Dar`a Province is one of the most important battle spaces in the Syrian civil war. It is where the Syrian uprising began as popular demonstrations in response to the imprisonment of 15 children for writing anti-regime graffiti in March 2011. Predominately populated by Sunni Arab tribes, the province is approximately 60 miles from the capital and is located in southern Syria. It borders the country of Jordan, Syria’s Golan Heights-bordering region of al-Quneitra, and is the major land route from points south to Damascus.[1] Dar`a is widely believed to be one of the most successful areas of operation for the armed opposition, particularly the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and an important conduit of foreign military support for the rebel fighters via Jordan.[2] According to the Syrian military, 95 (70%) of Dar`a Province’s cities, towns, and villages are directly under the control of the armed opposition, although Dar`a city is predominately under the control of the Syrian military.[3] Further underscoring the importance of Dar`a to the FSA on the strategic level, one of the organization’s leaders, Brigadier General Abdullah al-Qarazi, stated in February 2014 that “Dar`a Province is the gateway to Damascus. The battle for Damascus starts from here.”[4]

The strategic importance of Dar`a in the greater battle for control of the country is not lost on the Bashar al-Assad government and its allies. In what was purported to be a Syrian military briefing that the al-Assad government allowed the pan-Arab news channel al-Mayadeen to film in June 2013, Syrian army planners preparing a major military campaign on the town of Khirbet Ghazalah, approximately 10 miles north of Dar`a city, outlined how the major, inter-provincial highways running through Dar`a Province that form a junction at Khirbet Ghazalah could be utilized by the armed opposition to reinforce rebels in the Damascus suburbs that could then threaten regime control over the capital.[5] As a result of the strategic location of Dar`a, purported foreign assistance to Dar`a rebels has become the subject of conspiracy theories from the al-Assad government and its allies.[6] Both Fars News and Lebanese Hizb Allah’s al-Ahed media agencies have consistently asserted that Dar`a is the prime location for what it views as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led proxy war aiming to occupy Dar`a city and to eventually impose a no-fly zone in southern Syria to topple the al-Assad government.[7]

This article examines the human geography, particularly Sunni Arab tribes, in Dar`a Province. It finds that the potential for tribal conflict within the armed opposition in Dar`a weakens the rebels’ ability to resist the Syrian military’s attempts to reinstate al-Assad’s rule. Dar`a Province is an essential region for the FSA’s al-jabhat al-janoobiya (Southern Front). The FSA’s ability to make gains in the Southern Front, which its leadership hopes will result in the capture of Damascus from the south, is dependent on the FSA’s capacity to maintain its social harmony and cohesion in the province, to secure lines of communication, supplies, and potentially advanced weaponry, such as anti-aircraft missiles, from Jordan into Dar`a.

Dar`a Province: Tribes and Conflict
Part of the larger geographical feature of the Hawran plain that extends from the southern suburbs of Damascus to northern Jordan, Dar`a has traditionally been a rich agricultural region of settled Arab tribes that stood on the edge of the Syrian Desert. Dar`a, under the Ottomans, was incorporated into Hawran district that also included areas of modern-day northern Jordan, and was attached to the Damascus velayet (province).[8] It was considered to be one of the “breadbaskets” that fed Damascus.[9] Modern-day Dar`a Province retained its agricultural importance and Dar`a city was also a major transit point for southbound commercial traffic and also the smuggling of goods between Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.[10]

Demographically, Dar`a Province is predominately Sunni Arab with smaller populations of sectarian minorities including Christians, Druze, and Shi`a. There are four major tribes in Dar`a Province—al-Zou`bi, al-Hariri, al-Na`ime, and al-Rifa`i—which are, with some controversy among them, believed to have originated as part of the larger al-Na`ime tribal confederation.[11] The major tribal groups in Dar`a have experienced significant rivalries in their modern history, including between al-Hariri and al-Zou`bi, which inhabit generally the same area of Dar`a Province and were rivals on opposing sides of the Syrian national question during the French Mandate era,[12] and between the al-Hariri and al-Rifa`i, which are reported to be closely related to each other, with the al-Rifa`i splitting from the al-Zou`bi.[13] In spite of the existence of these traditional rivalries, the major tribes of Dar`a are reported to share common grievances, described accurately as a “tribal revolt” or a “blood feud,” against the al-Assad government in Dar`a, and to have established armed groups in the province that are generally tribally integrated.[14]

