Assad forces nearly reach Jordan border in midnight stealth operation

AMMAN: Syrian Arab Army forces came within three kilometers of a border crossing with Jordan on Tuesday following a secretive midnight operation behind rebel frontlines, local military sources told Syria Direct.

The regime deployed a small “infiltration team” around 2:30am Tuesday morning into rebel territory, 3km west of Daraa city, a local opposition commander told Syria Direct. The pro-government units reached and briefly captured an opposition-controlled air defense base within hours.

The nighttime operation not only benefited from the cover of darkness but also from a synchronized air and ground assault across multiple rebel positions in the deeply contested, and divided, provincial capital.

Russian and regime aircraft pinned down rebel fighters for hours inside Daraa city, launching dozens of airstrikes, barrel bombs and incendiary weapons while the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies attempted to storm the opposition-held half of the city on the ground.

The SAA and its allies control the city’s northern and western neighborhoods, also known as Daraa al-Mahatta, with the support of Russian airpower. On the other side of the city, divided by the Yarmouk River, rebel factions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar a-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition including former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—hold nearly all of its southern half, known as Daraa al-Balad.

Despite the SAA’s coordinated, multi-front assault, opposition forces staved off pro-regime advances in the heart of the provincial capital and quickly sent fighters to the then-fallen air defense base.

Opposition forces “foiled the regime plan,” after expelling the SAA fighters from the contested base, a rebel commander told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

By 1:00pm local time on Tuesday, the opposition’s al-Banyan al-Marsous Operations Room—the entity responsible for coordinating the rebels’ Daraa city campaign—announced the complete “return of control” of the air defense base, publishing photos of the corpses of regime soldiers and their recently captured prisoners via the messaging app Telegram.

 Aftermath of regime bombing of Daraa city, June 18. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.

But for nearly 10 hours, the regime’s stealth operation deep behind rebel lines threatened to change the entire calculus of a bloody Daraa city battle that has seen few—if any—shifts in more than 100 days of fighting.

By temporarily capturing the air defense base, the Assad regime made its largest inroads to date towards bifurcating the rebel-held territory of Daraa province—a faithful base of opposition support—and regaining a key border crossing with Jordan.

Opposition forces launched their Daraa city campaign against the regime—dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation"—back in February as a pre-emptive response to alleged regime troop buildups near Daraa city. Opposition forces told Syria Direct at the time that they feared the SAA would attempt to punch through the rebel-controlled half of the city in order to reach a border crossing with neighboring Jordan. Two and a half months earlier, Jordan indicated its willingness to reopen its border points with Daraa province but on the condition that regime forces hold them.

What ensued, however, has been gridlocked fighting, block-by-block urban warfare that has left scores of combatants dead on both sides.

In what is the largest battle in Daraa city since 2015, hundreds of regime and Russian airstrikes and artillery shells have flattened entire buildings. But little territory has actually changed hands in the province known as “the cradle of the revolution.”

 A bomb hits the opposition-controlled Daraa Camp on June 15. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.

The majority of the fighting centers on the al-Manshiya district, of which rebels claim they have captured 90 percent since the start of the February campaign. Complete control over the district would deliver the opposition a long-coveted victory and provide a high-ground position capable of seriously threatening Daraa’s government-controlled northern half.

Clashes between the two sides continued throughout the day on Tuesday, one day after the conclusion of a 48-hour ceasefire. The Syrian Ministry of Defense announced the temporary cessation of all fighting in Daraa city on Saturday in order focus on “consolidating local reconciliations,” a term used to describe rebel surrenders in exchange for amnesty with the government.

In May, Syrian regime backers Russia and Iran agreed on a deal alongside Turkey at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan to establish four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory across the country, including Daraa province.

As with the May agreement, which unraveled earlier this month, the weekend’s touch-and-go ceasefire ended abruptly in a hailstorm of rocket fire early Tuesday morning with artillery shells landing as far as the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha, just across the Syrian border.

On Tuesday, Syrian and Russian aircraft launched up to 25 airstrikes, 38 barrel bombs, 12 naval mines and six incendiary bombs in addition to 29 surface-to-surface rockets on Daraa city and the surrounding countryside, Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani, a local media activist, told Syria Direct from Daraa on Tuesday.

Those figures, one regime military source told Syria Direct, are a preview of what is to come.

“The bombing is light at the moment,” he told Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity. “Moving forward, the bombing is only going to increase, and there will be no reconciliation.”

“Give it a month, and this will all be taken care of.”

The next round of Syria negotiations, focusing once again on the establishment of “de-escalation zones” are scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan's capital city of Astana in the beginning of July.

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.

Lina Eghzawi

Originally from Daraa, Lina studied Literature at Damascus University. She moved to Jordan in 2012 and completed a degree in interior design.

Alaa Rateb

Originally from Homs, Alaa Moved to Jordan in 2013 due to the security situation in Syria. She volunteered with Syrian refugees before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.