Daraa province: cradle of Syrian revolt

An opposition fighter looks out from a destroyed building in a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa

Paris (AFP) – Syria’s southern province of Daraa, which could be the regime’s next target after its bloody reprisal of Eastern Ghouta, is the birthplace of the uprising which erupted in 2011.

This agricultural region lies south of Damascus and also shares borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

– First spark –

In early March 2011 more than a dozen Daraa youths, influenced by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled slogans hostile to President Bashar al-Assad on the wall of their school.

The regime reacted brutally, jailing them, and according to activists, torturing the boys.

The repression sparked an unprecedented uprising.

On March 15, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the first demonstrations for “a Syria free of  tyranny… a Syria without corruption or theft or monopoly of wealth” erupted in Damascus.

– Heart of the protests –

Back in the province’s main town, which has the same name, demonstrators attacked symbols of the regime, before the protest movement spilled over into neighbouring towns.

On March 23 security forces killed at least 100 people, according to activists and witnesses.

Assad fired the unpopular town governor and local intelligence chief, but did not manage to calm the situation.

On April 26 the regime sent in the army as it sought to stamp out pockets of resistance.

The Daraa protest movement was crushed at the end of a 10-day military operation in which hundreds were arrested.

Human Rights Watch denounced “crimes against humanity”, pointing to systematic killings, beatings and torture.

– Rebel bastion – 

Daraa province is one of the last centres of rebel forces in Syria, after they lost vast swathes of territory to the regime.

It is divided up between different opposition groups that control nearly 70 percent of it. The Islamic State group and the regime retain a lesser presence.

Daraa town, the regional capital, is mainly in the hands of pro-government forces.

The province has regularly been the scene of fighting between regime forces and insurgents.

In 2016 loyalist forces, backed by Russian air power and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, retook Sheikh Miskin, a strategic crossroads from the north to Damascus and to regime-held Sweida in the east.

They then seized Atman village, a key location in the province.

In July 2017 a ceasefire came into force in Daraa as well as in the southern provinces of Quneitra and Sweida, brokered by Russia, Jordan and the United States.

These three provinces are also among a series of “de-escalation zones” established by Russia and Iran, allies of the regime, and rebel-backer Turkey.

– Poverty and world heritage –

In the first months of the protests the demonstrators in Daraa denounced the economic policy of the government.

This included the telecoms company Syriatel, in which a cousin of Assad has a majority stake. Anti-corruption slogans were chanted in neighbouring towns.

Daraa, a Sunni Muslim town which counted 75,000 inhabitants before the conflict began, had fallen into poverty, worsened by a years-long drought which prompted a rural exodus.

The province’s ancient city of Bosra al-Sham was capital of the Roman province of Arabia and an important staging post on the old caravan route to Mecca.

Famous for its Roman theatre and its paleochristian ruins, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In March 2015, rebels drove pro-regime forces out of Bosra’s Shiite neighbourhoods.