Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Thursday, April 27th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Photo from al-Sanamayn, April 2017.
It is often thought that the regime has a grand strategy for suppressing the rebellion in the western half of the country that constitutes the main conflict within the Syrian civil war. In reality though, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the question of how the regime deals with restive areas very much depends on area and circumstances. In some places, a Sunni-Alawite sectarian faultline has influenced the regime’s approach: thus we see a clear demographic shift in the city of Homs in favour of the Alawites, with the rebellious and predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods largely depopulated. Indeed it seems unlikely that the majority of the original inhabitants of those neighbourhoods will return for the foreseeable future. Some areas that are not tied to this sectarian faultline but proved to be a thorn in the regime’s side for years- such as Darayya, a suburb to the south of Damascus- will also likely remain depopulated for the time being. Indeed, as of the time of writing, Darayya remains a military zone that can only be visited with a special permit, even for Shi’i pilgrims who may want to see the largely ruined Sakina shrine in the area.
However, it would not be feasible for the regime to depopulate every restive area. It is in this context that the mechanism of ‘reconciliation’ (musalaha) exists, whereby an agreement is struck in order to bring an area officially back under regime authority. The exact terms of the reconciliation agreements have varied from place to place, perhaps reflecting some experimentation. This article will focus on the case of al-Sanamayn, a town in north Deraa province where a reconciliation agreement was struck at the end of December 2016. It is of course also important to give the context of the agreement, thus this article will first provide a general description of the town and its history during the Syrian civil war.
Unlike some other Deraa localities, al-Sanamayn has no Shi’i population. Rather it is entirely Sunni. The populations of Deraa localities can also normally be divided into the most important extended families/clans. In al-Sanamayn, these families are:
In addition to the original population, the town also hosts a number of people internally displaced from nearby villages over the course of the Syrian civil war.
On account of its location, the town of al-Sanamayn has been regarded as an important strategic point. From the rebel perspective, capturing the town could have served as a ‘gateway’ to connect with the rebel-held areas in the Damascus countryside and suburbs and thus launch a serious fight to take Damascus from the regime. However, in light of the regime’s consolidation of control of much of the Damascus area since 2013-2014, and the constraints faced by the Southern Front (primarily consisting of local Free Syrian Army-banner units working with an operations room in Amman), any notions of taking Damascus from the regime can only be seen as fanciful at this stage. For the regime, the al-Sanamayn area is home to an important base for the Syrian army’s 9th division serving as a logistics point and a position to fire on rebel positions in the wider north Deraa area. The al-Sanamayn area also has a base for the 15th brigade affiliated with the 5th division. In addition, al-Sanamayn bears some industrial importance for the regime’s development plans in Deraa, as al-Sanamayn is supposed to feature an industrial area that was partly the subject of a recent conference attended by the artisans union and the Deraa provincial governor Muhammad Khalid al-Hanus. There are also some personal loyalist connections to al-Sanamayn: most importantly, the head of the Deraa province branch of the Ba’ath Party- Kamal al-Atmeh– is from al-Sanamayn.
Though there was never a major battle waged by rebels from outside the town to advance into al-Sanamayn and take control of it, the town saw the rise of a number of local rebel factions within its neighbourhoods. This development is hardly surprising considering that the town saw protests against the regime on multiple occasions in 2011, indicating the existence of considerable popular discontent. In late March 2011, a violent crackdown on protests in al-Sanamayn occurred, dubbed a massacre in pro-opposition media.
A protest on 6 November 2011 in al-Sanamayn. The banner in the name of “Revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn” reads: “We don’t love you.” The Syrian Arabic- Ma Manhibbak– is a play on the common slogan in support of Assad: Manhibbak (“We love you”).
