DERAA, SYRIA — (Op-Ed) The value of real estate is summed up by the mantra: “location, location, location.” Many have wondered why an insignificant agricultural city would be the origin of a seven-year conflict in Syria that has cost perhaps half a million lives. Most ask: Why wouldn’t a popular uprising begin in the capital, Damascus? If the majority of Syrians had wanted political upheaval, wouldn’t the most populous city in Syria, Aleppo, be the starting point? After all, a popular uprising is the voice of the people, and a dusty border town, far removed from the beat and pulse of the Syrian population, would hardly be guessed to be the catalyst.
If you polled Syrians across Aleppo and Damascus and asked them how often they have visited Deraa, the vast majority would have answered “never.” The location of Deraa is what made it special. The people of Deraa were not unique; neither was the political climate; but the location was uniquely straddling the Jordanian border. Jordan is a staunch ally of both the U.S., and Israel. Jordan has a large U.S. military base and large U.S. military stockpiles. Deraa is connected to Saudi Arabia via the international highway that passes through Jordan. A war needs weapons, supplies, cash and soldiers. The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 in Deraa, and is now ending in July 2018 in Deraa.
“The Day Before Deraa” is seen as the definitive explanation of how the war began in Syria. The article has been translated into almost a dozen languages, and has been featured in books about the Syrian war.
General Anwar Al-Eshki, the Saudi negotiator with Israel, admits he directed the weapons stockpile at Al Omari Mosque in Deraa in the days before the conflict began. The Deraa uprising was not organic: it was well-planned, staged and funded. The U.S., NATO, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all played integral roles and coordinated in a joint plan to change Syria.
Billions for the ‘ragtag freedom-fighters’
More recently published is The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes, who was President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speechwriter, and later his deputy national security adviser. Interviewed about the Syrian foreign policy of the Obama administration, Rhodes admitted that the U.S. was working hand in hand with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to provide military support to armed fighters against the Syrian government, and many of the arms and supplies ended up in Radical Islamic terrorists’ hands. At the same time, Obama designated Jibhat al Nusra (Nusra) as a terrorist group, and prohibited any U.S. citizen or group from supporting it, even though Nusra was the strongest fighting force on the ground in Syria, and fighting side by side with the U.S.-sponsored Free Syrian Army (FSA).
John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona, and president of one of the branches of the National Endowment for Democracy. From the outset of the Syrian conflict, McCain became the strongest supporter of the FSA. He called them ‘freedom fighters’ and personally traveled illegally across international borders to visit with them at their Northern base inside Syria. He also traveled into Lebanon, where he established a base of operations for the FSA, which would use Arsal, a small village in Lebanon, as their southern base. Hiding behind a disguise of a “Syrian Refugee Camp,” these FSA were able to use Lebanon as their safety net: it housed their wives, children and elderly family members, while the UN was feeding them, and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) was providing free medical care to both families and injured fighters.
McCain has faced substantial criticism for having supported armed fighters in Syria, but his defense has been a throwback to his days in Vietnam: any alliance is worth making in order to defeat the enemy. In those days, the CIA recruited locals in the mountains, an ethnic group called Hmong, to kill their own neighbors. In the end, the U.S. lost the war, but stood by their support of the mercenaries, and the Hmong were brought to the U.S. as ‘refugees’ and settled at taxpayers’ expense in places like Fresno, CA. Many have wondered if the FSA might get similar treatment.
In February 2014 the Military Operations Center (MOC) was established in Amman, Jordan. This command center consisted of the U.S., U.K., France, Jordan, Israel, and some Persian Gulf states. Its task was to command a group of 54 armed militias, which were collectively called “The Southern Front.” MOC supplied funds, weapons, salaries, intelligence, and training to the militias.
General Ahmad al-Issa, a commander of the SAA in Daraa, says the MOC is a U.S.-led operation that is highly influenced by Israel’s strategic goals in the south of Syria.
CENTCOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines in 2015 was asked about why U.S. sponsored ‘rebels’ weapons were showing up in Nusra hands. Raines responded: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”
Western media, epitomized by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, consistently call those fighting the Syrian government “rebels.” The FSA began as the sneaker-clad “rebels.” Once billed as a ragtag group of freedom fighters — yearning for freedom, and receiving $1 billion a year, according to leaked Edward Snowden documents revealed by the Washington Post. However, the FSA never had enough fighters, because the majority of the Syrian residents did not support them, or their ideology. Faced with the inability to recruit local fighters, they turned to the only available source: the international Radical Islamic terrorists, aka Al Qaeda and their affiliates. Once those international terrorists began pouring into Syria from Europe, Australia, Asia, Saudi Arabia and North Africa, they had a chance to win. But, it wouldn’t be about establishing a new secular government in Syria: the goal would be to establish Sharia law as the new Islamic State of Syria.
