Central Committees in the west and Eighth Brigade in the east, Who controls Daraa?

The Syrian regime’s control over southern Syria in 2018 did not end the popular movement that began in 2011, which called for the overthrow of the regime and led Syrians to take up arms against the Syrian military machine that tried to suppress the movement.

At the same time, a new state of control has emerged that the regime is still outside of, as it tries to control the province through local proxies, while local groups active in the area stand as a barrier to achieving this goal.

While the regime has closed the gap in its relationship with its opponents after July 2018, as the frontlines of battle no longer separate them, former opposition faction leaders contacted by Enab Baladi believe that the opposition still controls most of Daraa province.

Pivotal transformations

Sequential events in Daraa province over the past five years have drawn the map of control, active forces, and alliances, as the siege of Daraa al-Balad in July 2021 and the battles witnessed in the city of Jasim, north of Daraa, between individuals accused of belonging to the Islamic State organization and local factions in 2022, were factors that cemented the control of local factions in the province.

Over the past years, the province has witnessed a confrontation between three parties. The first is the regime forces that try to impose demands and settlements in the villages and towns of Daraa and are met with armed resistance from the locals.

The second includes groups accused of allegiance to the Islamic State organization which always deny this, in addition to the alliance of the Central Committees and the Eighth Brigade (formerly opposition factions), which is constantly accused of loyalty to the Military Security, a claim it always denies.

Last year, Daraa al-Balad city also witnessed armed confrontations between groups accused of allegiance to the Islamic State organization and local factions supported by the Eighth Brigade, contributing to the Central Committees’ factions asserting their presence on the scene.

After the settlement of July 2018 and the defeat of the opposition factions, the Central Committees were formed with three main components: the committee of Daraa al-Balad, the committee of the western countryside, and the Eighth Brigade faction (Shabab al-Sunna formerly) led by Ahmed al-Awda, who was affiliated with the Fifth Corps formed by Russia in 2016, then affiliated with the Military Security.

Some small military groups that rejected the settlement agreement in Daraa and opposed negotiations between the Central Committees and the Syrian regime, under accusations of allegiance to the Islamic State, have attempted to deny this repeatedly.

During battles in Daraa al-Balad between local factions themselves, a group led by Mohammad al-Masalmeh, known as “al-Hafu,” was targeted, and the Central Committees and the Eighth Brigade factions used as a pretext that “al-Hafu” pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

On the other hand, al-Hafu in a previous statement to Enab Baladi, stated that he and other fighters with him are from the 2011 revolutionaries and absolutely have no connection with the Islamic State organization, and that they faced marginalization by the factions for not obeying foreign orders.
Central Committees in the west and Eighth Brigade in the east

Enab Baladi met with leaders who manage local groups in Daraa province, one of whom follows the Central Committees factions, and another from the Eighth Brigade, who is a former active member of the Central Committee in Daraa al-Balad, and a former leader in a faction. The three leaders considered that the Syrian regime does not control the southern part of Syria and does not have an influence in it, while one of them sees that the Military Security is the one managing the scene.

A prominent leader in the Eighth Brigade spoke to Enab Baladi on condition of anonymity for security reasons and stated that the Eighth Brigade firmly manages the eastern area of the Daraa province, enjoys good centrality, and is accepted by a segment of the area.

Looking at the western countryside of Daraa province, the Central Committees factions, which the leader classified as better in terms of popular acceptance than the Eighth Brigade, have their control over the geography described as “solid.”

The factions of the Central Committees of the western countryside of Daraa have control over other countrysides of the province, reaching as far as the northern countryside, through connections between local groups for each village, town, and city. Moreover, all these factions are also connected with the Eighth Brigade east of Daraa.

The leader added that the popularity of the Central Committees factions pushed the regime towards targeting their leaders for elimination, especially since they have become a reference for the residents who have stopped reviewing the regime’s legal institutions, in favor of setting up legal and tribal committees by the Central Committees.

A former leader in the opposition factions, who held a military position in the Eighth Brigade, reserved mentioning his name for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that the Eighth Brigade forms a “striking force” in the eastern countryside of the province, as is the case for the Central Committees factions in the western countryside.

