Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets Syrian troops in eastern Ghouta on March 18, 2018. Photo: Sana handout via Reuters
President Bashar al-Assad meets Syrian troops in eastern Ghouta on March 18, 2018. Despite gains in the protracted Syrian conflict, the Assad regime's hold on parts of the country remains tenuous. Photo: SANA handout via Reuters

President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria has significantly expanded its territorial control in the past several years, prompting many to predict for just as long Damascus’ coming victory and the end of the civil war.

Well, not really. The reason is that the level of authority the Assad regime enjoys inside those areas remains limited. That is especially evident in the ability of area locals to kidnap security and military officers and then swap them for their relatives detained by the regime.

The high incidence of kidnapping suggests that Assad’s regime still is seen as a foe to be actively engaged one way or another, rather than a legitimate state to which people should submit.

While kidnappings and prisoner exchanges have occurred throughout the Syrian conflict, they now occur particularly in territories with delicate power arrangements between the government and local communities, such as Daraa and Sweida.

Jihadist groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) also have kidnapped and exchanged pro-government individuals to free family members. The Assad regime has even brokered similar swap deals in the northeast, despite having friendlier relations with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and a direct military presence inside the latter’s territories.

The kidnappings show the regime not to be in sufficient control to merit being recognized as a state with full sovereignty over territory.

It is particularly notable that kidnappings occur inside supposedly government-held territories. Prisoner exchange is widespread in Sweida governorate in the south.

The exact number of such kidnappings is unclear because of the secrecy that typically surrounds them, but a local news website has reported that more than 49 military and security regime members were “arrested” in Sweida in 2020. The actual number of kidnappings is thus probably higher.

Despite Sweida remaining under the government’s control throughout the conflict, local armed groups have emerged to protect their respective communities from external threats, including the Assad regime.

It has become common for locals to kidnap military or security officers when one of their own is arrested or forcibly “disappeared” by the regime. After verifying that pro-regime forces are behind the disappearance, victims’ relatives install mobile checkpoints either inside the city or on the main roads in search of security or military officials.

Notably, prisoner swap deals are not limited to involving individuals detained locally. For example, a Sweida armed group installed a temporary checkpoint this year on the highway linking Sweida to Damascus, which led to the kidnapping of a military officer from Latakia who served in Sweida. This kidnapping was organized by relatives of a young man who had disappeared in Homs.

In Daraa, the situation is slightly different. Despite being recaptured by the government in the summer of 2018, the Russian-sponsored surrender agreements allowed former rebel groups to keep their light weapons and to maintain limited authority. For this reason, kidnapping operations in Daraa are harder to run and lesser in frequency than in Sweida.

That’s because Daraa still is considered a danger zone and, thus, government forces move in larger groups, which makes kidnapping them more challenging.

Despite those differences, negotiations in both governorates usually are initiated by the kidnappers, who delegate a mediator to hammer out a swap deal with the respective government security agency. The mediators are usually local notables who have contact with current or retired government officials, or with religious leaders and businessmen allied with Damascus.

The length of these negotiations varies depending on where people are arrested and by which of the government’s security apparatus. Reaching a final deal is quicker if the arrested person is detained locally by the same security branch that is taking part in the negotiations.

The Sweida example above took longer than usual because it was negotiated with the head of military security in Sweida while the arrest of the person to be swapped took place in Homs.

The kidnappings are a manifestation of the Assad regime’s tenuous hold on power. In Sweida, it has avoided direct confrontations with local armed groups because of these outfits’ strong social and religious ties to local communities. Targeting local factions could turn Sweida’s Druze communities against the government.

In contrast, Damascus has occasionally tried to enforce its authority in Daraa, but strong local resistance and Russia’s presence there have prevented it from achieving any real success.

Sensing the government’s powerlessness, kidnappings have ensued. And they in turn continue to destabilize Daraa and Sweida.

The continuation of state-sponsored violence, violations of agreements and the lack of an independent judicial system to hold security forces accountable strongly suggest that the kidnapping of security officials, as a form of self-protection, will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Assad’s expanded territorial control – such as it is – may improve the power trajectory of his armed forces, but it will fail to increase the legitimacy of his regime, even in the eyes of those who live in his grip.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Haid Haid

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.