On July 27, Syrian tanks rolled into the former rebel stronghold of Tafas, in Syria’s western Daraa province. The aggression, ostensibly to root out ISIS supporters, came just three days after military leaders suggested the operation could be avoided if the people they sought were voluntarily handed over.
Yet no matter what the regime claims – or promises, for that matter – its moves in places like Tafas are part of a larger, more ambitious, strategy: to consolidate dominance, through a mix of violence and negotiations, in areas where its authority is still contested.
Compared to other regime-held areas, Daraa governorate, in Syria’s south, occupies a special status. It was the epicenter of unrest in 2011 that precipitated the civil war, and today, it remains stubbornly resistant to President Bashar Al Assad’s control. Opposition forces in the region maintain strong support, and unlike other areas reconquered by Damascus, such as Eastern Ghouta, Daraa is at least partially untamed.
Russia played an early role in delivering this scenario. A surrender agreement brokered by Russian forces in 2018 gave Tafas and Daraa Al Balad, among other districts inside Daraa governorate, a level of local autonomy under Moscow’s protection. The deal allowed the Assad regime to reopen state institutions in Daraa but prevented it from establishing a military or security presence. It also helped Russia secure its strategic interests in the region – and ensure that their man in Damascus survived.
This tradeoff was initially convenient for Assad, as it allowed Damascus to regain territorial control over Syria’s south without incurring additional losses. But the regime’s recent use of force against towns that do not have a strong government presence demonstrates that Assad is no longer content with the arrangement.
The regime cannot rely on overwhelming military force to capture Daraa’s rebel-held towns, given the potential impact fighting could have on the national security of neighboring countries, particularly Jordan. Russia’s repeated calls for restraint also suggest that the Kremlin has a vested interest in ensuring Syria’s military activities don’t breach the southern border.
Rather than a full-scale assault, then, the Assad regime looks for smaller opportunities to regain the upper hand. In July 2021, pro-Assad forces imposed a suffocating military siege on Daraa Al Balad, a district inside Daraa city. Like last month’s raid, the operation was conducted under the pretext of capturing ISIS-affiliated individuals, but that time, the regime insisted on establishing a military presence inside the district.
After weeks of inconclusive negotiations, regime forces shelled Daraa Al Balad and attempted to storm it. Eventually, fierce clashes between the two sides pushed Russia to intervene and broker a new agreement, known as the “second settlement.” Instead of establishing new checkpoints, Assad settled for receiving a substantial quantity of light and medium weapons from former rebel forces. Over the subsequent months, the regime used the excessive force it had deployed against Daraa Al Balad to threaten other rebel areas to sign similar deals.
With that task now complete, the regime appears to be making a move to tighten further its control in Daraa, and Tafas is ground zero in this strategy.
Last month’s escalation began when town officials were asked to hand over four alleged ISIS supporters. Knowing that residents would refuse this demand, the regime began shelling. Fearing what might come next, residents quickly signed a deal agreeing to expel the wanted individuals in exchange for the withdrawal of regime troops. After Damascus refused to withdraw its forces, the deal collapsed. The regime then tried to storm the city but its attack was repelled by former rebels.
Russia has, once again, sought to mediate. But while the outcome of such negotiations is still up in the air – and a peaceful solution is possible – Assad seems poised to use sticks rather than carrots. His forces have already begun invoking the presence of wanted individuals in other former rebel areas in Daraa, including Jassim and Al Yadouda, as a pretext to justify future escalation. No matter what happens in Tafas, Damascus will likely try to replicate its intimidation strategy in the rest of the governorate.
In the end, Assad’s strategy is almost certain to fail. The Syrian regime’s desire to tighten its grip on former rebel areas in Daraa will continue to fuel skirmishes and assassinations in the region. Long-term stability in the south can only be achieved by reaching an agreement that addresses the root causes of the conflict. In that regard, Russia’s role is key.
Then again, any deal would need to be enforced by independent guarantors to hold all violators accountable. And unfortunately, in Syria, accountability remains an elusive concept.
Haid Haid is a senior consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.