With Syrian government forces pushing into Daraa, the city has come to symbolise the many twists and turns since the Arab Spring of 2011. What started as a euphoric demonstration against the Assad regime descended into factional strife depopulating a once proud city. Daraa now also faces a new ISIS-affiliated threat in addition to HTS, Ahrar al-Sham and the Assad regime forces.
When fifteen children were arrested in the Syrian city of Daraa back in 2011 for spraying anti-government graffiti on a wall, nobody could have reckoned on the events that would be unleashed. This was a cry for freedom. Syrians had observed the Arab Spring sweeping across north Africa and into the Levant. It seemed that at long last, a democracy could be built and dictatorship consigned to the dustbin of history.
After Bashar al-Assad took power in Syria in 2000, there was a very brief period in which Syrians dared to hope that reform from the top was possible. It soon became obvious that was not to be. After a decade of yet more authoritarian rule, the predominantly Sunni city of Daraa cracked. It moved into open revolt.
A group of students were taken into custody while scrawling “the people want to topple the regime” on the side of their school. When reports of torture and beatings began to circulate, the parents demanded the release of their children. Then women took to the streets but police officers dragged them away by their hair. Assad blamed sedition for the unrest but the more he tried to ignore it, the worse it became – eventually fanning out across Syria.
Today, the optimism of those Arab Spring days has given way to the bleak reality of both Syrian government backed and terrorist bombardment. In February this year, schools and hospitals were forced to shut while Assad’s military forces and rebels pounded each other. Among the rebels, the Free Syrian Army is still a player but must now contend with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al-Sham. While some rebels still keep the original spirit of the Daraa revolt alive, HTS has a very different blueprint for Syria. There would be no democracy or rule of law and, as their actions have proven, dissent would not be tolerated.
The original revolt with its popular demonstrations has morphed into a deluge of air strikes and bullets. Civilians in Daraa have been caught helplessly in the middle of this escalating violence. Those who try to help relieve the suffering of their fellow citizens put themselves in immense danger. In mid-March this year, the director of the civil defence team in Daraa, the White Helmets, was blown up by a Syrian regime vacuum bomb.
Thousands of families have resorted to sleeping on farmland or in orchards to avoid heavy artillery fire and airstrikes. Where there were once 100,000 residents in one area of the city, there are now estimated to be about 200 to 300. One hospital was totally destroyed while another is mostly in ruins. The director of the latter hospital, Dr Abd al-Rahman al-Musalmah was pessimistic that any repairs would be carried out soon:
“The external structure is totally destroyed, and the medicine we had in storage is also ruined.”
One recent report suggested that most medical staff in Daraa had either been killed, injured, detained or had to flee. Manal, a 45 year old woman who was an accountant, was so appalled by everything going on around her that she volunteered to become a White Helmet. In one attack, a bomb fell near her house and she saw her neighbour lying in the street. She screamed for help but nobody came.
Eventually, she got him to a hospital encouraging him with kind words to keep strong. Then, incredibly, Manal got home only to discover that the one-year old niece she had been holding when the bomb hit had also been injured. In the confusion, she had failed to notice that the child was bleeding. Thankfully, both the neighour and small girl survived.
“We live in a war zone. We are risking our lives whether we choose to rescue people or not – so it’s better to help people.”
As if things couldn’t be worse for the cradle of the Syrian revolution, we also have to factor in the emergence of a group called the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army. This IS-affiliated terror group has tightened its grip on nearby villages, taking advantage of HTS and the FSA being under sustained attack from the Assad regime. As is often the case, when one terror group finds itself fighting government forces, another sees this as an opportunity to extend their power. This has just led to more deaths and casualties as the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Army tries to secure territory in which to impose ISIS-style rule.
For residents of Daraa, it has become very clear that they are bystanders in a struggle for power between the Assad regime and jihadi groups with a very un-democratic vision for Syria. It’s all a far cry from 2011. Those who started the Syrian uprising, the residents of Daraa, have been shoved to one side. Instead, they must duck for cover as a bloody war of attrition is waged around them.