He added that the common point between these factions is that they are managed by the Military Security, and move by orders from the head of the Military Security in Daraa, Brigadier Louay Ali.

The former leader believed that Louay Ali “succeeded” to a great extent in “liquidating the revolution” in southern Syria, and limited the armed movement to groups he had previously tamed, along with the Islamic State cells whose movements always serve the regime’s interest, but not coincidentally.

He pointed out that the military groups affiliated with the Air Force Intelligence throughout Daraa province, such as Al-Laham group, for example, are more gangs than they are security and military groups and can be dissolved at any time.

Previously, the Eighth Brigade attacked, in March of the past year, the Al-Laham group in the town of al-Safira, east of Daraa, and expelled it from the area, imposing its control over it.

Who manages the scene?

The military affairs researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Rashid Hourani, looks at the Eighth Brigade as having been forced to engage in the settlement and accept a nominal affiliation with the Military Security following the international abandonment of supporting the opposition in the south.

The researcher told Enab Baladi that the Eighth Brigade preferred to take a middle-ground approach to maintain its influence to some extent, in order to achieve the “goals of the revolution,” which was once a part of its structures.

At the same time, Hourani sees that the regime and its security apparatuses have the upper hand in managing the security scene in southern Syria and try as much as possible to manage it by inciting or employing local parties against each other, and therefore the losses in all cases do not include its elements.

Despite the regime’s security interventions being exposed, according to the researcher, human losses are targeting its influential elements and reflect the publicly declared oppositional state of the province’s residents.

The Eighth Brigade was formed from the remnants of the Shabab al-Sunna faction, one of the opposition Southern Front factions opposed to the regime in southern Syria, led by Ahmed al-Awda, one of the most important organized and combatant factions.

With the implementation of the regime’s settlement sponsored by Russia in 2018, al-Awda maintained his military organization, transitioning it to join the Fifth Corps, established by Russia in 2016 as auxiliary forces for the regime forces, then since early 2022 became affiliated with the Military Security of the Syrian regime forces.

Sheikh Faisal Abazid, an active former member of the Central Committee for Daraa al-Balad, played a role during negotiations with the Syrian regime to lift the siege on his city, in July 2021, described the state of control in Daraa province as “chaotic,” indicating the state of chaos and ambiguity.

Abazid added to Enab Baladi that the security situation in Daraa is complicated, as each group manages its interests. However, the “only constant” is that the Islamic State organization is closely linked to drug dealers associated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Fourth Division and the Iranian militias in the south.

The regime “will not control”

The leader of the Eighth Brigade told Enab Baladi that most of the countrysides of Daraa province and part of the city are still under the control of the same opposition factions that were spread in the south before 2018.

He pointed out that the Central Committees firmly control the western countryside and also manage Daraa al-Balad, while the Eighth Brigade controls the eastern countrysides of the province, managing its influence in the northern countryside, alongside the Central Committees.

Leaders contacted by Enab Baladi said that groups affiliated with the Islamic State organization no longer have actual control in the province, thanks to the pursuit conducted by the Central Committees and Eighth Brigade factions against them for two years.

The regime previously attempted to enter security patrols into areas controlled by the Central Committees in the cities of Jasim and Tafas, and other areas east of Daraa, but it was met with armed confrontations with the factions in the region, costing it lives and injuries.

In early 2022, a security patrol belonging to the Syrian regime forces raided the city of Jasim in the northern countryside of Daraa and clashed with former fighters in opposition factions, resulting in one death and several injuries.

This was followed by a similar attempt to enter the same city months later, costing the regime more than ten deaths and the destruction of military vehicles.

In December 2023, regime forces besieged the city of Jasim in the northern countryside of Daraa, and initiated negotiations with the community leaders and influencers in the area, which concluded with the lifting of the siege.

In July 2023, clashes erupted between former opposition faction fighters and Syrian regime forces south of the city of Tafas in the western countryside of Daraa, ending with negotiations similar to those that took place in Jasim.

In the city of Nawa in southwest Daraa, tensions flared in November 2023, following the regime’s attempt to establish a military checkpoint in the area, which ended with the withdrawal of its forces after the intervention of the Central Committees factions.

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