Syrians’ pursuit of freeing loved ones from al-Assad’s prisons at any cost

Dr. Haid Haid
Dr. Haid Haid
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In recent months, southern Syria has experienced a surge in kidnappings targeting regime military officers. Unlike typical financially motivated abductions in the region, these instances stand out for targeting individuals based on their affiliation with President Bashar al-Assad rather than personal factors. Reports indicate that residents of Sweida and Daraa orchestrated these kidnappings as leverage to secure the release of relatives detained by the regime.

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This grassroots resistance seems to be a direct response to the regime’s pervasive use of detentions as a means of extortion, leading to a profound loss of trust in the judicial system among the public. As a result, communities have turned to vigilantism to protect themselves from state-sponsored abuses, particularly in areas where the regime’s influence is weak. These actions underscore the sentiment that al-Assad’s regime is not a legitimate governing authority deserving of submission but rather an entity to be contested when necessary.

The most recent incident occurred in Sweida on June 22, where several factions detained three officers and a soldier from the regime’s forces in connection to the disappearance of Sheikh Raed al-Moteni, allegedly taken into custody by al-Assad’s forces. Earlier in June, local factions captured over 14 regime security personnel in Sweida in response to the detention of a woman and her son in rural Damascus. Additionally, in April, residents of Sweida abducted over half a dozen regime military officers, including a Colonel, following the detention of a university student in Lattakia and other individuals in rural Damascus.

Similar incidents have emerged in neighboring Daraa. In May, residents of the al-Lajat area detained an officer and a soldier from the regime’s Ninth Division after the arrest of a local man at a checkpoint on the Damascus-Daraa highway. Shortly after, armed groups in Inkhil, a town in western Daraa, barricaded roads and besieged the Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence headquarters, demanding the release of a local resident detained by Syrian military security at the same checkpoint.

These actions hold broader significance beyond single occurrences, serving as indicators of a larger trend. Locals retaliating against the regime’s arrests or disappearances by kidnapping military or security officers has become increasingly common. When families confirm the regime’s involvement, they often resort to abducting regime officials or issuing forceful threats. The exact number of such abductions remains uncertain due to operational secrecy, with many incidents unreported to avoid unwanted attention.

Despite these challenges to its authority, the regime typically opts for negotiation with kidnappers to maintain peace in these regions. In areas like Sweida, direct confrontations are avoided in consideration of strong social and religious ties with local factions, potentially alienating Sweida’s Druze communities even further. Similarly, heightened conflicts with armed groups in Daraa are feared for potentially destabilizing the already precarious security landscape in the region.

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in a file photo from 2010. (AFP)
Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in a file photo from 2010. (AFP)

In such instances, negotiations are often initiated by local kidnappers once a sufficient number of hostages are secured from the regime. Mediators are frequently appointed to broker swap deals with relevant government security agencies, leading to the eventual release of all detainees. For instance, the Men of Dignity Movement, a local Druze faction in Sweida, facilitated negotiations following the April 2 abduction of regime officers. Notably, on May 27, a man from Inkhil in western Daraa was released after a week in detention due to intervention by local clan leaders.

The persistence of state-sponsored detention extortion tactics and the absence of an independent judicial system suggest that kidnapping regime officers for self-protection is likely to remain prevalent in the foreseeable future. This is primarily because these tactics have consistently proven effective in securing the swift release of detainees from the regime without provoking any retaliatory measures.
These grassroots resistance incidents carry a profound significance beyond their security contexts. They underscore the deep-seated resentment and unwavering determination of communities under al-Assad’s rule to challenge his authority, revealing the regime’s failure to bolster its legitimacy despite territorial gains.

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