolution, called on the SDF to “avoid conflict” with the Syrian government and to settle disputes through negotiations, rather than armed confrontation. The SDF acted in good faith but the recent attacks make it very difficult for them to give concessions, considering a furious Kurdish street holding them accountable for what happened.

The third conflict zone is the southern town of Daraa, north of the Syrian-Jordan border. Several attacks against government troops have been recorded since April, topped with a handful of demonstrations. A roadside bomb targeted a bus carrying soldiers on July 17, killing three of them.

When the city surrendered and signed up for the Russia-led reconciliation process in June 2018, Damascus gave the young men of Daraa a grace period of one year to fix their legal documents before joining the Syrian Army. All able-bodied Syrian men aged 18-41 were asked to enlist, even those who had defected to join the opposition forces or deserted their posts over the course of the conflict.

That grace period is over and government troops have been arresting young men throughout the city, all wanted for the military draft. Attempts at obtaining an extension for their collective exemption were flatly rejected by Damascus and so were calls to issue a general pardon, or to re-enlist former Daraa bureaucrats into the city’s civil service, regardless of their opposition sympathies.

As if the tension in Daraa was not enough, Damascus says “sleeping cells” are operating in the nearby city of Sweida, capital of the Druze Mountain, where young men are refusing to be shipped off to faraway battlefields, saying they will only serve in Druze towns and villages.

Unlike previous cases, the new conflicts do not fall within the classical black-and-white regime-versus-opposition scenarios. Fault lines have blurred in major cities, with overlapping rivalries and interests cutting across the horizontal and vertical landscape, inspired, no doubt, by the chaos that prevails.