The Assad regime has evicted over 75,000 civilians from just five towns and villages around Daraa. Now they’re demanding their right to return—but is anyone listening?
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 12 October, 2017]
Namer, al-Kutayba, Khirbat Ghazala, al-Shaykh Miskeen, Ataman: five towns and villages in Daraa Governorate whose residents have been forcibly displaced in their entirety following violent battles leading to their takeover by Assad regime forces, and to the widespread destruction of their buildings and infrastructure.
They enjoy strategic significance, in light of their locations on the two main highways—the new one and the old one—of Daraa Governorate, which connect Damascus to the city of Daraa, and thence to the Naseeb crossing on the Jordanian border.
These five towns and villages remain completely devoid of residents, and today their displaced natives are demanding their return home be an essential part of any resolution in southern Syria; a demand which thus far looks to be firmly rejected by the regime.
A quick history of Namer, al-Kutayba, and Khirbat Ghazala
The two villages of Namer and al-Kutayba, and the town of Khirbat Ghazala, are situated on the new international Damascus-Amman highway. Namer, which overlooks the highway directly, sits about four kilometers from the regime-controlled city of Izraa, and twenty-four kilometers from the city of Daraa. Its residents, according to Free Daraa Governorate Council statistics from 2016, numbered approximately 4,500, a third of them Christian.
As for the town of Khirbat Ghazala, and the village of al-Kutayba which is considered a part or neighborhood thereof, their combined population is estimated at around 24,000, also according to 2016 Free Daraa Governorate Council statistics. They are located about twenty kilometers from Daraa city.
The residents of the town and two villages were displaced following the ferocious Battle of Jisr Hawran launched by Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in Khirbat Ghazala on 8 March, 2013, with the goal of seizing control of the highway to block the regime’s supply lines to Daraa city, and to the regime’s 38th Brigade base in the village of Sayda, which the FSA in east Daraa countryside were trying to cut off from Assad’s forces.
That battle put the regime in a critical situation, for the city of Izraa opened up before the FSA factions from the direction of Namer village, and the fall of Daraa city itself would have become conceivable had the FSA been able to take over the area. This pushed the regime to use intense fire, including surface-to-surface missiles, to end the battle after sixty-seven days with the result that the FSA had taken over the 38th Brigade base, albeit at the price of losing Namer to regime forces on 15 April, 2013, and then al-Kutayba and Khirbat Ghazala on 12 May. After forcing out all residents, the regime converted the three into military bases, in order to secure the international highway against the prospect of renewed attack by the FSA from these areas.
“We were able to control the highway and cut it off for two days during the Jisr Hawran battle,” says one of the fighters who participated in it. “We could have attained a great advance, but instead the brigades’ commanders announced two months after the start of the battle that ammunition had run out. We then became aware of a palpable slackening on their part, in tandem with an intensification of regime bombardment, which drove us to leave our positions and move permanently out of Khirbat Ghazala, from which we remain evicted more than four years later.”
The people of Namer, al-Kutayba, and Khirbat Ghazala were displaced to neighboring villages, particularly Elma and al-Sura, and the two villages of Eastern and Western al-Ghariya, in which the families of Khirbat Ghazala were concentrated. There were also entire families that took refuge in Jordan, or subsequently emigrated to Europe.
The city of al-Shaykh Miskeen sits in Daraa’s northern countryside, on the old Damascus-Daraa road, in the center of the governorate around twenty-two kilometers from Daraa city. It’s considered a connection point between Nawa, Ibta, and Dael, which are under opposition brigades’ control, and Izraa and al-Sanamayn, held by regime forces. Its population was estimated at 35,000 in the Free Daraa Governorate Council statistics of 2016.
Al-Shaykh Miskeen witnessed come-and-go battles between regime forces and opposition brigades since the start of the revolution’s transformation into an armed struggle, and the displacement of its people happened in stages as a result of those battles. The first of these stages was when the opposition took control of al-Shaykh Miskeen’s southern neighborhood, only for the regime to quickly retake it, leading a portion of residents to leave and seek refuge in the neighboring areas. Then, at the end of 2014, an attack was launched on the city by FSA brigades, as well as Islamist brigades using car bombs, who succeeded by the start of 2015 in seizing control of it, and of the regime’s 82nd Brigade base therein. A large number of residents departed during this battle.
The city remained under opposition control until in 2015 Russia intervened to prop up the regime and reverse the situation on the ground. At the end of the year, regime forces and the militias supporting them launched a broad assault on al-Shaykh Miskeen, with intense cover from Russian aircraft, and were able to regain control of the city on 26 January, 2016, and to displace its remaining residents altogether, most of whom took refuge in the city of Nawa and various villages in Daraa’s western countryside, after a great number of their homes were leveled to the ground.
“I was displaced twice from al-Shaykh Miskeen with my three children,” says Umm Basim, a native of the city now in Nawa. “The first time was in December 2014, though I soon returned after approximately three months. About a year later, however, I left it again, and this time my husband—who had refused to leave the first time—came with me, for the air bombardment was very intense, and to find shelter from it was difficult.”
The village of Ataman acquires its significance for both the regime and the opposition from its being the northern gateway to Daraa city on the old Damascus-Daraa highway, with which it is fully contiguous. Its population amounts to some 12,500, according to the 2016 Free Daraa Governorate Council data.
