The cradle of Syria's revolution: Daraa ten years on

The cradle of Syria's revolution: Daraa ten years on
6 min read
23 March, 2021
In-depth: Daraa occupies a unique role in the story of Syria's war. There, in March 2011, what began as a localised protest became the spark that ignited the revolution.
Smoke rises following an air strike in Daraa on 22 June 2017. [Getty]
This article is part of The New Arab's special coverage of the Arab Spring decade of upheaval. Visit our Arab Spring portal here.

Last week, hundreds of Syrians gathered in front of the al-Omari mosque in Daraa, a city in the country's south bordering Jordan. Chants for solidarity and the revolution rang out as demonstrators marked the tenth year of the deadly conflict in Syria.

Daraa occupies a unique role in the story of Syria's war. It was there, in March 2011, where what began as a localised protest became the 'spark' that ignited the revolution in Syria.

A decade ago, the scene at the al-Omari mosque was much bloodier. The people of Daraa had been protesting against the regime for exactly one week when, on 23 March, they met at the mosque and local security forces stormed the area. In the aftermath, dozens of bodies littered the street.

Word of local unrest made its way up to Damascus, where Assad faced a choice: offer concessions to pacify the local population or hand them the fist. He chose the latter, and that decision signalled an escalation that propelled the country into a decade of war and destruction.

Today, the province remains an outlier among territories recaptured or reconciled with the regime. Its surrender in July 2018 was not the end of resistance in Daraa, and the area remains an open threat to Assad.

The people of Daraa had been protesting the regime for one week when, on 23 March, they met at the al-Omari mosque and local security forces stormed the area. In the aftermath, dozens of bodies littered the street

Terms of surrender

It took seven years for the regime to eventually retake Daraa. In June 2018 Assad redeployed the military to the south, breaking the de-escalation zone brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan in 2017. 

Members of the Southern Front, the southwest's anti-regime coalition, had been holding out for Western intervention until they received a text from Washington officials. "You should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us," it read. They were alone.

Read more: Despite war and destruction, Syrian activists
have no regrets on tenth anniversary of revolution

Throughout the summer of 2018 the regime launched a devastating air bombardment campaign with Russian assistance that displaced more than 270,000 civilians. Tens of thousands fled the city to nearby borders, which remained shut as Assad closed in. 

Ayman Safadi, Jordan's foreign minister, reiterated that the kingdom would not open its borders to Daraa's displaced, saying, "We are at capacity." By August, opposition leaders were meeting with Moscow representatives to negotiate the terms of surrender. 

Russian officials, acting as intermediaries between the rebels and the regime, offered the opposition pardons in exchange for their dismantlement and surrender of heavy weapons.

Many agreed to integrate with the Moscow-backed 5th Corps, a security body separate from the central Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Within the 5th Corps the majority of former rebels belong to the 8th Brigade, whose theatre of operations remains uniquely local. In addition to rooting out extremists in the area the 8th Brigade acts as a sort of local security force.

The terms of the province's surrender has allowed the population to remain politically active, and western Daraa in particular operates with some degree of local autonomy. This deal, argue Jomana Qaddour and Abdulrahman al-Masri, was never intended to be a long-term measure. "Localized governance will only increase resistance to Assad's intended return," they write.

Daraa occupies a unique role in the story of Syria's war. It was there, in March 2011, where what began as a localised protest became the 'spark' that ignited the revolution in Syria

The Iran question

Daraa remains a symbol, the "cradle," of Syria's revolution, and its unique position in the history of the devastating war is not forgotten by its people. Assad has pragmatic reasons for wanting to secure Daraa as well: it sits along Jordan's northern border, where the Nasib crossing is a key trading point for Syria.

The southwest is also, as former International Crisis Group (ICG) advisor Sam Heller wrote in 2018, another proxy site in the regional battle between Israel and Iran. With Iranian-backed troops currently there on the ground, the battle for final control over Daraa could determine the "nature and duration of Iran's presence in Syria."

Indeed, as the regime's 2018 battle for Daraa was underway real concerns were raised by observers that the presence of Iranian forces would inevitably see Israeli intervention. From there, a major escalation between Israel and Iran would certainly be conceivable.

While it is too soon to determine the longevity of Iran's presence there, it is notable that Daraa's citizens have resisted Tehran's greater ambitions in the area. 

"The ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah in Daraa have also been met with growing civilian resistance manifested in increasingly frequent protests and graffiti across the governorate," writes Abdullah al-Jabassini, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. 

Read more: In the shadows of Syria's revolution, a generation of activists is born

Daraa today

Reconciliation was never synonymous with peace, and, since 2020 especially, Daraa has seen increased violence from the various actors seeking influence there. This includes tensions between the reconciled former opposition that have integrated with state forces, unreconciled opposition members, regime security forces, and Iranian and Russian forces.

"The regime's return to Daraa is nominal at best," Abdulrahman al-Masri, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New Arab

The 2018 deal stipulated a return of state services to the area, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled. Nearly two years after "reconciliation" and one year into a deadly pandemic, many of Daraa's citizens lack access to sufficient health services. 

The people are adamant on what they have pretty much started ten years ago. The population itself isn't one that you can subdue easily

Researcher Abdullah al-Jabassini has reported that a minimum of 425 instances of violence occurred in Daraa between August 2018 and March of last year, with the majority of incidences linked to the regime. In about the same time period, citizens held more than 60 protests across the province calling for the release of detainees.

Put together, the competing factions operating in Daraa today present a real risk for a "relapse into armed violence," al-Jabassini describes in a report for the European University Institute.

Read more: Ten years on: Syria's revolution through
the lens of the diaspora

Discontent remains rife among citizens who feel that the regime has, two years later, yet to fulfil the obligations set by the reconciliation deal. Not unlike the environment in 2011, protesters today call for the release of detainees held by the state, improved economic conditions, and the stable delivery of state services.

"The people are adamant on what they have pretty much started ten years ago," al-Masri says. "The population itself isn't one that you can subdue easily."

But in the absence of a central authority, Daraa is plagued with "rising lawlessness" marked by inter-tribal disputes and civilian protests. As Assad seeks to further consolidate gains, unrest in Daraa may soon invite a military response.

The Assad regime knows that the current situation is hardly a long-term solution. Damascus cannot claim true victory in the Syrian war until it has returned the country to pre-2011 conditions. Until then, resistance within Daraa will remain an open threat to the regime.

Tabitha Sanders is a Washington-based freelance journalist. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Monthly, where she covered US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @thistabithahope