Ten years after the Syrian war was sparked in Daraa, locals in the town once again face a brutal siege - but this time with no backing from armed rebels.
When opposition protests broke out in Syria in 2011, the country’s regime surrounded the strategically important city of Daraa. Electricity was cut along with phone and internet services — as well as blocking vital necessities from entering the city for ten days — in an attempt to prevent the situation from escalating further.
Ten years after that brutal crackdown on protesters turned into a full-blown war, Daraa al Balad, the southern part of the province that is separated by the regime-controlled north by a river, faces a brutal siege once again -- this time under what activists are calling “harsher circumstances.”
“In 2011, the whole country was in the revolution together but now we’re left alone,” Ahmad Mousa, a Syrian media activist in Daraa tells TRT World. An escalation from the Syrian regime that began on May 31 in the town turned into a siege on June 23.
Daraa is “the birthplace of revolution” for a reason. It's where the initial uprising against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad broke out, triggered by politically incendiary graffiti sprayed by school kids on a wall - and its locals are still known for being defiant. After the uprising, the town remained under full opposition control for around seven years.
But eventually, the town was abandoned even by the armed opposition. After a Russian-brokered reconciliation agreement in 2018, they put down their heavy weapons and fled. Within the deal, the regime allowed the locals, ex-opposition leaders left behind to keep light weapons, until June this year.
Now, Mousa says, a sense of melancholy and anxiety prevails in the entire besieged town instead.
Locals in Daraa al Balad are not the only Syrians that are not under regime control in the country, but they kind of exist in limbo where they’re not fully under opposition rule either.
In northwestern Syria, over three million people, mostly civilians, are also not under regime control. HTS’s rule is not favoured by many, but as the danger of the regime’s last showdown in the town looms, it’s the only option locals are stuck with in Syria. There is now immense international pressure on the regime and Russia to prevent a military escalation.
“In Daraa al Balad, it’s only the locals against the regime,” Mousa says.
“Assad promised that he wouldn't arrest the ones left behind, but there are so many people in the regime prisons. How can I trust the regime again?”
Backing the regime, Russia then threatened to bring Iranian and Hezbollah militias, who already have a prominent presence in southern Syria, if locals don’t hand over their light weaponry as well. Then came another siege.
The protests, the blockade, the unknown
Lornce Alakrad, a 34 year old local activist from Daraa tells TRT World that the siege is the result of lengthy protests against the regime even after the heavy weapons were put down, and recent refusals to hand down the “white arms” - weapons that don’t involve fire or explosions.
After a national economic collapse, even Assad supporters in the areas he controls have been protesting the regime. But the regime leader seems to pay special attention to Daraa al Balad.
In a symbolic move, while Assad resides in Damascus, he went to Daraa to cast his vote in the presidential elections that was widely labelled a “sham”, and secured his seat after 21 years in power.
“They reinforce more soldiers on the checkpoints everyday, and anyone who attempts to cross is under threat of being shot or to get arrested,” Alakrad says, adding that 10 people have been arrested since the beginning of the siege, to his knowledge.
Activists say there are only two doctors and four nurses in the town with generally very limited access to medical treatment. A major shortage of basic necessities, which were already expensive in Syria due to the countrywide economic struggle, has been crippling.
“Before the siege, one kg rice used to be around 30000 SYP ($23.85) and now it’s around 50000 SYP ($39.75),” Alakrad says adding that most of the shops almost ran out of basic goods and the remaining bread stocks are too old and infested by insects.
“People who used to cross to other towns to work can’t cross anymore. There is only one way out, and it's blocked,” he says.
Anti-government protests are why Daraa has been besieged, twice. But the demonstrators gathered after Friday prayer again this week, this time to demand the regime lift the siege.
“I’m feeling very sad but mostly for my family -- my two children and wife. The future is unknown and thinking this is giving me anxiety,” Alakrad says.
“I might die or be arrested soon.”