Ataman’s location rendered it a ‘hot’ frontline, and most of its people have been displaced for this reason. The village remained in opposition hands until Russian fighter jets began fierce raids on it, restoring it to regime rule on 2 February, 2016, and completing the displacement of its remaining residents and the annihilation of most of the village. Today, most Ataman natives reside in nearby towns and villages, such as Tafas and Dael.
“I built a house for me and my children on a 1,000-square-meter plot, and covered it with the best, most expensive kinds of ceramic and alabaster,” says Abu Rami about his home in Ataman. “I left it in the summer of 2014 because of the daily bombardment faced by the village, moving with my family among the liberated villages and towns of Daraa, until I settled six months ago in the city of al-Hirak, in a house that can hardly hold our large family. I can’t rent a bigger place because there are no empty houses due to the great number of internally displaced people in the areas of Daraa outside regime control.”
A matter of negotiation
For the most part, talk in opposition circles about the situation of those displaced from these five towns and villages, and their suffering, has been terse; alluded to timidly and from afar; because of the massacres and battles that are still ongoing in Daraa and the country in general.
However, since the announcement of a ceasefire in southern Syria in July, and after political resolution became the sole way forward available, discussion of the woes of the displaced mounted, and the matter of their return became not only a fundamental demand but an item mentioned at the table of negotiations and exchanges between the regime and the opposition, and their respective international patrons.
There are numerous items at the negotiation table related to southern Syria; some declared, and likely others undeclared pertaining to the interests of the parties’ guarantor states. Among the items about which there has been much discussion is the Naseeb border crossing with Jordan, and the possibility of reopening it, with the regime and its allies trying to do so in order to restore commercial trade with Jordan, but without providing anything in return, or providing meager spoils to the brigades of the Southern Front, which controls the crossing militarily.
In order to highlight the cause of the people of these towns and villages; and to send a message rejecting the signing of any agreement concerning the south, including the matter of the Naseeb crossing, without the return of the displaced; various revolutionary forces, both armed and civilian, in Daraa have recently called for the ‘Displaced of Dignity’ protest.
The ‘Displaced of Dignity’ protest
The protest was divided into three phases, the first of which was launched on the morning of September 5, and lasted for three days. The second phase began on September 26, for one day, and the starting date of the third phase has not yet been announced.
It was decided that the site of the protest be above the Umm al-Mayadhin bridge, located on the main road leading to the Naseeb border crossing, indeed just a few hundred meters from it. The protestors directed a message to the factions of the Southern Front, and the High Negotiations Committee, to the effect that they reject any agreement or discussion about any detail concerning the ceasefire, before their return to their regime-occupied villages and towns, in addition to the release of detainees.
Among the people attending the protest were commanders of the al-Bunyan al-Marsus (“The Firmly-Built Structure”) operations room, which waged the last battles in Daraa city’s al-Manshia quarter before the ceasefire, and the head of the Free Daraa Governorate Council. The protest was covered in the media, with the Syrian Media Organization (SMO) broadcasting it live on their Facebook page.
“We were marginalized for a long time,” says A. al-Haj Ali, from Khirbat Ghazala. “Through the Displaced of Dignity protest, we want to let the armed factions inside the country, even before the negotiators outside the country, know that we will be silent no longer about our marginalization and our right to return to our villages and towns, and we won’t accept our villages to be sold as they were the first time.”
“Our return should be a return of dignity, in accordance with international guarantees, such that the regime will not detain more of our youths, nor will we be at the mercy of the regime’s forces and militias, nor will we become a mere item in a deal under which we’re the sole losers.”
As for the lawyer F. al-Zoabi, he says, “I think the selection of the protest site close to the Naseeb crossing was not for nothing. The aim is to turn the demand for the return of the displaced to their villages and towns into a negotiation point. The return of the ‘displaced of dignity’ hinges on the specifications of the safe areas [the so-called ‘de-escalation zones’], which the ceasefire stipulated should be established, just as the opening of the Naseeb crossing to restore trade with Jordan is deemed achievable per the clauses of the ceasefire, assuming it isn’t violated.”
“However, the lack of clarity of details and application mechanisms for the ceasefire’s articles, or perhaps the failure to reach an agreement satisfying all parties, led to both the regime and the armed opposition showing the ‘pressure cards’ in their possession. The regime controls the uninhabited villages and towns of the ‘displaced of dignity,’ while the Naseeb crossing is under the control of the Southern Front factions, and both parties seek to obtain material and moral gains by showing their pressure cards, even though neither the regime nor the opposition were parties to the creation of the ceasefire in southern Syria.”
The armed opposition—the brigades of the Southern Front, specifically—insist, with the support of a not-inconsiderable proportion of the people, especially the people of the five villages and towns, that the opening of the Naseeb crossing (agreement on the mechanism of which has not yet been announced) ought to be conditional on two things: the release of detainees, and the return of the displaced. But it remains unclear whether the factions possess sufficient pressure cards to compel the regime to accept these demands, or whether the regional and international guarantors desire to put any true pressure on the regime, especially since the return cannot occur without international guarantees; real guarantees, the requirements of which can be implemented on the ground, to protect the displaced from regime forces in the event of their return.