The town of al-Sanamayn has never featured some of the more familiar names of the Syrian insurgency like Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, even as many rebels of al-Sanamayn origin have participated in fighting outside the area. Instead, the factions that emerged within al-Sanamayn derived from a strictly local basis. The first faction to arise in al-Sanamayn was Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn (“The al-Sanamayn Martyrs Battalion”) in late 2012, under the leadership of Abu Fadi al-Saydali (real name: Muhammad Jaber al-Atmeh), who worked as a service taxi driver between Damascus and al-Sanamayn before the uprising. Other local groups were then formed through the course of 2013 as rebel forces inside al-Sanamayn gained strength. Most notably, in May 2013 came the announcement of the group Katibat Nusrat al-Haq (“Supporting the Truth Battalion”), under the leadership of one Abd al-Latif al-Haimid, who studied at the Shari’i college in Damascus university and taught Islamic education, thus the use of the honorific title of sheikh in reference to him.
Soon after it was formed, Katibat Nusrat al-Haq came into conflict with Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, which accused the group of engaging in criminal behaviour through taking money from civilians in the al-Sanamayn area under threat of arms, while falsely using Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn’s name and the pretext of buying weapons for the battalion. Notice the deriding of Abd al-Latif al-Haimid’s title of sheikh by Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn. The other side of the story is the claim that this dispute was rooted in al-Saydali’s perception that Katibat Nusrat al-Haq posed a threat to his influence over the rebel milieu in al-Sanamayn, as Abd al-Latif al-Haimid was supposedly not the sort of character who could have sanctioned criminal behaviour in light of his Islamic background. Abd al-Latif al-Haimid was found dead at the end of 2013 in rather murky circumstances while outside of al-Sanamayn, though accusations of kidnapping and assassination were directed at the Mujahideen of Hawran Battalion affiliated with the group Liwa Hamza Assad Allah, with which Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn also had links in 2013.
Like many other rebel environments, the al-Sanamayn area saw its share of faction merger initiatives. In February 2014 came the announcement of the formation of Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra (“Fire of the Revolution Brigade”), likely a homage to the title of Sha’alat al-Thawra that has become associated with al-Sanamayn. With a purview beyond the town of al-Sanamayn, the brigade was declared to be “operating in the northwest region of Deraa province.” The formation statement declared the leader to be Yahya al-Rifa’i, with one Maher al-Labad as his deputy, while al-Saydali would serve as the head of civil affairs for the group. Probably owing to tensions with al-Saydali, Katibat Nusrat al-Haq did not join the initiative. Later in July 2014, Maher al-Labad would also found his own contingent: Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir (“Dawn of Liberation Brigade”), though that did not necessarily amount to a defection from Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra. The names of both Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir and Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra are mentioned in conducting operations against regime forces in the months following the former’s formation. The links between the two are also illustrated by the fact that they have adopted the same subsequent affiliations, mostly recently being affiliated to the Southern Front’s 46th infantry division. The main difference now is that Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir maintains a presence inside al-Sanamayn city, whereas Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra does not. As for Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, it had apparently gone its own way by 2015, as al-Saydali had allegedly sought to marginalise others like Maher al-Labad in Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra and claim the leadership for himself. There were also claims of criminal behaviour and imposition of extortion fees on civilians.
As the rebel presence inside al-Sanamayn town developed, a limited form of civil society embodied in local councils emerged. The first local council was announced on social media in August 2013. Another local council was announced in November 2013. The local council announced in November 2013 still exists to this day, is headed by one Yassin al-Atmeh (himself currently based in Jordan) and is affiliated with the Deraa provincial council tied to the Syrian interim government. This local council was also tied to the Union of Local Councils in Deraa Province (an initiative headed by one Ali Ahmad al-Rakab who is based in the Gulf region) but subsequently withdrew from it, and urged all aid organizations not to work with it for provision of any aid to al-Sanamayn. Its authority was most notably backed by Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra’s leadership in a statement in late October 2014. Meanwhile, the local council that had been declared on social media in August 2013 joined the Union of Local Councils in Deraa Province, and enjoyed backing from several of al-Sanamayn’s factions, including Katibat Nusrat al-Haq and Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed (about which more later). In the end though, over the course of 2015 the local council under Yassin al-Atmeh prevailed, likely because it had stronger support.