Geographically, al-Zou`bi are believed to be the most numerous tribal group in Dar`a, with extensive cross-border relations with al-Zou`bi living in northern Jordan’s Irbid Province, particularly in and around the Jordanian border town of al-Ramtha and in the city of Irbid, where the tribe has a large presence in the local population.[15] An estimate of the tribe’s population, spread between southern Syria and northern Jordan, is over 160,000, not all of whom in Syria have actively joined the armed opposition.[16] Al-Zou`bi are predominate in and around Dar`a city, with populations of al-Zou`bi living in towns and villages including al-Na`ima, Saida, al-Ta`iba, Nassib, al-Museefra and al-Jeeza that are east of the city; Da`il and Khirbet Ghazalah northeast of the city; and `Uthman, al-Yaduda, Muzayrib, and Tafas that are north and west of the city.[17] Members of the al-Hariri tribe co-habit with the al-Zou`bi in generally the same geographic location, with the tribe’s major concentrations in the towns of Da’il, Bita’, and al-Sheikh Maskin north of Dar`a city.[18] Al-Rifa`i, the smallest of the major tribes in Dar`a, are located in several of the same towns as al-Zou`bi, with their greatest concentration in the villages of Nassib and `Uthman near Dar`a city.[19]

Al-Na`ime tribesmen are reported to be located in the greatest number in the northwestern region of Dar`a from the city of al-Sheikh Maskin to Nawa and Jasim in Izra` district, and the north-central region of al-Sanamayn district, and in neighboring al-Quneitra Province.[20] Several of the most prominent leaders within the FSA’s Southern Front are members of the al-Na`ime tribe, including the FSA Supreme Military Council’s (FSA-SMC) commanding officer Brigadier General Abdel-Illah al-Bashir, and Colonel Abdo Na`ime, who was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra’s Dar`a branch in May 2014.[21]

Other tribal groups also exist in the province. Southwest of the city of Dar`a, the most prominent tribal group is the al-Miqdad, which is predominate in the towns of Ghasam and Ma’raba, and the city of Busra, near the Jabal al-‘Arab mountain range on the Syrian-Jordanian border.[22] In the city of Dar`a, which is the economic hub of southern Syria, tribes such as the Maslma, Mahameed, and Abizaid, and clans of the `Anaza tribal confederation, co-habited with the province’s larger tribal groups and economic migrants from the Shammar tribal confederation of al-Hasakah Province.[23]

Although there is a smaller population of sectarian minorities in Dar`a Province than in other regions of Syria, these communal groups still play an important role in ongoing events in the province. Dar`a city has traditionally had a small population of Christians, and the villages of al-Bashir and Naamer, which are suburbs of Dar`a city, and the village of Izra` are considered to be the major population centers of Christians in the province.[24] Christians from the city of Naamer are reported to have joined Popular Committees organized under the National Defense Force (NDF) as auxiliaries to the 2013 Syrian military campaign that seized Khirbet Ghazalah.[25] Busra, a small city 24 miles southwest of Dar`a city, is the major population center for Shi`a in the province. The city’s Shi`a population is believed to have migrated from the area of Nabatiyya in southern Lebanon during the Ottoman period.[26] Currently, an estimated 15,000 people, or 40% of the city’s population, are Shi`a, and are concentrated in the eastern section of the city.[27] Busra has a notorious reputation among the Syrian armed opposition due to repeated assertions that Hizb Allah operatives are present in the Shi`a section of the city, and that the local Shi`a population has organized NDF militias to confront rebel groups.[28]

The FSA in Dar`a
The major armed opposition groups in Dar`a are considered to be part of the FSA’s Southern Front, which claims to have the allegiance of more than 50 militias with a combined 30,000 fighters concentrated in Dar`a Province, and represented in Dar`a’s neighboring provinces of al-Quneitra, al-Suweida, and Reef Damascus.[29] Although the constituent armed opposition factions of the Southern Front do not all share areas of operation or control territory that are territorially contiguous with each other, they have sought to coordinate, where able, to relieve pressure on other battle fronts in northern, central, and eastern Syria. Their goal is to cut the Syrian military off from southern Syria by gaining control over the inter-provincial Damascus-Dar`a highway, and to open strategic lines of supply into Damascus and opposition-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs that are under siege by the Syrian military, including in the town of Mleha. The Southern Front, in theory, represents the FSA’s intended strategy to apply strong pressure on the al-Assad government in Damascus to reduce the regime’s ability to respond to other important battle spaces, such as north of Homs and in and around Aleppo.[30]

