Why is an Islamic State affiliate quietly ruling unchallenged in a corner of Syria’s south?

AMMAN: In the quiet agrarian town of Nawa, 30 kilometers northwest of Daraa province’s half-flattened capital, 25-year-old Fouad lives alone.

He fled to Nawa last month from his home in Taseel, a rural town in southwestern Daraa held by a local Islamic State affiliate. Fouad still has no job in nearby Nawa and barely enough funds to cover the rent for his modest one-room apartment. His elderly parents still live in Taseel on their own.

For Fouad, however, a state of limbo in Nawa is far preferable to Taseel, just eight kilometers southwest, which has been under the control of hardline Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) since February, when the group expanded its existing territory within southwestern Daraa province in a surprise advance.

The advance came nearly one year after JKW’s founding in May 2016. At the time, local Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk merged with ideologically similar allies, bringing roughly 200 square kilometers of the Yarmouk River Basin in Syria’s farthest southwest corner under the control of the newly renamed Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed militia. The group has a decidedly local, homegrown feel—its fighters are drawn from the towns and villages that dot the Yarmouk Basin itself.

Fouad made his risky escape from his hometown of Taseel in the Yarmouk Basin last month after facing arrest and torture—twice—at the hands of JKW authorities since February. The first time, he says, JKW held him in prison for 40 days as a political prisoner. JKW “hung me up by my feet and beat me with a stick,” Fouad says.

The second time, after a surprise home raid, Fouad was beaten with an electrical cable so intensely that he says a doctor in Nawa later found kidney damage from the impact.

Nawa is the largest town in Daraa’s western, rebel-held countryside. There, the Southern Front—a collection of Free Syrian Army-affiliated militias—is in control.

JKW religious police burn DVD and CD players in Nafa’ah this week in a photo shared via Facebook.

“You feel a sense of safety, and freedom of movement” in Nawa, Fouad tells Syria Direct from his studio apartment, which, for now, is paid for by a brother working in Saudi Arabia. “Here, there’s a sense of freedom in general.” Fouad used a pseudonym out of for fear for his family members still living back home in Taseel.

Upon release from JKW custody, Fouad made his decision to flee. He waited months to avoid arousing suspicion from JKW authorities, who are keen to prevent collusion with surrounding Southern Front forces. Finally in August, Fouad requested permission to exit Taseel, telling JKW authorities he wished to visit relatives in nearby opposition-held territory. Somehow, despite young men rarely being granted exit permits, Fouad was allowed to leave via the sole checkpoint out of JKW territory. He cannot return home for fear of likely violent reprisals.

“I’m barred from staying in my birthplace with my family, as a result of Islamic State practices,” he says, referring to JKW, as many local residents do, with the name of its reported parent organization.  

Fouad’s story is hardly unique, nor is it an example of the worst of JKW’s hardline rule over residents in the Yarmouk Basin. One Basin resident told Syria Direct this past January of at least 20 civilians beheaded by sword for charges of sorcery and other perceived violations of Islamic law—measures similar to those taken in other areas of Syria under Islamic State control. This week, photos emerged online of JKW religious police burning piles of confiscated musical instruments, as well as DVD and CD players.

But despite its countless human rights violations, JKW has largely operated with little real resistance on the ground from rebel brigades, allowing it to govern and terrorize thousands of civilians with its violent interpretation of Islamic law.

Inaction against the group is perhaps surprising, given its location at a sensitive nexus. JKW’s territorial pocket borders both Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. It is totally surrounded on all sides by its rival, the Western-backed Southern Front rebels.

A relatively successful Russian- and American-brokered ceasefire in Syria’s south is now in place. JKW did not sign onto the ceasefire—now nearing its fourth month—and is not covered under the deal. The state of calm raises a key question about this stagnant front: Why don’t Southern Front forces on the ground now pivot their attention toward driving out JKW?

The Southern Front: ‘Regime is a priority’

Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed is literally backed into a corner. A “wealth” of important water wells, in addition to the Yarmouk Basin’s location along the Israeli and Jordanian borders, mean the region is moderately strategic, says Ibrahim al-Jabawi of the Syrian Media Organization, a Southern Front- affiliated news outlet, but not strategic enough for a sustained battlefront.

Geographically, JKW’s territory in southwest Daraa is part of the Yarmouk River Basin, comprising several plains with two deep valleys cutting through them—making the area difficult to invade by rival militias.