Even so, it should be noted that despite the apparent comprehensiveness of the offices announced for the local councils, most of the public services in al-Sanamayn have been provided throughout by the regime. The local council bodies have instead been limited to distribution of gifts and aid on particular occasions (cf. here and here). According to Yassin al-Atmeh, his local council, which on the ground in al-Sanamayn is presently headed by one al-Tayyib Abu al-Nur, continues some of these activities today, telling me: “The council still provides what it can to aid the orphans and the sons of those detained, along with aid from organizations and the people of benevolence, who have taken it upon themselves to pay sums for the orphans.” All that said, there are allegations that Yassin al-Atmeh has enriched himself, along with Muhammad Jaber al-Atmeh, through corruption and theft of local council money.
So how did the reconciliation come about? As mentioned above, rebel forces inside al-Sanamayn gained strength through 2013. While service provision by the regime remained, large parts of al-Sanamayn effectively fell outside of regime control. The main exceptions were the market road and the general road in al-Sanamayn. The rebels would target regime positions and bases with projectiles or engage in relatively small-scale clashes. Instances of kidnappings by one side would lead to tit-for-tat escalation. The worst such incident appears to have been a massacre conducted by regime forces in April 2013, reportedly killing more than 60 people in an assault that was focused on al-Sanamayn’s southern neighbourhoods. Civilians would sometimes be caught in the crossfire more generally. For instance, in November 2015, at least one civilian was killed and a number of others wounded as rebel mortar fire landed at the site of the bakery.
The regime’s main leverage over the rebel factions in al-Sanamayn was to impose a siege on the neighbourhoods in which the rebels had effective control, blocking access to commodities and goods. Thus in December 2015, the regime’s forces imposed a blockade on those neighbourhoods, reportedly in retaliation for the rebel factions targeting a car carrying an army officer and a number of personnel. The rebel factions in turn had reportedly carried out the attack in response to the arrest of a youth from al-Sanamayn at one of the regime checkpoints around the town. The blockade was lifted after negotiations between the rebel factions and the regime forces, on condition that the rebels do not attack regime positions or personnel. Another condition of this virtual ceasefire was that people in al-Sanamayn should be able to participate in the subsequent parliamentary elections, which took place in April 2016.
The regime would go on to impose a new siege on the rebel-held areas of al-Sanamayn in response to a perceived violation of the de facto truce, as a man called Imad al-Labad and his group- well known for criminality among the people of al-Sanamayn- had stolen a number of cars, including one belonging to one of the regime’s security apparatuses. The regime then used this opportunity to try to resolve the problems it faced in al-Sanamayn by pressing for a reconciliation agreement. Rebel opinion was divided at the time regarding how to respond to the new siege. Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed, based only inside of al-Sanamayn, rejected the idea put forward mostly by al-Sanamayn rebels based outside the town to target the regime’s military points inside the town, fearing the consequences for those already besieged inside the town. There does appear to have been some outside rebel firing on the town to target the regime, which killed at least one civilian.
The pressure created by the siege was a contributing factor to negotiations in December 2016 and the formal reconciliation agreement towards the end of that month. Key to the negotiation of this agreement on the regime side was Wafiq Nasir, head of the military intelligence in southern Syria. Wafiq Nasir is widely disliked among more third-way Druze in Deraa’s neighbouring province of Suwayda’ where his authority also applies. The other key figure on the regime side was the head of the Syrian army’s 9th division. Intermediaries in the reconciliation agreement were Jamal al-Asha, head of the reconciliation committee in al-Sanamayn, and one Antar al-Labad, who is accused of dealing in stolen cars, wider theft and of being close to Wafiq Nasir. He had set up his own very small armed group that was initially on the side of the rebels, but well before the reconciliation, he had established relations with the regime. During the siege of al-Sanamayn prior to the reconciliation, he was able to use his influence to bring about a lifting of the siege at the end of November 2016. Jamal al-Asha is apparently of the al-Labad family, with his son allegedly on the side of the rebels and based in Nawa. Both a Jamal al-Labad and an Antar al-Labad are named along with a number of other locals by pro-opposition outlet Zaman al-Wasl as those who had been pushing for a reconciliation agreement in al-Sanamayn to avoid a Darayya-style scenario. Observe that the family names of those named by Zaman al-Wasl indicate that they are mostly from al-Sanamayn’s biggest families.
