The desertous Asfar region of eastern Suweida governorate has changed hands numerous times over the course of the war, controlled at various points by the Islamic State, the opposition, and the Syrian government. People displaced by the fighting are still unable to return, despite active military operations having ended there in late 2017.
Asfar sits on about five hectares of land in rural northeastern Suweida and is within the Shahba administrative district. It is home to eight villages, most important of which are Asfar and Shanwan. The total population, according to the last estimate before 2011, was some 8,000 people, all of whom come from Bedouin tribes. Asfar connects the Suweida governorate to rural parts of East Ghouta, and is the entryway to the remote Hammad desert region in southeastern Syria.
Islamic State fighters seized control of Asfar in 2014 and began forcing military conscription on local men. Some residents fled towards other areas of rural eastern Suweida, and to parts of the Al-Lajat area to the west.
In February 2017, opposition forces were able to expel the Islamic State as yet another wave of residents fled the battles for safety towards rural eastern Suweida. When the fighting stopped, families began returning to Asfar until mid-2017, when regime forces launched their own military operation and seized the area from rebels. During the fighting, the area was subject to widespread destruction and looting of homes. Residents were displaced for a third time, in various directions. Most headed towards rural eastern Daraa. Others went to the Rukban displacement camp on the border with Jordan, as well as nearby areas of rural eastern Suweida.
Sources who documented violations in the area told The Syria Report that an estimated 30 percent of all homes were destroyed.
The 15th Division of the regime’s Special Forces, stationed between Suweida and Daraa, entered Asfar after the government takeover of the area, converting the villages there into a closed military zone to launch operations on the nearby desertous Badia region of eastern Syria.
At the end of 2018, officials from the Russian Reconciliation Center and the Syrian government offered a deal to displaced people from Asfar: they would be allowed to return home in batches, while the 15th Division would remain deployed in the area. The deal stipulated partial return, with tribal leaders required to hand over young men for mandatory military service. Those who had defected from the army would need to settle their statuses with security forces, and to rejoin their military units.
Asfar tribal leaders rejected those conditions. The result: the area remains a closed military zone, and residents are forbidden from returning.