A nightmare of assassinations is riling Daraa. Who is responsible?

DARAA: The wave of assassinations that have become a fact of life in southern Syria’s Daraa province isn’t sparing anyone, as civilians and fighters alike are killed–including fighters from the opposition and government, as well as those loyal to Iran, Hezbollah and even Russia. 

The security chaos and daily killings haven’t left Daraa province alone since Damascus recaptured control over the area via a series of “reconciliation” deals in 2018 between opposition forces and the government, with Russian backing. The agreements were aimed at securing and stabilizing southern Syria. But since their signing, Russian-Iranian rivalry over loyalty of the region’s residents led to deteriorating security, and increased killing. 

Terrifying numbers

On February 19, unknown gunmen targeted two volunteers from the Oxfam aid organization. They had been working, and were travelling along the road between Yadoudeh and Muzeirab in western Daraa. Both were killed, and a third volunteer injured. 

Earlier, on February 1, unknown assailants attacked the doctor Muhammad Abd al-Rahim al-Bardan, shooting him to death in front of his clinic. Likewise, other attackers shot and killed Gharib al-Masri, a young Palestinian man from the town of al-Shajarah. Al-Masri had previously fought in an opposition faction in Daraa. Meanwhile, Walid al-Rifai, a former leader of the pro-opposition Yarmouk Army Group, survived an assassination attempt in the town of Umm Walad in rural eastern Daraa. 

Before that, the Ahrar Houran Group, a local media organization, had documented 10 assassination attempts against both civilians and military figures loyal to the opposition and government. Among them were fighters for pro-government militias. The group also recorded seven kidnappings over the course of January, Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani, a spokesperson for Ahrar Houran, told Mari. 

The year 2019 saw 305 assassinations and assasination attempts, with 168 people killed and 100 others wounded, according to a count by the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, a local rights organization. Some 26 people survived. 

Assassinations hit civilians

Civilians have been hit by the security chaos in southern Syria, especially those who refused to join the Syrian army after reconciliation. That is what happened to Ibrahim al-Jahmani, a young man from the town of Saida in eastern Daraa. He took 15 bullets to his body. Al-Jahmani had been a witness to the killing of the child Hamza al-Khatib, one of the first torture victimes of the Syrian government over the course of the war. 

The attorney Thamer al-Jahmani is Ibrahim’s uncle. In comments to Mari, he said he believed his nephew was killed “because he was the most prominent witness on Arab channels to the ugliest crimes against childhood, which prompted the regime to pursue him and take revenge on his family.” 

“Because of Ibrahim’s testimony, the regime killed his mother, brother and sister years ago, and he ended up dying himself while heading to the mosque, after having paid the price of his testimony with the loss of his family members,” Thamer said. 

The lawyer blamed the head of the Military Security branch, Brigadier Louay al-Ali, for “carrying out most of the assassinations and kidnappings through hired agents, the latest of which happened to Dr. Mamoun Muhammad al-Hariri when a bomb exploded at the door of his clinic in the city of Busr al-Hariri on January 19.” The explosion directly injured his head and chest. Thamer also blamed al-Ali for the killing of Muhammad Abazeid and the kidnapping of young men Ahmad and Mustafa al-Quteifan in Daraa al-Balad. 

The killings and assassinations have also extended to civilians crossing the Syrian-Jordanian border. Last month, 37-year-old Amer Subhi al-Jabawi was found dead in the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh near the Daraa highway after entering Syria via the Naseeb crossing from Jordan. Al-Jabawi was the sixth person to disappear “in areas under the control of Airforce Intelligence” after crossing the Syrian-Jordanian border, according to al-Jamhani. 

Further complicating matters is that some of the killings are also targeting civilians loyal to the government, al-Jamhani said. Attackers in January attempted to murder Maher Faour al-Khateeb, a private driver for Parliament member Farouq Hamadi. He faced an assassination attempt while driving along the highway connecting the towns of Nimr and Jassem in rural western Daraa. 

Who is behind the killings? 

“A number of forces are in conflict with one another on the ground–most important of which are pro-regime groups such as Airforce Intelligence and the Security Office of the Fourth Division, as well as Daesh cells and and popular committees,” Adham Akrad, a former opposition commander and member of the central committee in Daraa city told Mari. The committee is composed of former leaders as well as notable residents of Daraa city, and was formed after the government’s recapture of Daraa province in July 2018. 

Syrian researcher and political opposition activist Nasr Farwan blamed Hezbollah and Airforce Intelligence for “organizing most of the assassinations targeting members of the opposition.” He also blamed the Military Security branch in Sweida, which is led by Louay al-Ali, for “conscripting former rebel leaders such as the general Abu Zreiq, a former commander in the Yarmouk Army, and Mustafa al-Kassam al-Masalmeh, a former leader in the March 18 Division, as well as Faisal al-Subeih, a former leader in the al-Omari Brigades in the Lajat region.” 

“It has been mandated to assassinate or detain all political opponents of the regime under the banner of fighting terrorism and getting a handle on security,” Farwan said. 

According to Farwan, Hezbollah “relies on a list of the most important names in the local society.” The list focuses on “military leaders from the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, as well as tribal leaders and other outspoken figures including intellectuals, doctors and engineers.” 

“The party is exploiting the needs of the forthcoming generation and those wanted by the security branches, enticing them with salaries and promises to free them of security prosecution in return for monitoring and targeting those personalities,” Farwan said. 

Confirming Farwan’s accusations, one young resident of the town of Nahta in eastern Daraa, Mamdouh al-Mafaalani, reportedly confessed in October that he had been recruited alongside dozens of other men from the area by Hezbollah to assassinate local figures in exchange for money. Al-Mafaalani asked others from his hometown to “forgive him and beware of being targeted.” 

Security forces, in collaboration with Hezbollah, also played a role in spreading chaos in southern Syria by freeing members of the Islamic State who had been responsible for explosions and vehicle bombs. According to Farwan, those who were freed carried out military operations in the south after leaving government prisons. 

As a result, and after repeated assassinations, the central committee in Daraa city attempted to “consolidate a safe area for its members and tribes, embarking on an initial experience in Daraa city as unified families and clans, to [utilize] tribal courts, thus closing the way for malicious hands to play with the civil peace file.” 

Weapons of assassination

A doctor working on one of the government’s hospitals in Daraa told Mari that most of the assassinations are carried out “directly, using American-made silencers or Russian Kalashnikovs.” He added that according to reports from the hospital’s forensics unit, where many of the victims were transferred, “the bullets that penetrated their bodies were 5.5mm, which means they were shot from American weapons.” 

“[Because of this,] pro-government media is spreading talk that the perpetrators are from remnants of the opposition factions that rejected reconciliation, and that received American support during opposition control of the region, to detract suspicion from the regime and its supporting militias,” the doctor said. 

The assassinations have been carried out by a number of sides, following previous arrests of hundreds of men from Daraa without any information on their fates. The terms of the surrender agreements have not been adhered to, including terms provisioning release of detainees, foretelling further chaos as the year unfolds.

نوار الحوراني

صحفي سوري مقيم في محافظة درعا جنوب سوريا.

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