The reconciliation agreement did not require a formal undertaking of the reconciliation process by every inhabitant of al-Sanamayn. Rather, the idea was that a certain number of people would undertake the process to represent the entire town. The pro-opposition outlet al-Modon says that the reconciliation was imposed on a clan basis: that is, that each clan/extended family should have a representation in the reconciliation agreement. For its part, the regime’s state media outlet SANA claimed on 25 December 2016 that 510 people in al-Sanamayn- among them 150 “armed men”- carried out taswiyat al-wad’ (“sorting out of affairs”) as part of the reconciliation, while handing over weapons to the security apparatuses. No one inside al-Sanamayn was compelled to leave for Idlib or other rebel-held areas.
Among those who formally reconciled, one important motive to undergo reconciliation would be to deal with the problem of being wanted for military service. In this case, taswiyat al-wad’ would grant a temporary formal respite. As for the rebel factions inside al-Sanamayn, it is clear that not every member or even leader of every faction formally reconciled and handed over weapons. Indeed, there was no requirement for them all to do so, and any formal reconciliation on the part of the rebels can be seen as symbolic. The most notable rebel faction leader who formally reconciled was Tha’ir al-Falah, leader of Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed. In contrast, Abu Fadi al-Saydali, leader of Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, did not formally reconcile, though he did meet with Wafiq Nasir.
It must be emphasised that while not every rebel or rebel leader inside al-Sanamayn formally reconciled, all the rebel factions operating inside the town have agreed to abide by the state of affairs imposed by the reconciliation. This situation is not all that different from the agreement struck after the lifting of the siege in December 2015. Thus, as of now, the factions still exist inside of al-Sanamayn and have kept hold of many of their weapons, but they do not attack any regime positions or personnel. Meanwhile, the regime provides services as usual, maintains state institutions in the town, and allows regular flow of commodities and goods to all areas of the town. Also as will be recalled from above, the local council of Yassin al-Atmeh still exists at a very modest level as before. Furthermore, the regime’s army and security forces do not generally intervene in security and criminal incidents in the town, allowing the factions to deal with these matters, while legal affairs such as marriage are dealt with by the regime’s court system. Thus, the regime avoids arresting anyone inside al-Sanamayn. That said, the regime has helped to set up a new faction inside al-Sanamayn to try to help maintain security in the town, about which more below.
At present, the main factions inside al-Sanamayn are:
– Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn of Abu Fadi al-Saydali.
– Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed of Tha’ir al-Falah (aka Tha’ir al-Abbas).
– Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir of Maher al-Labad, though Maher al-Labad is not inside al-Sanamayn. By virtue of links to Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra and the 46th infantry division, there is a presence for this group outside al-Sanamayn as well.
– Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, led by one Abu Zaher al-Labad (real name: Barhum Mahmoud al-Labad): a new group created after the release of Abu Zaher al-Labad from prison as per the reconciliation agreement requiring the release of sets of detainees. The group mostly contains people from the al-Labad family and was set up with help from the military intelligence.
In addition to these factions, there are some smaller armed groups, each of which does not have more than 10-15 people. These groups may constitute criminal gangs and/or partly reflect remnants of al-Sanamayn’s minor factions from earlier years. Muhammad Khalif, the leader of Katibat Dir’ al-Sanamayn (aka Liwa Dir’ al-Sanamayn), and a representative on his behalf, for instance, insisted to me that his group is still a real actor on the ground in al-Sanamayn (recall the group’s name among the signatories that backed the local council that lost out to Yassin al-Atmeh’s outfit). Yet a media activist in al-Sanamayn- Abu al-Awras al-Shami- insisted that the group does not have a presence on the ground and was dissolved some time ago. The reality is perhaps somewhere in between. It may be the case that Katibat Dir’ al-Sanamayn no longer exists as a meaningful name on the ground in the town, but perhaps Khalif can call on some armed supporters in times of trouble for him or his family.
