Suwayda residents react to increased Russian presence on the ground

After an international ceasefire went into effect in southern Syria in July, Russian personnel deployed to several villages in regime-held Suwayda province near frontlines with opposition forces.

A Druze-majority province, Suwayda’s local leadership has remained largely neutral and focused on internal affairs throughout the war. Power in Suwayda lies with local civil and military authorities.

Russian goodwill efforts in the province since last summer include the distribution of aid parcels to residents of a number of Suwayda towns and villages. Like the rest of Syria, Suwayda has suffered economically during the conflict and some residents struggle to make ends meet.

Beyond previous sporadic visits for aid distribution, today Russian personnel are based near and reportedly becoming a more familiar presence in Suwayda villages.

Three residents of villages hosting Russian forces since the ceasefire came into effect spoke to Syria Direct’s Samer al-Halabi. All requested we use pseudonyms.

The residents’ reactions to the increased Russian presence range from welcoming to suspicious and fearful.

Russian aid arrives to the Suwayda town of Shaqafi in November 2016. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Their presence reassures me,” says Ahmad, a farmer. “Since they arrived, our village has been safe.”

“Russia is an occupier,” says Yaman, a university student. “When you see a foreign soldier carrying a weapon in your land, you feel as though you are in an occupied country.”

The varied reactions underscore tensions in Suwayda province, where supporters of both the regime and the opposition are united by a firm pragmatism and desire for the province to survive the war in one piece.

Yaman, 23, a fourth-year university student living in the northeast Suwayda village of Khalkhalah.

Q: Do you view Russia as an ally or an occupier? Why?

Russia is an occupier because it intervened in a country that is witnessing a struggle between the [state] power and the people. Like the regime, Russia said its war was against terrorism, and then participated in crimes against hundreds, thousands of Syrian civilians.

Q: How do you see Russia’s role in Suwayda so far, first with the distribution of aid and now with the presence of Russian personnel at different positions in the province?

From the beginning, I believed that the Russian aid was a prelude to larger intervention in the province. By distributing some food aid and exploiting the deteriorating economic situation of people here, the Russians gain the largest bloc in Suwayda: the hungry.

Now, months after their aid visits, they are deployed at many positions in the western Suwayda countryside.

Q: As a civilian, what is your response to the visible Russian presence in your town?

As a civilian, I fear any stranger who enters my land. So how would I feel if that person belonged to a great nation and one of the strongest armies in the world?

When you see a foreign soldier carrying a weapon in your land, you feel as though you are in an occupied country. You fear him and his weapon, constantly. At any moment, he could point it at you. He has no social connections here, and is different from us, in thought and belief. He did not come to protect me. He came to implement the projects and interests of his country.

What I fear most for the future is that the Russians could take advantage of the deteriorating security situation in Suwayda and intervene in the province’s internal affairs. Russians could intend to control it and show themselves as the savior of the people in light of the regime’s weakness.

[Ed.: For years, kidnappings and carjackings have spread throughout Suwayda province and neighboring Daraa. Not trusting regime authorities to take action, some residents are taking matters into their own hands with vigilante-style justice.  See Syria Direct’s interview about how one Suwayda family recovered a kidnapping victim here.]

Q: Have there been any issues with the Russian personnel?

Yes, and some of them are offensive and worrying. I am from Khalkhalah, which is near the Khalkhalah military airport that separates our town from the opposition-held a-Lajat area. This July, approximately 20 Russian personnel arrived with their vehicles and took positions at the checkpoint between the airport and a-Lajat.

The entrance to the west Suwayda village of a-Dour. Photo courtesy of Suwayda 24.

Since the first day they arrived, they have come to the village in the evening to buy things, especially alcohol. One of them speaks some Arabic, so he speaks for them. Most days, they buy what they want and return to the checkpoint. But one night in August, a Russian patrol arrived at the village store. Four men got out of the car and it returned to the checkpoint without them. They bought alcohol and sat in one of the village alleys to drink it. After about an hour, their voices became raised and they started laughing and acting strange. They seemed drunk.

All of them were armed, so the people living nearby became afraid. They called the men and leaders of the village, who came immediately and returned the Russians to the checkpoint, with extreme caution. The next day, one of the officials from the checkpoint came and presented an apology to the village leaders for what happened, promising it would be the last time they would act that way. But they still come around the village.

**

Ahmad, 31, a farmer from the southwest Suwayda village of Bard.

Q: Do you view Russia as an ally or an occupier? Why?

Russia is an ally. If not for its support of the Syrian army, the country would have fallen into the hands of Daesh [the Islamic State], Nusra [an Al-Qaeda-linked faction currently known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham] and the gunmen [armed opposition].

We all remember how the military situation was just before Russian intervention in 2015. The gunmen had two-thirds of the country. Today, with Russia’s help, the army has retaken large and important areas. We don’t hear about any military advance by the gunmen anymore. They are being defeated in most of their areas.

