© Valery Sharifulin/TASS
On the night of August 8, a unit of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Republican Guard, supported by artillery and mortars, made an unsuccessful attempt to break into the residential quarters of the old city of Daraa (Daraa al-Balad), but was forced to withdraw to its jumpoff position with losses. In the morning, divisional artillery and augmentation resumed shelling against settlements in the west of Daraa Governorate, interrupting road traffic along the Damascus-Amman highway.
The latest escalation was preceded by daily meetings of governorate leaders, the local settlement commission and representatives of the city's neighborhood committees with a delegation of the Russian General Staff led by Generals Asadullah and Alexander Zorin, who also held talks with command representatives of the 4th Division. The Russian side insisted on a complete cessation of armed clashes, a withdrawal of Syrian troops from positions occupied this summer, and the beginning of direct negotiations between the warring parties.
All those involved, including the Russian guarantor, agreed to meet in Daraa al-Balad for talks on August 8, 2021. However, those were thwarted: Syrian artillery struck the building where consultations were to be held just a few hours before the meeting.
One of the local activists and member of bargaining committee Osman al-Musallam told the Arabic Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Damascus (the 4th division command) makes no secret of its lack of interest in new agreements and further Russian-initiated ceasefire negotiations. Damascus is adamant in demanding to expel all the local militia fighters from Daraa al-Balad, to deploy a network of observation posts and checkpoints of the 4th division throughout the province, to conduct a "mop-up" of all the houses and residential premises, to seize small arms from the population and arrest resistance activists and people unwilling to comply with these requirements.
Russian representatives, according to Osman Al-Musallam, are no longer able to affect any changes of Damascus' attitude and can only pledge not to use their combat aircraft against the recalcitrant. Commanders of the 4th Division exploit every pretext to avoid meetings with representatives of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, in defiance of proposals by the Russian military.
Over the last three days, the Syrian command has regrouped forces of the 4th Division of the Republican Guard that block the Daraa Governorate's administrative center, and redeployed them to their normal fixed locations in the governorates of Aleppo and Homs. Before leaving, the servicemen looted shops and apartments left by residents and took away stolen property in military trucks. Their positions were occupied by detachments of Shiite pro-Iranian militia, redeployed from the Damascus suburbs.
The governorate's capital city has been under siege since the end of June: the Syrian military has cut off water and electricity supplies, and blocked roads used to deliver food to the residents. A targeted artillery strike has completely destroyed the outpatient clinic.
The local population is particularly indignant at the expanded engagement of non-government Shiite foreign militia units loyal to Iran in military operations on the side of the 4th Division. Militants get generally involved in carrying out harsh "mop-ups" of settlements, performing police functions at checkpoints and assisting military counterintelligence officers in arresting undesirable people.
Indignation over actions by military divisions of the Republican Guard are on the rise, spreading to other southern governorates of As-Suwayda and Damascus. Representatives of the Druze community, which makes up most of As-Suwayda dwellers, expressed support for Daraa's local militia and declared readiness to defend their interests with weapons in case of the central authorities' wrongful conduct. Mass rallies to condemn Bashar al-Assad's policy and actions by the 4th division in southern Syria were held in Ghouta (Damascus), the governorates of As-Suwayda and Quneitra.
An anonymous source in the local negotiating team informed Asharq al-Awsat about a possible direct intervention by units of the pro-Russian 8th mechanized brigade of the 5th Army Corps on the side of local militia detachments. According to the source, this may happen if commanders of the 4th Division of the Republican Guard refuse to carry out Russia's proposals on the cessation of hostilities and adherence to the agreement of 2018. The source reminded of what had happened in Hama Governorate in 2019, when units of the 5th corps wrested ground from those of the 4th division, providing for the deployment of Russian military. The "guards'" death toll exceeded 200 people.
Arab regional military experts and political analysts believe that the current situation in southern Syria is fraught with unpredictable consequences for the country's entire regime. The obvious indulgence by President Bashar al-Assad to the powerful pro-Iranian military and political lobby existing in his environment undermines the central government's authority, while Iran's insidious influence in this region, which runs counter to the agreement of 2018, plagues relations with Russia in no small way.
According to Arab experts, Bashar al-Assad is strongly influenced by Tehran, which, in turn, is not interested in establishing stability in Syria and has long been avoiding engagement in the suppression of anti-government terrorist, extremist and other armed groups. Ruled by the Iranians, the Syrian president has once again embarked on a path of strategic mistake, which may lead to an upsurge in discontent among the country's population and loss of power.