Several of the largest constituent armed groups within the Southern Front are composed of tribal fighters that are based in Dar`a. These armed groups, especially in the southern regions of Dar`a, integrate fighters from multiple tribes and include: Farqa al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Division), led by a prominent al-Zou`bi tribesman named Bashar al-Zoubi and composed of al-Zou`bi, al-Rifa`i, al-Miqdad, and al-Hariri tribesmen, active in several front-lines in and around Dar`a city; Liwa’ Falluja Hawran (Falluja Hawran Brigade), which is composed of al-Zou`bi, al-Rifa`i, Maslama, and Mahameed tribesmen and is active in and around Dar`a city, especially in the villages of Na`ima, Tafas, and Saida; Liwa’ Fajar al-Islam (Dawn of Islam Brigade), which is composed of al-Zou`bi, al-Rifai`i, and al-Hariri tribesmen, and is active in Tafas and `Uthman and inside Dar`a city, and in Busra al-Harir in northeastern Dar`a Province; and Liwa’ Moataz Bi-Allah, which includes al-Zou`bi, al-Rifa`i, Mahameed, and al-Rifa`i tribesmen and is active in Dar`a city, Muzayrib, Tafas, and `Uthman.

Militant Islamist Factions in Dar`a
In addition to FSA-affiliated armed groups, both of the major militant Salafist organizations are active in Dar`a: Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) and the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front).[31] The largest concentration of militant Salafist groups in Dar`a is occurring in and around the cities of Nawa and Jasim. Nawa, in particular, with a pre-war population estimated to be at 50,000, is strategic because it is built near the inter-provincial Highway 5 that extends from Idlib to Dar`a, and which routes through Damascus. The city also lies near the border between Dar`a and al-Quneitra provinces, and is considered by the armed opposition as a staging point to launch operations into al-Quneitra Province and to relieve pressure applied by the Syrian military on opposition fighters in southern Dar`a Province.[32]

From the al-Assad government’s perspective, the siege of Nawa is one of its most important campaigns in southern Syria, which is echoed by media sympathetic to the Syrian regime.[33] The importance of Nawa to the Syrian military’s efforts in southern Syrian has led to allegations that it has sought the active involvement of seasoned Hizb Allah operatives to coordinate its campaign. Fawzi Muhammad Ayoub, a veteran Hizb Allah commander, was reportedly killed in Nawa in late May 2014.[34]

Ahrar al-Sham has made the battle to control Nawa and its surrounding areas a priority for it in southern Syria, naming its current campaign Ma`rakat Fajr al-Rabi` (Dawn of Spring Battle).[35] Militant Islamist groups close to Ahrar al-Sham and the powerful, multi-provincial armed opposition coalition that it belongs to, al-Jabhat al-Islamiyya (Islamic Front), have also cooperated with Ahrar al-Sham in Dar`a. Most prominent among these armed factions is Alwiya al-Furqan (The Criterion Brigades), which is based in the southern Damascus exurbs centered on the town of Kanakir. Alwiya al-Furqan, which has reportedly close links to the Islamic Front in Damascus’ suburbs, Dar`a, and al-Quneitra, is the primary faction behind the armed opposition campaign Ma`rakat Fajr al-Taw`hid 2 (Dawn of Holy Unity Battle 2) that operates in the same battle space as Ahrar al-Sham’s Ma`rakat Fajr al-Rabi`.[36]

Jabhat al-Nusra is the most active militant Salafist armed opposition organization in Dar`a. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are reportedly engaged in combat throughout the province, in battle spaces ranging from Nawa in the northwest, to Busra al-Harir in the northeast, and in and around the city of Dar`a.[37] They have generally cooperated as an auxiliary force to the FSA-affiliated armed groups in the province.[38] The leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra in Dar`a Province is reportedly composed of a core of foreign fighters from Jordan and other areas of the Middle East, most of whom have fought in northern Syria, and some of whom have recent experience fighting U.S.-led forces in Iraq, who command rank-and-file militants composed of local tribesmen from Dar`a.[39] The threat of violence, and protracted tribal vendettas, directed against Jabhat al-Nusra by tribesmen in FSA-affiliated groups is a developing factor in the conflict in Dar`a Province. A threat from the al-Rifa`i and Maslama tribes against Jabhat al-Nusra for the capture of two FSA-affiliated officers from these tribes, who were captured with Colonel Abdo Na`ime, is reported to have led to the release of the officers and an apology from Jabhat al-Nusra to their tribes.[40]