Yarmouk Basin residents flee to rebel-held rural east Daraa on March 6. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Equally crucial is JKW’s “human geography,” Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War, tells Syria Direct. Unlike areas of eastern Syria, where ranks of the Islamic State are drawn in part from foreign fighters streaming in from the Arab world, Europe and Asia, JKW is composed primarily of local residents with deep tribal ties to the area.

“Expelling [these fighters] from their own hometowns is very difficult,” adds Kozak.

A handful of unclaimed airstrikes since June have killed top-tier JKW commanders within the Yarmouk Basin. But if the intention was to wipe out the militia, thousands of locally born fighters are still operating on the ground today.

“I’m not going to compare [JKW fighters] to a Hydra, where if you kill one, two more pop up,” says Scott Lucas, founder of the Middle East-focused blog EA Worldview, and a professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham. “But at this point, [JKW] can still fill their ranks, even if some of their better commanders have been killed.”

The result is a Southern Front both unable, due to uneven resources, and unwilling, owing to a complex web of familial ties, to launch any sort of sustained offensive to drive out JKW from its Yarmouk Basin stronghold.

Villages and towns inside western Daraa province today witness small clashes “from time to time” with JKW fighters but seemingly no earnest battles to crush the IS affiliate, Nader Dabo, a spokesman for the opposition-run Nawa Military Council, tells Syria Direct. He blames the lack of a sustained anti-JKW offensive on “a lack of ammunition.”

“Weak” financial and military support for the Southern Front leaves the opposition group largely “on its own,” particularly after US President Donald Trump ended a CIA program in July that funded Syrian rebel groups, says James Miller, managing editor of the Syria-, Ukraine- and Russia-focused news site Interpreter.

Today, Southern Front rebels simply “cannot afford to fight another enemy”—that enemy being JKW, adds Miller.

“Why pick a fight [with JKW]?” says EA Worldview’s Scott Lucas. “The Southern Front’s priority is always going to be the regime.”

So where, then, does the Southern Front’s focus lie? Since the announcement of an internationally brokered de-escalation deal for southern Syria in July, once-restive Daraa province is now relatively quiet. Intense airstrikes, as well as ground and artillery battles that flattened rebel-held districts in the provincial capital earlier this year have subsided as displaced people begin to return.

Confident in a semblance of peace—or at least an absence of regime and Russian airstrikes—other residents in the rebel-held countryside have begun rebuilding their crushed, bombed-out homes.

JKW religious police confiscate musical instruments in Nafa’ah this week in a photo shared via Facebook.

But Assad’s forces have unrealized goals in Daraa province that are poised to open a new confrontation with the already worn-out Southern Front. Among the regime’s likely priorities is the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, currently held by opposition forces in southern Daraa province. Both Damascus and Amman are receptive to the idea of reopening the crossing, should Assad’s forces retake the Syrian side—a move that would slice rebel-held rural Daraa province in two.

“The Syrian government is insistent they’re going to take back every inch of Syria,” says Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and founder of the influential blog Syria Comment.

“[This is] probably true for the south, along the Jordan border, and it is only a matter of time before Syria takes back those regions and destroys whatever Arab militias are remaining in that area.”

A ‘benign tumor’

Back home in the JKW-held town of Taseel, 25-year-old Fouad’s parents are still living alone. They face possible reprisals as the parents of their twice-arrested, and now escaped, son.

“I don’t deny that I left my parents behind,” says Fouad from the relative safety of Nawa. “I’m scared for them, from the oppression of the Islamic State.”

But where JKW poses immediate, mortal dangers to the lives of thousands of people living within its territory, it appears to pose a minor threat to neighboring, rival Southern Front forces who in turn have nothing compelling them to fight the extremist group.

What remains today in the remote Yarmouk Basin is essentially an anomaly: a relatively inconsequential outgrowth of IS that receives little attention in the shadow of its much larger, yet waning, parent organization in Syria’s eastern Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces.

“For now, until JKW makes a move, I think everyone’s going to allow the situation to remain contained,” says Lucas. “How many people, outside of your followers,” asked Lucas of a reporter, “even know who JKW is?”

“This is a benign tumor—it doesn’t show up on the X-rays.”

Original reporting by Samir a-Sa'adi. This report is 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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.