Syria’s southern provinces are unique among opposition-held areas in having limited the expansion of Islamist extremist groups. The Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL), Ahrar al-Sham, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), successor to the Al Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, maintain only a modest foothold at best in the region, compared with the much larger, more influential “Southern Front” coalition, made up of moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that support democracy.
The Assad regime nonetheless continues to label many factions of the Southern Front as “terrorists” and to violate a cease-fire brokered in July by the United States, Russia, and Jordan.
This letter, written in July and August, is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where much of the world press cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The project, based at Stony Brook University’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, is funded by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. New York–based freelance journalist Jeremy Hodge, a former editor of the Yemen Times and Syria Direct, edited. As Hodge notes in his accompanying piece, here, the author of the article below, Khaled al Zubi, was killed, along with his 1-month-old son and brother, by a roadside bomb soon after filing his article.
Dera’a—In July, in one of President Trump’s first foreign-policy advances, the United States, Russia, and Jordan brokered a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and opposition forces in the country’s southern provinces along the Jordanian border. The deal raised many people’s hopes that a new era had begun, one that would rein in Bashar al-Assad’s military operations against his own people. That’s not the way it worked out.
Several weeks ago, I awoke late at night to the whizzing sound of regime aircraft circling the skies above my village, Muleiha Sharqiyya, and my 1-month-old son, crying. It was his first experience with warplanes in his short life, and no doubt scary. I rolled over and quickly scanned my phone; friends on WhatsApp were saying that several hundred Syrian and Russian forces were gathering outside Sama Hneidat, just east of Muleiha Sharqiyya, in apparent preparation for an assault. Not more than 15 minutes later, FSA rebel convoys carrying reinforcements could be heard passing down the main road heading east, toward the regime buildup.
Muleiha Sharqiyya is part of a string of towns in Syria’s southernmost Dera’a province that collectively form a sort of border between regime- and opposition-held territory. Our hamlet of 6,000 faces several regime-held towns located just under two miles east, well within range of small artillery. A few miles south looms the sprawling Tha’la military air base, where Assad’s forces regularly assemble before launching assaults on cities and towns in east Dera’a.
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I got up and texted Yasser, a colleague who worked the nearest checkpoint through which the convoy was undoubtedly passing. “It’s nothing, inshallah,” he wrote, “but some of the guys think they [the regime] might wanna take the reservoir before the winter.” This was a reference to the water reservoir in a nearby village, which serves both regime and opposition farms.
“There’s foreigners with them,” Yasser added, which usually meant Iranians, Afghans, or even Russians.
By the end of the night, the FSA mustered a big-enough show of force to deter the pro-regime forces without firing a shot. It’s a testimony to the organization and readiness of opposition forces here and the popular support they enjoy.
The Syrian revolution began in Dera’a in 2011, and what transpires here is crucial to the viability of a political solution to the Syrian conflict. It was in Dera’a city that Syrian youth sprayed “The people want the fall of the regime” on walls and were arrested on March 6 of that year. The first mass protest against the regime—the so-called “Day of Rage”—occurred on March 15. On March 24, Dera’a saw the first massacre of the revolution, when security forces killed more than 200 civilians just outside the Omari mosque in Dera’a’s Old City. [The Nation could not independently verify this figure and therefore does not endorse its authenticity. International reporting at the time of the event placed the number killed there, on that day and in the days afterward, at anywhere from 5 to 150.]
Perhaps because the revolution began here, its spirit has been preserved in its purest form in the south. Unlike other liberated areas—such as Idlib in the north and East Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs, which are dominated by Islamist military factions—FSA factions here, collectively known as the Southern Front, have prevented extremist groups from gaining as strong a foothold in the south as they have in other territories. Both a free press and civil society thrive here, along with independent civil courts that resolve disputes between individuals. If the Assad regime can’t preserve a fragile peace with the Southern Front, it’s unlikely to do so elsewhere.
The fact that the Southern Front factions are committed to the principles of democracy has a downside. This region has historically enjoyed more support from the United States, Britain, and other sectors of the international community than other FSA factions and has been spared the grinding poverty in besieged parts of Syria where Islamists or other radical forces have sway. On the other hand, much of what goes on in our province goes unreported, both internationally and in the regional press. When violations occur, they often go unnoticed.
That is not to say that locals are uninformed. The near-clash in my area took place in late July, just over two months after the fourth round of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, in May, where Russia, Iran, and Turkey came up with the idea of implementing “de-escalation zones” across Syria. But neither those talks nor the US-brokered cease-fire has stopped regime aircraft from regularly bombing Dera’a city, the large provincial capital. Nonetheless, on this particular night, in Sama Hneidat, regime forces may have figured that it wasn’t worth violating the cease-fire over a battle they were likely to lose.