Dar`a Province is the strongest area of operations for the FSA in Syria, a position which has been challenged by ongoing Syrian military operations and the increase in the operational presence of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in the province. FSA-affiliated armed groups with a predominately tribal, local composition have, however, successfully resisted the Syrian military and either co-opted or diffused the strength of the militant Salafist opposition organizations for more than three years. Jabhat al-Nusra has begun to challenge the leadership role in the Dar`a armed opposition that has been held by the FSA. Jabhat al-Nusra’s expanded and increasingly independent operations in and around the city of Dar`a—the “prize” of the fighting in the province—threatens FSA control over the conflict in Dar`a. The potential appeal of a reinvigorated Jabhat al-Nusra organization in Dar`a—as the militant Salafist group is widely credited within the armed opposition for being notably fierce in its commitment to combating the al-Assad government—could be a draw that brings young tribal fighters away from the FSA-affiliated militias.

The FSA’s apparent position of strength in Dar`a Province can also be further weakened by the rising social tensions between tribesmen belonging to the armed opposition organizations and the militant Salafist groups. This growing tension between tribally-organized revolutionaries—primarily between FSA-affiliated militias and the al-Qa`ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra—threaten to overcome rebel cohesion in Dar`a. FSA-affiliated armed groups and Jabhat al-Nusra will seek to maintain the ideological asabiyya (social cohesion) of their fighters, while simultaneously preventing serious fitna (social discord and conflict) between local tribesmen that could force them to withdraw from Dar`a in the face of the ongoing Syrian military campaign in the province. Conflict between the FSA-affiliated tribes and Jabhat al-Nusra in Dar`a would assist the Syrian military and weaken one of the FSA’s few viable battle spaces where it could appeal to direct foreign assistance for its war effort and to possibly help it establish a “free Syrian” civil and military administration on the actual territory of Syria.

Nicholas A. Heras is an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a senior analyst with Michael Moran & Associates, LLP, and an associate editor at the international affairs journal Fair Observer. A former David L. Boren Fellow and Soref Fellow, he has significant field experience throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan researching the politics of identity, cultural conflict, and socio-economic tension.

[1] These details are based on the author’s trips from Damascus to southern Syria, including in Dar`a, in July 2009 and March 2010.

[2] Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor, “US Eyes Training Moderate Syrian Rebels,” Associated Press, May 27, 2014; Zvi Bar’el, “Military Option Against Syria is Alive,” Haaretz, February 24, 2014; Thom Shanker, “With Eyes on Syria, U.S. Turns Warehouses Into Support Hub for Jordan,” New York Times, August 15, 2013; Michael Weiss, “The Southern Front, Part 1,” NOW Lebanon, August 15, 2013.

[3] Firas Choufi, “A Journey Through Syria’s Daraa,” al-Akhbar, April 3, 2014.

[4] “Syrian Rebels Say Planning Damascus Spring Offensive,” Naharnet, February 18, 2014.

[5] “Dar`a: Ma`rakat Hawran,” al-Mayadeen News, June 13, 2013.

[6] “Syrian Army Foils Rebels’ Infiltration Attempts in Daraa’s Countryside,” Fars News, June 6, 2014.

[7] “CIA Prepares for Invasion of Daraa via Jordan,” al-Ahed News, August 5, 2013.

[8] Hanna Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 10.

[9] Dick Douwes, The Ottomans in Syria: A History of Justice and Oppression (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2000), pp. 17, 19, 20, 24.

[10] Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 3. These details are also based on the author’s trips from Damascus to southern Syria, including in Dar`a, in July 2009 and March 2010.

[11] Hassan Hassan, “Tribal Bonds Strengthen the Gulf’s Hand in a New Syria,” The National, February 16, 2012; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014. The controversy exists because al-Zoubi and al-Hariri tribesmen, generally more powerful than al-Na`ime in Dar`a Province, question the designation of themselves as belonging to the al-Na`ime.

[12] Batatu, p. 26.

[13] Personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014. Al-Zou`bi assert that al-Rifa`i started as a family known for being Islamic clerics which subsequently split from al-Zou`bi and established their own tribe in the Ottoman era.

[14] “The Destruction of Daraa,” Vice, June 2, 2014; Tareq al-Abd, “Tribalism and the Syrian Crisis,” al-Monitor, January 18, 2013; Rania Abouzeid, “Syria’s Revolt: How Graffiti Started an Uprising,” Time, March 22, 2011; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014.

