The “8th Brigade” commander Ahmed al-Awda and Yahya Hajjar, the leader of the “Men of Dignity” Movement (edited by Enab Baladi).
Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish
The clashes taking place in the al-Qarya town, south of As-Suwayda province, on the administrative border with Daraa governorate, are attributed to the Russian-backed “8th Brigade” attempts to curb Iranian influence in the region. Nevertheless, there are hidden reasons behind the tension related to the brigade’s control of lands with historical symbolism for the residents of As-Suwayda.
On 29 September, the skirmishes renewed following an attack by elements of the “National Defense Forces (NDF)” militia, which is affiliated to the Syrian regime, at points belonging to the “8th Brigade” of the “Fifth Corps.”
What caused the tension?
There is no administrative boundary between the Hauran Plain (Daraa) and its mountain (As-Suwayda), but the territory in the al-Qarya town, where the “8th Brigade,” led by commander Ahmed al-Awda, has a historical and symbolic significance for As-Suwayda residents.
The civil activist and one of the coordinators of the statement of “Good Neighboring Between the Plain and Mountain of Hauran,” issued last April, Ahed Murad, said to Enab Baladi that the concentration of al-Awda’s forces in al-Qarya town is provoking the As-Suwayda people.
The symbolism of the land is that it ended a dispute between Hauran’s plain and mountain, when residents from Daraa granted the land as “blood money” to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the leader of the “Great Syrian Revolt” in 1925, who descends from al-Qarya town, after the killing of two residents from As-Suwayda.
According to Murad, the As-Suwayda’s elders and dignitaries consider that al-Awda’s control on this land cancels the historic agreement between the two neighboring governorates because al-Awda’s continuous positioning in the land means that he wants to restore it back.
The clashes began on 29 September, when guard posts for the “Fifth Corps” came under an attack described by al-Awda as “an offensive and assault with all types of weapons from three axes.”
Al-Awda denied through a video published by local news networks on 2 October that the “Fifth Corps” forces had occupied any land in the al-Qarya town, saying that his forces conducted “minimal deterrence” operations against the attackers.
According to al-Awda, security points were established in this land in coordination with the Russian side, after last March fighting between the two parties.
Back then, the people of As-Suwayda were asked to share the security points with the “Fifth Corps,” but they refused, and the elements of the “Fifth Corps” remained at their posts “to prevent the killing and kidnapping incidents in Hauran’s plain and mountain,” according to al-Awda.
However, Murad said that the first farmer from al-Qarya residents who went to plant his land was killed, and the lands were not harvested in the areas of al-Awda’s control except with the presence of Russian patrols.
Attempts to stop the skirmishes between the two regions
During previous talks between the two regions’ dignitaries and sometimes with a Russian mediator, the elders of As-Suwayda warned that if al-Awda did not withdraw his forces from the currently disputed al-Qarya land, the villagers would try to restore it by the force of arms.
Despite the intervention of several mediations to force al-Awda’s exit from the land, including clans in Jordan, warning of the consequences of al-Awda’s continued control, there has been no response, and he continued to control the land.
Last April, the “Good Neighboring Between the Plain and Mountain of Hauran” statement was issued after several meetings between the two provinces’ prominent figures.
The statement stressed the importance of ending the kidnapped file, forming a joint committee to follow up on the kidnapped affairs, and investigating the circumstances of the fighting that took place at the end of last March near al-Qarya town, leaving 15 causalities of dead and injured people.
The statement also called for establishing joint projects and asked the society to shoulder its responsibilities regarding the good neighboring issues; nevertheless, the kidnapping incidents continued between the two regions.
In the meeting of the “Good Neighboring” statement, the “Sheikhs of Reason” (parties representing the religious side of society in As-Suwayda governorate) asked the dignitaries of Daraa to convince al-Awda to withdraw from the area and stop provoking the people of the mountain. The “Sheikhs of Reason” also demanded al-Awda to move his artillery and weapons off the al-Qarya town to make room for negotiations; otherwise, the negotiations would be done under the threat of al-Awda’s arms.