Other factions of note and bearing the name of al-Sanamayn (e.g. Liwa Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn of the Tajammu’ Alwiyat al-Omari and Liwa Suqur al-Sanamayn of the First Army) do not have a presence inside al-Sanamayn at present, but are operating in other rebel-held areas in the south. Foreign militias supporting the regime like Hezbollah do not maintain a presence inside al-Sanamayn or try to recruit from the people of al-Sanamayn. With the at least temporary respite in conscription, the regime has opened an office in al-Sanamayn aiming to recruit people into the Fifth Legion, a formation strongly backed by Russia and intended to recruit people on a voluntary basis with substantial benefits, including those who have done taswiyat al-wad’.
al-Sanamayn, April 2017.
So on the whole, how is life in al-Sanamayn after the reconciliation? Commenting in general on the reconciliation, the media representative for Muhammad Khalif did not necessarily object to it, clarifying: “If these reconciliations prevent bloodshed, we all welcome them…The reconciliation happened through pressure from the people of al-Sanamayn town on the revolutionaries present inside, because all the revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn are from the people of the town.”
For many opposition/rebel supporters and activists, the reconciliation amounts to little more than cynical regime propaganda. “This reconciliation arose for media purposes for the regime’s interest only in order to promote reconciliations to the rest of the localities in Deraa province,” said Aboud al-Hawrani, an activist for the pro-opposition “Revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn” media office. He elaborated: “Even before the reconciliation, al-Sanamayn was in a state of ceasefire with the regime [referring to the agreement in December 2015] and the problems that arose with the regime arose on an individual basis only: i.e. if the regime arrested one of someone’s relatives, that person would cause problems with the regime like kidnapping military personnel and firing on a military zone…This state of affairs remains the case even after the reconciliation. This reconciliation is a media movement only for the regime on the basis that al-Sanamayn has come under complete control.”
Other people in al-Sanamayn with whom I spoke agreed with the basic point that the current situation is little different from the previous status quo (i.e. the one prior to the siege imposed just before the reconciliation). In this state of affairs, the existence of multiple armed factions and gangs without a real central intervening authority poses an important problem for those who just want greater stability, order and rule-of-law. Indeed, Ala’ al-Din al-Labad, one of the individuals named by Zaman al-Wasl as being behind the efforts to push for a reconciliation, seemed gloomy about the current situation. He was never a supporter of the opposition but not necessarily an ideological loyalist of the regime. Rather, his primary desires are stability and security. “The situation is like the silence before the storm,” he said. He went on to explain: “When arms spread in the hands of the ignorant, there is much killing, as well as treachery, extortion and theft. This is our state of affairs now.” He also pointed out the poor state of services provision, affirming that “there is one hour of very weak and intermittent electricity for every four hours it is cut off. Water is available for 4 hours a week. Insufficient.” The provision of national grid electricity (Arabic: kahraba’ wataniya) by a ratio of around 1-1.5 hours for every 4-5 hours it is cut off was corroborated by others residing in al-Sanamayn.
At this stage, the main factions inside al-Sanamayn primarily amount to clan-interest groups. As Tha’ir al-Falah explained, “We no longer have [political] factions in al-Sanamayn, they have become clan factions: every armed person affiliated with his family.” Thus, his group- Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed- mostly consists of members of the al-Falah clan that primarily inhabits the northeastern part of the town. Abu al-Awras al-Shami, himself from the al-Haimid family, offered a similar assessment: “In the recent time, the armed factions in al-Sanamayn have become clan factions: that is, every family has armed men from its sons, whose aim is to protect the family from any attack.”