“Putin’s playing with Papa Trump,” a neighbor, Abu Faysal, told me the next morning, over coffee. “Everyone thinks Trump is crazy and that Putin—guided by logic—is pulling the strings,” he added. “What they don’t realize is that Syria makes everybody crazy.” Abu Faysal was convinced that the regime buildup was a Russian attempt to intimidate both the FSA and the United States to gain leverage for the next round of talks, whenever they would be. “Trump tried to show Russia he was the worst by bombing Assad,” a reference to the April 6 US airstrikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base after Assad used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. “Now Putin’s saying, ‘I can be crazy too, but a different kind of crazy.’”
When the “Day of Rage” protests began, I was an economics major at Tishreen University in the northwest province of Latakia. Dominated by the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect, Latakia has always been loyal to the regime, and Tishreen University was no different. When I and other students organized a march in solidarity with Dera’a, most of the student body watched from the sidelines as we entered the main quad, to be detained by school security.
By April 2011, many of the Tishreen students were labeling the protesters in Dera’a as radical Sunni jihadists. The regime had already adopted the slogan “us or the terrorists.” The university paper published articles claiming that intelligence had been intercepted demonstrating that “calls for help” had been made to international jihadists like Al Qaeda.
It was shocking to hear what was being said about my distant home province. The mood on campus was becoming so different from what I was hearing back home that I decided to leave university, return home, and join the protesters, or at least comfort my family. In the end I did both, as I learned soon after that one of my cousins, Ahmed, had been shot and wounded by security forces during a demonstration.
Shortly after my return home, six friends and I, armed with just two AK-47s and several hunting rifles, set up our town’s first neighborhood watch along the road leading south toward the Tha’la air base, which we would man at night. It was a modest effort, but our ranks would slowly grow, and to our surprise, we got support from sympathetic army officers, many of whom would later defect and join the opposition.
One such person was Zakaria, a sergeant from the northeastern town of Qamishli who was stationed at the 52nd Brigade base located just west of Muleiha Sharqiyya. Zakaria often frequented the mobile-phone shop my family owned, initially to buy credit for his phone. As time went on, Zakaria became more and more friendly with me and our staff, and ultimately began to speak about his desire to defect, saying that he feared what would happen to his family if he were killed.
One day Zakaria gave me his phone number and told me to call if I needed anything. I wasn’t sure if he was aware of my nighttime activity manning an armed checkpoint to deter his security forces. However, several weeks later, it was Zakaria who reached out to me, and it was clear from our conversation that he was privy to what I was up to.
“Security forces are going to launch night raids tonight looking for Khaled, Fadi, and Maher,” he said, referring to another volunteer named Khaled. “They’re going to charge them with engaging in terrorist activity.” I forwarded the message, advising all three to leave town. I also advised the other guys manning the checkpoint to stay home. Sure enough, the raids were launched, but the security forces came up empty-handed.
“Whoever saves one life—it is as if he had saved all of mankind,” I told Zakaria the next day, citing a well-known passage from the Quran and Talmud during a phone call thanking him for his help. He later defected from the army while on leave in Damascus. Before doing so he introduced us to other sympathetic army officers who would continue to help us stay several steps ahead of the regime. The last I heard, Zakaria was dead, killed while fighting the regime alongside an FSA faction in the eastern Damascus suburb of Qabun.
As the months went on, I switched from carrying a rifle to a camera. As the armed-insurgency phase of the revolution intensified, more and more Syrian army officers defected to the opposition who were far more qualified than I to provide security for our town. Furthermore, working at my family’s mobile-phone shop afforded me more experience than most people in my area working with computers, cameras, and other forms of technology.
My experience with Zakaria and other army officers who would later defect also meant I was uniquely placed to coordinate with the armed factions and track developments through the course of the revolution. I dived headfirst into journalism and activism and haven’t looked back. My work has taken me to front lines all over the south, where I’ve been able to witness FSA losses and gains and had the privilege of developing ties with other like-minded activists. Our job is to use our cameras to document regime war crimes and tell individual stories of triumph, failure, and perseverance that collectively make up the ethos of resistance in the south.
My work allows me to see firsthand the solidarity among the southern factions that characterize our region. Unlike in other parts of the country, where individual groups lay claim to specific towns, regions, or swaths of land, in many parts of the south armed brigades and factions share territory and come and go between different front lines, as the situation requires. This freedom of movement extends to myself and others, and is a testament to our region’s success: Though I pledge allegiance to no faction, my work on behalf of the Syrian revolution ingratiates me with the Southern Front factions, whom I call my brothers.
Ever since the fourth round of Astana talks in early May, when de-escalation zones were first broached, Syrian regime forces have adopted a series of new tactics in the Dera’a countryside that appear to be aimed at provoking a violent response from FSA opposition forces, while allowing the regime to maintain plausible deniability.
The first incident occurred between May 28 and 30, when, similar to what happened in Sama Hneidat, hundreds of pro-Assad Iranian, Afghan, and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters mobilized with dozens of tanks and heavy artillery over a period of three days outside the town of Khirbat Ghazala, six miles northeast of Dera’a city. The show of force was interpreted by FSA artillery units stationed in the area as a direct provocation.