The names of the various 54 fighting groups in Deraa are not necessary to list. They each have a name, but Nusra is the biggest, and ISIS is also present. President Donald Trump broke with the Obama policy and gave direct instructions to the FSA in Deraa: the U.S. will not help you, because the U.S. will not support any group fighting alongside a recognized terrorist group, such as Al Qaeda, Nusra, or ISIS. This brought out a barrage of verbal attacks on the U.S. in the media by FSA and Syrian National Coalition (SNC) spokespersons. The U.S. and Russia both list Al Qaeda, and their affiliates like Nusra and ISIS, as terrorist groups, and are both engaged in a global war on terror, even though CNN might try to sell the notion that the two superpowers are at odds.
Behind the Brotherhood
The SNC was formed in Istanbul, Turkey. All of the leaders and the power brokers were members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, or like-minded jihadists. The Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed in many countries, such as Egypt, Syria and Russia. The U.S. Congress has deliberated several times on whether they too should outlaw the group inside the U.S., but it never took the step. This has left the group with offices and members in almost every large city, and many of the leaders of the SNC have come directly from U.S. — such as former SNC Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, who lives in Dallas, TX.
The FSA is the armed wing of the SNC. The Obama administration recognized the SNC as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Never mind that most Syrians living inside Syria despise the SNC and the FSA, and view them as Western-manipulated puppets who are responsible for the suffering of Syrians. While you can find many Syrians of all religions and sects who want political reforms, you will not find a majority who favor a government that follows Radical Islam — which is not a religion and is not a sect, but is a political ideology. Syria has been a secular form of government for 40 years and this is ingrained in the Syrian political culture. Syria has 18 different sects living together, and religious freedom for all is protected only under the secular form of government. This is also one of the core values of the American government and culture.
The FSA, and the SNC were counting on the U.S. military under the command of Obama to attack and invade Syria, thus effecting their victory, and the future State of Syria. However, the “red line” came and went without action. Obama did not want his legacy to be tainted with the invasion of Syria based on baseless accusations. He didn’t want to go down in history as a “Bush and Blair” second edition.
The war in Syria raged on until September 2015, at which time the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was battling near Latakia, Syria. The enemy dead were Turkish military. Not jihadists, but active-duty Turkish military with full uniforms and military ID. At this point, the civilians on the coast realized the place that was a safe-haven for war-weary internally displaced persons, could soon be overrun. At the same time, the Russian government was aware of the grave situation looming on the horizon and within days had stepped in to change the balance of power.
The Geneva Process
President Vladimir Putin of Russia knew that a Syria transformed into an Islamic State would be a direct threat to his national security. Many of the jihadists were in fact from areas within Russia or on the borders. His philosophy was: We can fight them in Syria, or we can wait and fight them on the streets of Moscow. Russia has long suffered many terrorist attacks by the followers of Radical Islam. CNN and others will peddle the idea that Putin is propping up the Syrian President. In fact, all along the process, Putin has insisted on following international law and the United Nations peace process for Syria, which involves political meetings held in various venues under the name of “The Geneva Process.” Russia has hosted one meeting in Sochi, and is scheduled to host another.
This process is under the brokerage of the UN and mediated by Staffan de Mistura, while Iran, Turkey and Russia are the countries pushing for peace through political dialogue. The Syrian government and the Syrian opposition are both represented and involved. The culmination of this political solution might be a presidential election that brings change to Syria. The American model of change at the ballot box is touted as the gold standard in democracy; however, the U.S. foreign policy for Syria under Obama called for armed rebellion and wholesale destruction of the infrastructure, not to mention the thousands killed, maimed and displaced.
In July 2017, Trump and Putin, along with King Abdullah of Jordan, signed a memorandum on de-escalation zones in Syria, one of which was Deraa. However, this clearly stated that all areas infested with Al Qaeda, Nusra and ISIS were not safe from attack. In fact, the Russian military alongside the SAA have never stopped attacking the terrorists. The American-sponsored FSA have always been alongside the terrorist groups as a coalition force. This has brought them under attack, and the Western media have incorrectly accused the Russians and the Syrians of violation of the ceasefire. Finally, the Trump administration issued an ultimatum to the FSA in Deraa: you are on your own because you chose to be embedded with terrorists. The UN Security Council Resolution 2254 states all members are to prevent or suppress terrorists, and any ceasefire does not include terrorists.
