Daesh is back in the open in southern Syria

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On October 31, local units previously affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) launched a large-scale military operation against the group in the southern Syrian city of Daraa Al-Balad. The units responsible for carrying out the operation in the Tariq Al-Sad and Al-Mukhayyam neighborhoods had chosen to remain in the governorate after signing reconciliation agreements with the Syrian regime under Russian auspices in July 2018.اضافة اعلان

The operation followed a suicide bombing targeting the house of Ghassan Al-Akram Abazid, a former FSA leader, that left four dead and several others wounded, on October 28, in Daraa Al-Balad. The attack was only the latest in a string of similar operations in southern Syria conducted by the group targeting, over the past year, military factions affiliated with the opposition.

Who are Hafo and Harfoush?

Muhammad Al-Masalmeh, nicknamed “Hafo”, and Moayad Abdel-Rahman, known as “Harfoush”, are both from Daraa Al-Balad and previously served as FSA commanders in the Southern Front. Hafo worked with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) faction, affiliated with the Military Operation Center (MOC), from the beginning of military operations in the area until the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies took control of the governorate under the 2018 reconciliation agreement. Harfoush worked within the opposition factions in the Sad camp sector inside Daraa Al-Balad.

In 2018, during the attack on Daraa Governorate carried out by the regime, Russia, and Iranian militias, the groups affiliated with Hafo and Harfoush fought until their last breath, even though they were on one of the bloodiest fronts in the fight against the Syrian regime. Even after the regime took control of the governorate, Hafo and Harfoush stationed their fighters on the outskirts of Daraa Al-Balad.

Following the signing of the reconciliation agreement and the return of regime control, Hafo and Harfoush once again came to the fore when they rejected some of the terms of the deal concluded between the Central Committee for Reconciliation and the Syrian government’s Security Committee. Both leaders specifically refused the provision requiring them to depart for northern Syria, prompting the Syrian regime to pursue military escalation in an effort to impose it.

After three days of military operations, Hafo and Harfoush appeared in a video and announced they would leave Daraa Al-Balad to spare civilians from further fighting and shelling. They also announced that they accepted the provision regarding their departure. A few days later, however, the two leaders reversed course, retracting this and returning to their previous positions on the outskirts of Daraa Al-Balad in defiance of the Syrian regime.

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally continued to pursue Hafo and Harfoush through their reconciliation committee, demanding that they leave southern Syria. This demand was rejected by other stakeholders and the Higher Committee for Reconciliation, made up of the people of Daraa Governorate.

Last September, the regime’s military security branch in Daraa kidnapped members of Harfoush’s family, including his wife and five of his children, to force him to move to the north. This attempt failed and he refused to leave, choosing instead to remain in Daraa with his comrade Hafo.

Relationship with Daesh
In 2017, the FSA was carrying out attacks against the Syrian regime in what became known as the battle of “Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous”, which was a continuation of the battle of “death rather than humiliation” in southern Daraa’s Al-Manshiya neighborhood. During that period, various warehouses and vehicles belonging the factions involved were destroyed. Following an investigation, Hafo was arrested and charged with carrying out the operation. He was subsequently detained in the Citadel prison in Busra Al-Sham. He was later released through tribal mediation before the regime took control of Daraa Governorate in 2018.

The Syrian regime was the first to accuse Hafo and Harfoush of being connected to Daesh, an assertion that has been repeated several times since by state media. Daesh was then represented in the south by Jaysh Khalid ibn Al-Walid (the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army), which had at the time established full control over the Yarmouk Basin area.
The truth, however, is a conflict between the people of Daraa and criminals accused of killing dozens in the governorate during past years.
In 2021, after the situation in Daraa Al-Balad had been stabilized, bombings and assassinations began to increase again in both number and frequency in cities across the governorate. In some cases, the regime was blamed, along with its local affiliates, while in other cases Daesh was accused of carrying out the attacks.

Among the victims assassinated were Adnan Abazid and Moataz Qanat. The latter was one of the FSA’s most prominent military commanders in southern Syria and was responsible for investigating Hafo in 2017 for involvement in the bombing of Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous Operations Room warehouses. This in turn raised suspicions about Hafo and his perceived desire to eliminate all threads tying him to Daesh and the attacks.

In recent weeks, conflict has escalated in Daraa Governorate, specifically in Daraa Al-Balad, after a suicide bombing targeted former FSA leader Abazid’s house in the neighborhood of Al-Arba’een, leaving four dead and others injured. An investigation revealed that the suicide bomber who blew himself up was Abu Hamza Sabina, a former member of the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Army, which pledged allegiance to Daesh. It also uncovered that the suicide bomber was living in the area under the protection of Hafo and Harfoush, confirming their relationship with Daesh and bringing them back to the forefront of the investigation.

Audio recordings of Hafo and Harfoush subsequently emerged, showing previous operations they had conducted for Daesh, in cooperation with Osama Al-Zeer, Daesh’s most important security official in southern Syria. These included the bombing of the Jaysh Al-Islam camp in the city of Naseeb in 2017, in which more than 25 members of Jaysh Al-Islam were killed; the bombing of the warehouses of Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous Operations Room in Daraa Al-Balad in 2017; as well as assassinations and attempts to eliminate important FSA leaders in Daraa, including the bombing of former FSA leader Abazid’s home.

Conflicts and mediation to reach solutions
Battles have been continuing between local factions close to the Central Committee in Daraa and the Hafo-Harfoush group accused of being connected to Daesh. Local factions recently managed to take control of the Tariq Al-Sad neighborhood in Daraa Al-Balad, known as a focal point for groups associated with Daesh. Nevertheless, Hafo and Harfoush were able to make their way out of the neighborhood with Yousef Al-Nabulsi, considered Daesh’s most important leader in southern Syria.

Meanwhile, battles erupted in the neighborhoods of Daraa Al-Mahatta and Al-Arba’een, resulting in the death of more than 10 members of local factions, in addition to several civilians. Eight members of the Hafo-Harfoush group were killed as well, one of whom was Ahmed Harfoush, the brother of Moayad Harfoush. Other groups linked to Daesh continue to be pursued elsewhere in Daraa Governorate, especially in Jasim and Al-Yadoudah in the countryside.

The battles prompted Daraa notables to put forward an initiative to resolve the situation, under which Hafo and Harfoush would hand themselves over to a local third party, leaving Daraa city until the investigations and trial procedures against them are completed, with a particular focus on their association with Daesh and involvement in the operations referenced in the recordings.

According to Sheikh Faisal Abazid, a member of the Central Committee in Daraa Governorate and preacher at Al-Omari Mosque, Hafo and Harfoush rejected the initiative. This opportunity would not last long, he said, stressing that “the next way out is to eliminate these groups and get rid of them”.

Abazid added: “There are parties trying to portray the situation as a clan conflict between the Abazid clan and the Masalmeh clan, to which these two militants belong. The truth, however, is a conflict between the people of Daraa and criminals accused of killing dozens in the governorate during past years.”

As local factions insist that the wanted be handed over for prosecution, the Hafo-Harfoush group faces a stark choice: either surrender, which is unlikely, or continue fighting until their last breath, which seems more plausible.

Mohammed Hassan is a university student at the Faculty of Law, Department of International Law. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies. This article was first published in the Middle East Institute.

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