Muhammad Badr al-Izra’i, an FSA commander stationed with a local artillery brigade, told me regime columns were approaching from two different directions, one from Damascus and the second from the front lines in Dera’a city.
Al-Izra’i was convinced the regime would claim it was implementing the terms of the Astana talks by de-escalating the fight in Dera’a and then, after the fact, send in the second column the next day and commit a massacre in Dera’a city. “They wanted to hide this fact from the international community, so they withdrew some forces first, in order to provide cover,” he said.
To preempt an ambush of FSA forces in Dera’a city, al-Izra’i’s unit leader decided to fire on the regime forces approaching from Dera’a. Regime ranks took heavy losses, scattered, and withdrew in different directions. “Our actions that day are what showed the regime we’re not willing to stand for such trickery,” he said. The FSA stand at Khirbat Ghazala may explain why pro-regime forces stood down later in Sama Hneidat after the FSA mobilized its own reinforcements.
Since then, regime forces have avoided clashing directly in the open with FSA factions in the Dera’a countryside, choosing instead to launch air strikes or quick hit and-run artillery attacks. The regime, it seems, is changing its tactics. Throughout June and July, regime forces have used airstrikes or hit-and-run artillery against the towns of Sayda, al-Na’ima, al-Laja, and the al-Nasib border crossing with Jordan. As it launches airstrikes, the regime claims it does so in response to the movement of terrorist groups, knowing that moderate FSA forces dominate opposition areas.
One of those killed in a June 22 air strike in al-Na’ima was a close friend, Mustafa Abd al-Nur, a civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Syrian regime jets dropped their bombs. Regime violations of de-escalation agreements aren’t as bad here as they are in other areas—in particular East Ghouta—but innocent people are still being killed due to the regime’s failure to live up to its promises.
Most southerners are skeptical of Russian and regime intentions in the de-escalation zones. No one believes that Assad or his allies seriously intend to let the Syrian opposition maintain control of any part of the country in the mid- to long term. The Southern Front in turn has not abandoned its aim to defeat Assad militarily or force his government to dissolve.
However, many here support de-escalation zones—but on the condition that Jordan and Russia, not Iran, serve as guarantors. That will allow the Southern Front time to redress problems within the region that have undermined the progress of our revolution for several years—in particular, rooting out what little remains of ISIS, HTS, and other extremist factions. I expect the regime would also like to take advantage of the calm to carry out a bit of spring-cleaning on its side as well.
For now, the Assad regime is likely to try to sabotage and weaken the FSA in the south. Late at night on June 28, my own home was shot up by unknown assailants as I was sleeping next to my wife, just five days before the birth of our son. Luckily, no one was hurt, and we left to stay with family members in the town of Sayda, a safer spot deeper in opposition-held territory. My son, exposed to the sound of gunshots before his own birth and the sound of warplanes within his first month, will undoubtedly grow up fast, and will likely become desensitized to the sounds of war before he’s able to walk.
As of now we don’t know who is responsible for the shooting. It could be elements of the Assad regime infiltrating behind enemy lines in order to kill those of us who are most active in the media. Or it could be the HTS/Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), whom I’ve been outspoken against since their arrival in the region back in 2013.
Luckily, the south hasn’t fallen under the sway of radical jihadists as in other parts of the country, such as Idlib, East Ghouta, and Qalamoun. This stems partially from the social dynamics of the south and partially from luck. When the revolution began, many radical groups focused their efforts around Syria’s urban enclaves, such as Damascus, Hama, and Aleppo, ignoring the south. By the time Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and others sought to penetrate the region, the social, democratic, and military infrastructure in place was strong enough to resist their spread.
This infrastructure was undergirded by resilient communal ties that have evolved and intertwined since the earliest days of the revolution, when individuals such as myself and others took the initial risks that were needed to inspire others and instill in them a sense of purpose. The south’s status as the birthplace of the revolution means we have had more time to evolve and strengthen these ties, building trust between individuals, communities, and towns that have in turn provided fertile ground for the development of grassroots, democratic reform.
Many have died defending the south, and I expect many more will. However, military power alone hasn’t got us where we are.
Activists and journalists such as myself aren’t doing it for salary or some messianic ideology full of empty promises. We fight for our families, our homes, and the dignity of our towns. The civil, social, and political infrastructure is the bedrock that holds our foundation in place, even if soldiers die in the fighting. We think our model is an example, and we trust that our allies abroad won’t abandon us. I believe the south will prevail.
Editor’s clarification: The second paragraph of the introduction has been updated to reflect the fact that the Assad regime has been violating a temporary cease-fire, not a de-escalation-zone agreement. And the eighth paragraph of the article itself has been adjusted to make clear the author’s point that while extremist groups exist in the south, the Southern Front has successfully limited their growth and power.