[15] Muhammad al-Da`ma, “Al-Ramtha al-Urduniyya Tata`ataf ma` Dar`a al-Sooria Bisabab Tadakhul Al-`A’ilat wa al-Tijara,” Asharq al-Awsat, March 26, 2011; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014.

[16] Michael Weiss, “The Southern Front, Part 1,” NOW Lebanon, August 15, 2013.

[17] Batatu, pp. 25-26; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014.

[18] Batatu, pp. 25-26; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014.

[19] Personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014, April 2014.

[20] Ibid. The controversy exists because al-Zou`bi and al-Hariri tribesmen, generally more powerful than al-Na`ime in Dar`a Province, question the designation of themselves as belonging to al-Na`ime.

[21] Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh, “Al-Qaeda Kidnapping of Syrian Commander Could Open New Front,” The National, May 6, 2014.

[22] Tareq al-Abd, “Tribalism and the Syrian Crisis,” al-Monitor, January 18, 2013; Batatu, pp. 24-25.

[23] Carole A. O’Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, “Syrian Tribal Networks and Their Implications for the Syrian Crisis,” Terrorism Monitor 10:11 (2012).

[24] “Dar`a: Ma`rakat Hawran,” al-Mayadeen News, June 13, 2013; Brooke Anderson, “Syria’s Daraa: Writing History on the Wall,” Daily Star, March 14, 2012; Starr, p. 9; Batatu.

[25] “Dar`a: Ma`rakat Hawran.”

[26] Batatu, p. 24.

[27] Muhammad Abo Abdo and Ahmed Kwider, “Hezbollah Fighters Seen in Daraa Province,” Syria Direct, June 14, 2013; personal interviews, Jordanian tribesmen and Syrian tribesmen from Dar`a living in al-Ramtha, Jordan, November 2013, January 2014 and April 2014.

[28] “Syrian Army Prepares for an Attack from its Southern Border,” al-Akhbar, February 19, 2014; “Hezbollah Flags and Sectarian Logos Flying From the Skies of Busra al-Sham, Dara’a,” August 8, 2013, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc05Wg808tw.

[29] “49 Factions Declare the ‘Southern Front’ in 5 Governorates,” Zaman al-Wasl, February 13, 2014.

[30] “Reef Damascus: Clashes Between the Free Army and Regime Forces on the Southern Front in the Town of Mleha,” Mojez, May 24, 2014; “Conflict in the Southern Front in Syria to Open the Damascus Road,” NOW Lebanon, March 4, 2014.

[31] Nicholas A. Heras, “The Battle for al-Quneitra, the ‘Gateway to Damascus,’” Terrorism Monitor 12:5 (2014). In spite of the active presence of these militant Salafist groups in the Nawa area, the Syrian military continues to maintain an active siege of the city.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Syria: Army Continues Advancing, Cuts Militants’ Supply Route in Daraa,” Fars News, May 19, 2014; “Syrian Army Repels Militants’ Attack on Strategic Daraa Region,” February 1, 2014, available at www.liveleak.com/view?i=c93_1391269563.

[34] “Canadian Hezbollah Commander Killed Fighting Rebels in Syria,” al-Arabiya, May 27, 2014.

[35] “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham-Issuing the Dawn of Spring Battle-Liberate al-Quneitra Countryside,” Islam Sham YouTube page, February 19, 2014. The “Dawn of Spring Battle” is the successor to Harakat Ahrar al-Sham’s earlier campaign, which was launched in November 2013, called Ma`rakat Fajr al-Tawhid (Dawn of Holy Unity Battle).

[36] Nicholas A. Heras, “Muhammad Majid al-Khatib: A Rising Leader in the Free Syrian Army,” Militant Leadership Monitor 5:2 (2014).

[37] See the YouTube page of “Kaesar Zezoon” for an updated list of videos of purported Jabhat al-Nusra operations in the area of Nawa: www.youtube.com/channel/UCdoaMYmugmat5GyAOQbQAVQ/videos. Also see Tareq Al-Abed, “Jabhat al-Nusra Losing Support Among Rebels, Tribes in South Syria,” al-Monitor, May 8, 2014; Sands and Maayeh; “Syrian Army Prepares for an Attack from its Southern Border,” al-Akhbar, February 19, 2014.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Carole A. O’Leary and Nicholas A. Heras, “Those ‘Son of a Bitch Bonds’ That Can Never Be Broken,” Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) Journal 4 (2014).

[40] Sands and Maayeh.

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