Full-circle to Deraa
The final battle for Deraa began June 22, 2018 after political proposals, including reconciliation plans, were rejected by the armed fighters. Syrian forces backed by Russia have liberated most of Deraa province and Deraa city and freed the Jordanian border. Finally, outgunned and battle-weary, the armed fighters have negotiated deals with the Russian center for reconciliation. Some of the local Syrian fighters have surrendered to the SAA, and have resumed a normal life that includes military service. They switched sides instead of dying or being exiled. Others have opted to be bused to a terrorist-held area at Idlib to the north. Over 300,000 people were displaced from the recent battle to free Deraa from years of terrorist occupation. However, those displaced returned home once the area was cleared and the various deals and reconciliations were made.
The Lebanese government oversaw the recent transfer of Syrian refugees in Arsal as they returned home to Syria. The Arsal camp was opened in 2011 by McCain, but over the years it became infested with Al Qaeda, Nusra and ISIS. When the Lebanese Army tried to restore security in 2017, they were attacked and a little girl killed by the jihadists.
Following the retreat of the terrorists, the SAA entered and took control of Deraa and surrounding areas. During this clean-up phase, many discoveries were made, including weapons, supplies, ammunitions, and vehicles left behind by the vanquished terrorists. Among the cache of Western-made prizes now in the SAA possession:
- TOW missiles, made in the U.S., which are anti-tank missiles.
- The NATO-owned “OT-64C” APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) vehicle.
- Mortars, shells and various IED (improvised explosive devices).
- Night-vision goggles, communications systems and networks.
- French-made APILAS anti-tank weapon systems, developed by GIAT Industries.
- Boxes of supplies addressed to FSA having been delivered from the U.S.
The international border crossing Naseeb is located at Deraa, and had been a source of income for Syrians and Jordanians alike. Due to the years of war, and the presence of armed fighters, the border had been closed. However, the SAA liberated Deraa and the surrounding areas, which in turn liberated the border crossing. Finally, after years of closure, the international transport of goods and passengers can resume at the crossroads between Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe to Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Land transport is much cheaper than shipping by sea through the Suez Canal. The Jordanian government, who had played a supporting role in the Syrian suffering, is happy that their border crossing is once again in service. Jawad Anani, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister in Jordan, is counting on the Russian military police to control security at the border. This will bring jobs and income back to Jordanian truck drivers and others, who had suffered unemployment during the years of closure.
Lebanon’s border crossing with Syria is Masna, and is also involved in this renewed activity based on the SAA victory. It is now possible to conduct full trade between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan via a land route that passes through Masna and Naseeb, and goes all the way to the Arab Gulf.
Further complicating the Deraa liberation is the fact that the Israeli border is also nearby. The valuable location of Deraa allowed Israel to treat injured terrorists since 2011. One might wonder why Israel would risk the safety of its citizens and medical staff by treating wounded fighters, but the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained in 2016, “In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.” Israel was also paying salaries of armed fighters in the Deraa area prior to the recent liberation.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry used to chant the mantra: the only solution for Syria is through a political process. Never mind his foreign policy was fueling the battlefield carnage. However, there is an ongoing political process. The next Astana format meeting is scheduled for July 30 in Sochi, Russia. The new Syrian Constitution will be discussed among delegates of the Syrian government and opposition, as well as many other items on the agenda.
What began in Deraa is ending in Deraa. The Western attack on Syria has failed, at the expense of hundreds of thousands dead, maimed, living in tents, and millions living abroad in Europe waiting for the welcome mat to be pulled out from below their feet. All eyes will be on Helsinki, Finland on July 16 as Trump and Putin put their heads together to find a solution to the suffering in Syria. Trump inherited the Syrian conflict from his predecessor Obama, who started the war but walked away in defeat. It will be up to Trump to exit the Syrian battlefields, to preserve the safety of his troops illegally stationed across Syria. The day after Deraa has begun.
Top Photo | A Syrian woman with the words “hands off” painted on her face takes part in a protest against US military action in Syria across the road from the entrance of Downing Street in London, Aug. 28, 2013.
Steven Sahouni is an independent Syrian political analyst and writer based out of Lebanon; he has been covering the Syrian crisis since it’s onset in 2011 and has published several articles in numerous media outlets – He is regularly interviewed by US, Canadian and German media.