Daraa incident signals regional power struggle
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
A recent attack on a Russian army patrol in the southern Syrian province of Daraa is a manifestation of the mistrust felt towards Russian forces in that region by both opposition and Iran-backed forces, a local activist told Diyaruna.
Unknown attackers on July 13th attempted to target a Russian army patrol with an improvised explosive device (IED) planted on the road between the town of al-Sahwa and the city of Busra al-Sham in eastern Daraa province.
The attack resulted in material damage only.
In a statement issued after the incident, director of the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Hmeimim Centre for Reconciliation in Syria Maj. Gen. Alexei Pachin said the Russian armed forces were implementing additional security measures.
He accused militants with terrorist or outlawed opposition groups of carrying out the attack with the aim of escalating the situation in the region, and called on the leaders of such groups to "stop the armed provocations".
Tensions between Russia and Iran
After the attack on the Russian patrol, there were several theories about what had happened, Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam told Diyaruna.
Some said Iran-backed militias carried out the attack as part of the ongoing conflict over influence between Russia and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he said.
Tensions have been high in Daraa between Iran-aligned militias and Russian forces and their allies, which have intensified their patrols, al-Bassam said.
"The IRGC is determined to control the region due to its strategic location, with the Syrian desert (Badiya) and Jordanian border to the east and Deir Ezzor, where the IRGC has a strong presence, to the north," he said.
Without having control over Daraa, al-Bassam pointed out, the IRGC will not be able to establish a land route between Tehran and the Mediterranean.
The area where the attack occurred is largely controlled by IRGC-aligned militias, he said, including groups affiliated with Lebanon's Hizbullah and the 4th Division, a former division of the Syrian army now controlled by the IRGC.
Hizbullah has been co-ordinating with a tribal militia established by the IRGC in Deir Ezzor, a force of 4,000 Syrian fighters who have sought to secure the area between Deir Ezzor and Daraa, he said.
This has enabled the passage of IRGC military vehicles and trucks carrying weapons and other supplies.
The Iran-affiliated militias have been able to extend their control over several areas at the expense of Russia-affiliated groups, he said, which have periodically intervened to fend off the Iranian militias.
Tensions between regime and opposition
Another theory suggests the July 13th attack was carried out by opposition groups who had handed over their weapons as part of the Russian-sponsored reconciliation agreement with the Syrian regime in July 2018, al-Bassam said.
Daraa residents accuse Russia of breaking the promises it made as the sponsor of the agreement, which saw the entry of regime forces into their region.
Under the agreement, opposition groups handed over their weapons, with some leaving the area, and Syrian regime forces entered their former strongholds.
This was done under a Russian guarantee that the Syrian regime would not pursue former opposition fighters, and that their mandatory military service would be deferred, al-Bassam said.
Yet the Syrian regime has been carrying out sweeps under the pretext of pursuing terrorists, he said, and has been arresting former opposition fighters.
The Syrian regime also has been making arrests related to the mandatory military service, he said, and has been setting up checkpoints to facilitate this crackdown, thus breaking the Russia-brokered agreement.
This in turn has led to the open re-emergence of the opposition, with a growing number of attacks on regime forces and allied militias.