Kidnap of Regime Officials Show Assad’s Hold on Syria Sovereignty to Be Limited

Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria has significantly expanded its territorial control in the past several years, prompting many to predict for just as long Damascus’s coming victory and the end of the civil war. Well, not really. The reason is that the level of authority the regime enjoys inside those areas remains limited. That is especially evident in the ability of area locals to kidnap security and military officers and then to swap them for their relatives detained by the regime. The high incidence of kidnapping suggests that Al-Assad’s government still is seen as a foe to be actively engaged one way or another, rather than a legitimate state to which people should submit.

While kidnappings and prisoner exchanges have occurred throughout the Syrian conflict, today it occurs particularly in territories with delicate power arrangements between the regime and local communities, such as Daraa and Sweida. Groups like ISIS also have kidnapped and exchanged pro-regime individuals to free family members. The Assad regime has even brokered similar swap deals in the northeast, despite having friendlier relations with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and a direct military presence inside the latter’s territories. The kidnappings show the regime not to be in sufficient control to merit being recognized as a state with full sovereignty over territory.

It is particularly notable that kidnappings occur inside supposedly regime-held territories. Prisoner exchange is widespread in Sweida governorate in the south. The exact number of such kidnappings is unclear due to the secrecy that typically surrounds them, but a local news website has reported that over 49 military and security regime members were “arrested” in Sweida in 2020. The actual number of kidnappings is thus probably higher.

Despite Sweida remaining under the regime’s control throughout the conflict, local armed groups have emerged to protect their respective communities from external threats, including the regime. It has become common for locals to kidnap military or security officers when one of their own is arrested or forcibly “disappeared” by the regime. After verifying that pro-regime forces are behind the disappearance, victims’ relatives install mobile checkpoints either inside the city or on the main roads in search of security or military officials.

Notably, prisoner swap deals are not limited to involving individuals detained locally. For example, a Sweida armed group installed a temporary checkpoint earlier this year on the highway linking Sweida to Damascus, which led to the kidnapping of a military officer from Latakia who served in Sweida. This kidnapping was organized by relatives of a young man who had disappeared in Homs.

In Daraa, the situation is slightly different. Despite being recaptured by the regime in the summer of 2018, the Russian-sponsored surrender agreements allowed former rebel groups to keep their light weapons and to maintain limited authority. For this reason, kidnapping operations in Daraa are harder to run and lesser in frequency than in Sweida. That’s because Daraa still is considered a danger zone and, thus, regime forces move in larger groups, which makes their kidnapping more challenging.

Despite those differences, negotiations in both governorates usually are initiated by the kidnappers, who delegate a mediator to hammer out a swap deal with the respective regime security agency. The mediators are usually local notables who have contact with current or retired regime officials, or with religious leaders and businessmen allied with Damascus.

The length of these negotiations varies depending on where people are arrested and by which of the regime’s security apparatus. Reaching a final deal is quicker if the arrested person is detained locally by the same security branch that is taking part in the negotiations. The Sweida example above took longer than usual because it was negotiated with the head of military security in Sweida while the arrest of the person to be swapped took place in Homs.

The kidnappings are a manifestation of the regime’s tenuous hold on power. In Sweida, it has avoided direct confrontations with local armed groups because of these outfits’ strong social and religious ties to local communities. Targeting local factions could turn Sweida’s Druze communities against the regime. In contrast, Damascus has occasionally tried to enforce its authority in Daraa, but strong local resistance and Russia’s presence there have prevented it from achieving any real success.

Sensing the regime’s powerlessness, kidnappings have ensued. And they in turn continue to destabilize Daraa and Sweida.

The continuation of state-sponsored violence, violations of agreements and the lack of an independent judicial system to hold security forces accountable, strongly suggest that the kidnapping of security officials, as a form of self-protection, will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Al-Assad’s expanded territorial control – such as it is – may improve the power trajectory of his armed forces, but it will fail to increase the legitimacy of his regime, even in the eyes of those who live in his grip.

Haid Haid is a senior consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.