When this point is taken into account along with the existence of criminal gangs, Ala’ al-Din al-Labad’s concerns about lack of security are hardly surprising. As Abu al-Awras al-Shami also explained, “There are many security problems in the town from theft, kidnapping and assault on the people by force of arms, and no one can put a stop to these criminals.” One example of these problems is an incident that received some opposition media attention around a month ago, as it involved the new Katibat Maghawir al-Haq. The event- a clash that killed at least one person and wounded a number of people- was portrayed in the pro-opposition media outlet All4Syria as a clash along loyalist-rebel lines (Katibat Maghawir al-Haq vs. “the battalions of the revolutionaries”). In fact, this portrayal is quite off-base. Fundamentally, the incident involved clashes between members of the al-Dhiyab family and members of the al-Labad family. The roots of the issue lie in an attempt by at least two people from the al-Dhiyab family- apparently members of a notorious criminal gang led by one Nadim al-Dhiyab- to impose an extortion fee on a shop, allegedly demanding 500,000 Syrian pounds and threatening to burn the shop if the owner did not pay the extortion fee. This threat was rejected by the shop owner, who then contacted Barhum al-Labad to intervene. Barhum al-Labad then came with one Abu Abdo al-Shatar and someone else from the al-Labad family, and tried to get the gang members to leave. When they refused, one of them was shot in the leg. Barhum then sent men to members of the al-Dhiyab family to try to prevent a wider clash. Despite an apparent initial agreement from the wider al-Dhiyab family, there was then an assault by members of the al-Dhiyab family on the Harat al-Labad (the part of the town where the al-Labad family is found in large numbers).
Also of note with regards to All4Syria’s coverage of the incident is the claim that Katibat Maghawir al-Haq is affiliated with the Fifth Legion. An interesting follow-up item was posted on All4Syria, in which Katibat Maghawir al-Haq ostensibly denied this affiliation in a statement, which is reproduced below.
The statement at first sight has all the trappings of a typical Deraa rebel faction, using the monikers of “the Free Syrian Army” and “the Southern Front.” The statement includes revolutionary affirmations like the following: “Our complete readiness…to defend our land against the Assadist criminal gangs.” It concludes with the declaration: “Victory to our blessed revolution.” The interesting thing about this statement though is that it may not have been written by Abu Zaher al-Labad at all, but rather Maher al-Labad, who was angered by All4Syria’s claim about Katibat Maghawir al-Haq and told Abu al-Awras al-Shami that he intended for an apology statement from All4Syria, as he considered that All4Syria’s article would be harmful to the al-Labad family.
In any case, the conflict involving Katibat Maghawir al-Haq required intervention from Wafiq Nasir. According to Tha’ir al-Falah, Wafiq Nasir has formally distanced himself and the military intelligence from the faction in statements to the people of al-Sanamayn. Tha’ir al-Falah attributes this distancing to the problem of this clash, adding that “Maghawir al-Haq is a faction that does not have popular support in al-Sanamayn. The town has agreed on this point.” A more sympathetic view of the faction was offered by Ala’ al-Din al-Labad, portraying it as a group dedicated to cracking down on criminal behaviour. Family affiliation biases are likely at play here.
Tha’ir al-Falah’s own faction was involved in a minor clash this month, after a member of an armed gang demanded that a doctor provide him with free treatment, threatening him with his weapons. When the doctor refused, the member of the armed gang attacked him and opened fire on his clinic, prompting an intervention from Tha’ir al-Falah, resulting in a clash that lasted no more than a matter of minutes. Afterwards the armed gang came to Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed’s base and apologised to the doctor, resolving the case.