According to Murad, a paper that warned of clashes in al-Qarya town was presented to the Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and the Russian Defense Ministry, but the Russians took no action in the case.
Murad holds the Russians responsible for the fighting because they did not respond to repeated demands, and only sent patrols to the place with no change on the ground.
Has the Iranian spark fueled clashes in southern Syria?
On 2 October, al-Awda said in a video posted by local news networks that the “hands of evil” intervened to “disturb the calm of the two neighbors, and ignite strife and war.” Al-Awda added, these “hands of evil” are represented by the kidnapping and sedition gangs, and outlawed terrorist groups.”
Al-Awda warned the people of the Hauran Mountain against being used as tools to carry out agendas for bigger entities, such as the Lebanese “Hezbollah” and the “mercenaries and security arms of Iran.”
According to Murad, the Syrian regime ousted the liaison officer (the officer who coordinates between the local factions affiliated to the regime’s forces) and appointed Wajih Ghanem instead, ten days before the clash.
Murad added, weapons were distributed by “Hezbollah” in southern Syria, which confirms that “Hezbollah is involved,” and that the Iranians are using the intransigence of al-Awda and the Russians’ ignoring of their intervention in the south of Syria.
On 29 September, security points for the “Fifth Corps” came under an attack, described by al-Awda as “an offensive and assault with all types of arms and from three axes.”
On the same day, the “Men of Dignity” Movement in As-Suwayda published a statement on its “Facebook” page, saying it had pushed hundreds of fighters into fighting positions, after clashes between the town’s youth and the “8th Brigade.”
The “Men of Dignity” Movement announced the killing of eight of its members around the al-Qarya town in clashes with the “Fifth Corps,” while the “Horan Free League” mentioned that one of the elements of the “8th Brigade” was killed in the clashes.
The former governor of Daraa, Ali al-Salkhadi, said to Enab Baladi that the attack had a seditious intention between the plain and the Hauran region’s mountain. He added that many people from As-Suwayda did not know the clash’s details and joined the fighting driven by their fanaticism.
This is not the first time in which Syria’s southern region witnesses intense situations. A member of an armed group that attacked a positioning point for the “Fifth Corps” between Busra al-Sham and al-Qarya was killed last April, and a Russian patrol intervened to stop the fighting.
On 28 March, clashes between local factions from As-Suwayda and the “Fifth Corps” left 15 killed and injured people, following the counter-kidnappings between Busra al-Sham in Daraa countryside and al-Qarya town in As-Suwayda countryside.
The “Men of Dignity” Movement in As-Suwayda, the province’s largest local military formations, held the “8th Brigade commander,” Ahmed al-Awda, the responsibility at that time.
Why Russia rely on Ahmed al-Awda?
The researcher at the “European University” and the “Middle East” Institute, who specializes in South Syrian dynamics, Abdullah al-Jabasini, said to Enab Baladi that several factors are limiting the expansion of Iranian backed militias, including “Hezbollah” in the eastern countryside of Daraa province.
The first of these factors is Russia’s desire to preserve the status quo in Daraa for regional considerations and understandings, according to al-Jabasini.
He added, the second factor is that the “8th Brigade” is following a “relatively complex and effective” security plan to tighten control on its core area of influence in eastern Daraa province and to prevent Iran and “Hezbollah” from achieving full infiltration.
According to al-Jabasini, another factor is the “8th Brigade” command’s position against Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Daraa, and its tactical role in attracting former opposition faction fighters, dissidents, and the evaders required for military service in the province to curb Iran’s and Hezbollah’s recruitment operations, and thus diminishing their influence in southern Syria.
Both Iran and “Hezbollah” consider southern Syria a geostrategic region and a military front line for any possible confrontation with Israel.
The “settlement” agreement whereby the Syrian regime controlled Daraa governorate in July 2018 with Russian auspices kept Iranian militias and “Hezbollah” away from the Syrian-Jordanian border between 40 to 60 kilometers, according to Daraa’s former governor, al-Salkhadi.
Al-Salkhadi added, countries such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia also demanded Russia to fulfill its previous pledges of keeping Iranian militias away from the Syrian-Jordanian borders.