Q: How do you see Russia’s role in Suwayda so far, first with the distribution of aid and now with the presence of Russian personnel at different positions in the province?

Russia’s role in Suwayda is positive, and I’ll prove it to you. I am from Bard village, which is in southwestern Suwayda, directly adjacent to the east Daraa countryside’s [opposition-held town of] Busra a-Sham.

For years, our village has seen shelling exchanged between the Syrian army here and the gunmen in Daraa. Dozens of mortar and tank shells coming from Busra a-Sham fell on our homes. As a result, hundreds of residents were displaced, residences were damaged and a number of civilians were killed and injured, among them women and children.

Since [the Russians] deployed in Bard in July, my village has not been struck by any attack or bombing. We are starting to feel somewhat safe. A number of residents who had previously fled returned.

As for the aid, I don’t see much value in it. I received a food parcel once, containing some provisions. They only lasted me one week.

Q: As a civilian, what is your response to a visible Russian presence in your town? Moving forward, do you have any worries about this presence?

Their presence reassures me. Since they arrived, our village has been safe. It doesn’t matter to me if they have ambitions for the future. I am a farmer. I rely on my strength, my land and the crops. The important thing is that the war ends, truly ends.

The Russians deserve privileges in Syria because they are helping to return safety and security to the country. Other foreign nations have intervened in Syria in different ways. They have played a negative role, and some have supported the gunmen.

Q: Have there been any issues with the Russian personnel?

Around 25 Russians took over one of the Syrian army headquarters in our village, after it was emptied for them. Sometimes they walk around the village, but they have not harmed anyone. On the contrary, when we see them in the streets, sometimes we go to shake their hands. We try to speak with them, even though they don’t understand us and we don’t understand them.

One of the Syrian officers in the village asked us to stay away from their headquarters, but there is no harm in that. We don’t need to go near it.

**

Dreid, 29, a carpenter and university graduate from the west Suwayda village of a-Dour.

Q: Do you view Russia as an ally or an occupier? Why?

I see Russia as closer to an occupying state in Syria. It intervened in a sectarian or civil war and stood with one side—the regime and its supporters—against all others.

Since Russia intervened, the regime has made huge advances, even against the moderate opposition that Russia claimed it would not fight.

Russian and Syrian personnel distribute aid in the Suwayda village of al-Jneinah in February. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Q: How do you see Russia’s role in Suwayda so far, first with the distribution of aid and now with the presence of Russian personnel at different positions in the province?

Russian aid to some villages and cities in Suwayda has changed nothing. The package that was distributed is worth no more than SP5,000 (around $10). We won’t wait for them to improve our economic situation. The Russian people themselves are having a tough time, economically. I view the distribution as a step to pave the way for Russia to spread its forces in the province under the pretext of the “de-escalation.”

The Russians are trying to portray themselves as the guarantors of security in the province, even though Suwayda has not seen major conflicts like other provinces. Instead, we have seen bombardment and retaliation between the regime and different gunmen.

The Russians have not had a positive or negative role in Suwayda; the province is as it was before they came in. In my village, in the west Suwayda countryside, Russian personnel have been deployed to a regime battalion that divides our village from the [opposition-held] east Daraa countryside.

For us, everything is the same. Our village is a smuggling route to eastern Daraa. Vehicles carrying food, construction supplies and some fuel enter Daraa through our village. Sometimes weapons are smuggled as well, secretly of course.

[Ed.: Dreid says smuggling continues while Daraa residents report a major reduction in supplies smuggled from Suwayda following the regime recapture of part of the route, Syria Direct reported in August.]

The smuggling continues as it was, despite the fact that the Russians are here and overseeing that road, to an extent. They do not interfere. Two weeks ago, conflict broke out between the smugglers in our village and those in the east Daraa countryside village of Nahitah near where the regime and Russians are. Three people on both sides were killed, and a number of mortars fell on our village, injuring three women. The Russians and the regime forces were bystanders and did not intervene.

Q: As a civilian, what is your response to a visible Russian presence in your town? Do you have any worries about this presence, moving forward?

I worry, of course. They are not Syrians, not Arabs and we don’t know about their culture or way of thinking. They are very different from us.

Russia intervened to support the regime, not to protect the civilians or Syrian people. They killed civilians during that intervention, so they could kill civilians in Suwayda if anything changes. Those who claim to protect us could become our killers. That is one of the things I fear most.

Q: Have there been any issues with the Russian personnel?

There has been no strange behavior. In mid-July, the 20 Russian soldiers raised their flag alongside the Syrian flag at the Radar Battalion they share. But they rarely enter the village or walk around. If they come, they come alongside regime forces. We see their vehicles pass on the road, but that’s it.

Original reporting by Samer al-Halabi. These interviews are part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.

 

 

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.