In recent days reports emerged that the Syrian regime and its allied militias in southern Syria have detained several former rebels, activists and a member of the White Helmets. Some of the detainees were picked up in late July or early August soon after the local rebel groups had agreed to "reconcile" with Bashar Assad's government in Damascus. While some former Syrian rebels joined regime units, with every arrest and continuing sweeps for rebel armaments there is a feeling among some that the "reconciliation" has not gone as smoothly as expected.
Qasioun-News.com reported on August 23 that a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, was detained by the government. The report gave his name Ali Saoud Al-Hamad and quoted a former spokesman for the local rebels as saying White Helmet members were still being sought by the regime. The threat to the White Helmets, whom Damascus has labeled "terrorists," led to an operation in which hundreds of White Helmets and their families fled via the Golan Heights to Jordan last month. They will ultimately be resettled in Canada. However many wanted men and their families remained.
Reports of arrests of former rebels, and also protests, have taken place in the last week. On August 20 a former rebel commander was reportedly arrested in Rafid near the border with Israeli forces on the Golan. Two days later four men were arrested in villages near the Lajat, a desolate area north of Suwayda that is composed of basalt. It had been in rebel hands until late June.
The raids by government forces are part of a wider pattern of the regime cracking down on dissent and hunting down former rebels in areas the regime has retaken in the last six months. In the south, the southern rebel factions fled and surrendered so quickly in June and July that the regime allowed many rebel groups to remain in place, laying down their arms and "reconciling" while the regime's tanks and soldiers moved on.
The regime was sacrificing full control for the speed of its desire to "liberate" the south. This was a pragmatic decision on Assad's part and also one that his Russian allies played a key role in. Moscow helped negotiate and guarantee agreements in Daraa and Quneitra areas on the border with Jordan and Israeli forces on the Golan.
The regime's offensive and policies were so successful that they were even able to get some of the rebel groups to agree to sing up to fight alongside the Syrian army against Islamic State. Government forces had to rush east to fight ISIS near Suwayda after ISIS killed hundreds of Druze and kidnapped 14 women and 16 children on July 25. Former Syrian rebels participated in the battles against ISIS.
But a month later the regime wants to remove from the picture some of those it "reconciled" with. A report at Syria Call says that despite the "assurances from Russia not to attack civilians or storm villages and towns," that air force intelligence officers entered villages near Daraa and stole property and assaulted people as part of a raid. In another area near the Golan the regime was disappointed to see a rebel group continuing to control several villages they had during the conflict and the residents apparently refused to return.
The feeling that the regime violated some of its reconciliation agreements led to protests on Friday. For the first time since the battles in July, local residents held up signs and protested against Damascus in Daraa. A former Free Syrian Army Commander Adham Karad was among the protesters, according to tweets by Elizabeth Tsurkov and Qalaat al-Mudiq, two experts who follow the Syrian conflict. The presence of a commander and the fact the protest took place in Daraa, where protesters first challenged the regime in 2011, is symbolic. But it is likely not a spark to begin a new round of protests.
Other rebels with military experience have opted to join units of the regime. For instance, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi interviewed a man named Abu Mahmoud who had been a rebel commander near Tasil and then joined the regime's V Corps. "V Corps is compulsory service lasting one year and a half," he told Al-Tamimi in an interview published online. "The advantage of this Corps is that the majority of it are people who were in Free Army [FSA] and the service, according to the promises, is within Daraa province only.
The former FSA commander said he was expected to do checkpoint duty and deal with internal security issues within his province now, working for the regime he once opposed. Damascus reckons co-opting these seasoned fighters is the best way to take them off the streets and avoid having large numbers of men with military experience and no jobs wandering around. It has also opted not to do mass arrests of all these men, yet. However, the recent raids point to the fact that Damascus is serious about settling some scores in the south. How it reacts to the recent protests in Daraa will be telling.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.