syria

Surrender deals in southern Syria a huge gamble

Leaders of certain rebel factions defend their decision as a way to spare civilians from similar fate to Ghouta

Sami Moubayed, Correspondent
15:36 July 5, 2018
rebels daraa

Damascus: Divisions are high within the armed opposition in the southwestern city of Dara’a, over a reconciliation agreement reached earlier this week between Russian officers and “Shabab Al Sunna,” a powerful group based in the ancient nearby town of Busra.

At least two powerful figures have walked out on the talks, claiming that the reconciliation process is “treason,” being Adnan Al Masalmeh of the “Crisis Committee” in Dara’a and Bashar Al Zoubi, a defected army general from the Free Syrian Army who commands the Southern Front and its Yarmouk Brigade.

Both have unleashed their anger on Ahmad Al Odeh, the commander of Shabab Al Sunna, who reached a deal with the Russians that is strikingly different than similar deals hammered out recently in East Ghouta.

The agreement is “very important” said Ebrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor at the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat.

Speaking to Gulf News, he explained that Shabab Al Sunna is a major component of the Southern Front in the Free Syrian Army and that Busra Al Sham only fell to the opposition in the later stages of western support for the opposition, in 2015—before the Russian intervention.

“The Russian Army insisted that the talks with the opposition regarding the Syrian south take place in Busra Al Sham, based on a policy of dividing the armed groups. Al Odeh was accused of treason but he believes that he minimised human and financial losses for the people of Dara’a. He is convinced that the Russians are coming, just like what happened in East Ghouta, but when, how, and at what cost?”

The original Russian offer was for the armed opposition groups to surrender their weapons, in-full, and to be shipped out of Dara’a to towns and cities in the Syrian north.

This is basically what the Russians have been doing since they entered the Syrian battlefield in September 2015, sending the fighters to either Idlib in the Syrian northwest or Jarablus on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Al Odeh refused, however, putting forth a counterproposal, which forbad the depopulation of Dara’a in exchange for surrendering all arms, both light and heavy, in stages, to the Russian Army.

He also agreed to cooperate fully with government troops in the fight against the local branch of Daesh, known as the Khalid Ibn Al Walid Army.

Zoubi and Masalmeh, among others, claim that this is a trick, intended to temporarily keep people in their homes only to exact revenge on them later.

Odeh released an audio statement to his followers, explaining the logic behind his agreement, saying that coordination is lacking among the armed groups of the Syrian south, which is a clear recipe for military defeat.

“Surrendering arms is far better than surrendering lives,” he said, citing 270,000 civilians who are presently trapped on the Jordanian border, who fled their homes after the Russian battles started ten days ago.

Odeh’s deal has gone into effect and will apply to Dara’a, Busra, Samad in the east, Busra Al Harir in the north, and reach up to the Jordanian borders.

In addition to the surrender of arms, Odeh said that his men will facilitate the entry of Russian and Syrian police to villages and towns in the Syrian south, where they will raise the Syrian Flag and re-open schools, police stations, and government agencies.

The militants will be given a six-month grace period to join the Syrian Army, with Russian guarantees that they will not get arrested for taking up arms back in 2011.

“With the shameful, reprehensible American withdrawal from Syria, leaving the Syrian people to face their fate, it is important to spare more Syrian blood. We all saw the catastrophe the befell the people in Eastern Ghouta,” Wael Sawwah, editor-in-chief of the Syria Observer, told Gulf News.

“The agreement of Busra Al Sham is not an honourable one, but it certainly spares the people of the area a similar fate to the one of the people of Ghouta. The question remains though whether the Russian will keep their promises.”

What makes the recent agreement different is that refugees will be allowed to return to their homes, accompanied by the Syrian Red Crescent and Russian police, and their arrest warrants will be dropped.

Army defectors and draft dodgers will automatically be pardoned and natives of Dara’a will be allowed to return to their former jobs in the Syrian government, once institutions re-open in the south.

As a gesture of goodwill, the Russians have already agreed to return the bodies of dead soldiers from the armed opposition to their families, while the fate of political prisoners will be discussed at the next round of the Astana talks.

The only sticking point with the current agreement is what to do about the Al Nasib Border Crossing with Jordan.

The Russians insist that it needs to return fully to the control of the Syrian government, something that the Jordanians don’t seem to mind.

Fighters with the Free Syrian Army have refused to do that—despite Russian promises that it will be opened in August—demanding “co-administration” of the border and a share of its tax revenue which Damascus refuses.