It would be a mistake to presume that all conflicts inside al-Sanamayn are between members of different families, just as not all conflicts within Iraq and Syria more generally take place along ethno-religious sectarian lines. A recent case that culminated in a trial and execution of the accused by qisas ruling involved people from the same clan: al-Atmeh. In particular, a young man called Ismail Yahya al-Atmeh, a member of Abu Fadi al-Saydali’s faction, killed a father and son (also of the al-Atmeh clan) in a quarrel. After much pressure from people in al-Sanamayn on Abu Fadi al-Saydali, Ismail al-Atmeh was arrested, and he then acknowledged his crime. Interestingly, in keeping with the regime’s general non-interference in security and criminal matters in al-Sanamayn, the case was referred to the Dar al-‘Adl (“Abode of Justice”), the main rebel judicial authority in southern Syria. To be sure, the Dar al-‘Adl does not have a base in al-Sanamayn: rather the connection was done remotely. Ismail al-Atmeh fled from his imprisonment but was recaptured. He was then executed in accordance with the qisas ruling at dawn on 18 April.
The security problems in al-Sanamayn are recognised to a degree by the leadership of the main factions, thus on the night of 14-15 April there was a meeting involving the faction leaders and town notables. The principal outcome of this meeting was that the majority agreed on the need to form a security force that has joint participation from all the factions and families. The meeting also pointed to the wider lack of popular support for Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, with the consensus view being that its members do not adhere to good conduct or values, and town notables opined that it should not be entrusted to deal with security problems alone. That said, it remains to be seen how exactly the joint security force will be constituted, and whether it will lead to something that endures practically on the ground.
al-Sanamayn, April 2017.
The situation in al-Sanamayn bears a number of analytical implications for wider analysis of how the regime will deal with restive areas. It is clear that al-Sanamayn is considered by the regime to be a model for how it should eventually deal with the wider rebel-held south. Facing wider manpower shortages, it would not be feasible for the regime to retake every Deraa province town by sheer force and depopulation, which would also risk further large-scale displacements towards Jordan and likely upset the Jordanian government’s less hostile stance (in comparison with some other regional players) towards the regime. Instead, some kind of accommodation with what are largely local, more malleable factions- granting them autonomy in security affairs within ‘reconciled’ localities- is the most realistic option for the regime, even as al-Sanamayn is not a wholly identical situation because it never fell entirely out of regime control and arguably has more strategic importance than an entirely rebel-held town like Nawa. For the rebel factions, a possible additional motive to ‘reconcile’ is the risk of feeling trapped in a pincer between the regime’s forces and its allies on one side and the Islamic State-linked Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed on the other, which exploited rebel weaknesses to secure some advances earlier this year. Civilian pressure on account of war weariness may also be a motive to settle with reconciliation agreements.
At the same time, it is clear that this model does not come without its problems: namely, an atmosphere of lawlessness created by the large number of armed factions and gangs. This phenomenon exists elsewhere in regime-held territory on account of reliance on auxiliary militias, even as the regime continues to provide services and government jobs in those areas. The difference in al-Sanamayn from those other regime-held areas is that the factions occupy a curious limbo position, whereby they do not attack any regime positions or personnel and the Syrian state institutions function in their place, but they are appealing to a rebel/opposition judicial authority (Dar al-‘Adl) to resolve at least some criminal cases. Within areas controlled by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, it is clear from some civilian residents that one perceived advantage of the group’s rule is that it is rule by one faction, and thus brings a sense of order. This issue might make the group’s rule more attractive than continued formal rebel control or a reconciliation agreement on the model of al-Sanamayn.
Could the al-Sanamayn reconciliation framework be applied elsewhere in Syria, especially in Idlib province that is the last epicentre for the insurgency’s conflict with the regime? It seems more doubtful on account of the dominance of far more irreconcilable and ideologically hardline elements, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. To be sure, both of these factions were important inside the Damascus countryside towns of Madaya and Zabadani on the border with Lebanon that were the subject of recent mutual evacuation agreements, but the negotiations took place and were exceptional in nature most notably because there was leverage over Iran in besieging the two Idlib Shi’i towns of al-Fu’a and Kafariya. For Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib more generally, there is no further leverage in trying to resist a forthcoming push by the regime and its allies into Idlib. It is more likely in the endgame to go with al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s advice to move away from the idea of controlling territory and instead focus on guerrilla tactics.