AMMAN: A combined force of hardline Islamist and moderate Syrian rebels in Daraa city is battling Syrian regime forces for a second day on Monday to prevent them from regaining control of a nearby border crossing with Jordan.
Rebels suspect the regime was preparing to take the closed Daraa border point because of a Syrian military build-up and week-long shelling of Daraa city.
“Regime forces are aiming to seize control of the border with Jordan because of its economic importance,” Abu Shaimaa, the spokesman for the al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room carrying out the battle told Syria Direct on Monday.
The battle comes two and a half months after Jordan—a longtime backer of southern Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad—indicated its willingness to reopen its borders with Daraa province only if they were held by regime forces.
“The borders cannot be opened unless regime forces from the Syrian army take control of them,” Chairman of the Jordanian Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat told BBC Arabic in a videotaped interview on December 30, referring to the Daraa and Naseeb border crossings.
Syrian regime forces currently control the northern and western neighborhoods of Daraa city, the provincial capital, while Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions control its south and east. Daraa city lies just four kilometers from Syria’s southern border with Jordan and one of the province’s two inactive border crossings.
On Sunday, following an alleged buildup of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces in regime-held neighborhoods of Daraa city and a week-long ground bombardment campaign against opposition neighborhoods, Islamist and moderate rebel forces launched a broad offensive against the regime-held al-Manshiyah district.
Rebels detonate a tunnel bomb against regime positions in Daraa city’s al-Manshiyah district on Sunday. Photo courtesy of al-Banyan al-Marsous.
“Our goal is to prevent the regime from taking control of the old customs building and to push it further back by taking all of al-Manshiyah district,” the rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday. Al-Manshiyah is the regime-held district of Daraa city closest to the Jordanian border.
Dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation,” the rebel offensive is the largest of its kind in Daraa city since 2015.
The rebel groups currently battling Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces in Daraa city include the recently-formed Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition including former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—as well as Ahrar a-Sham and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions working in Daraa city.
In Daraa city, the first 48 hours of fighting saw rebels target regime positions in al-Manshiyah with two suicide car-bombers and a massive tunnel bomb. One of the suicide attacks was carried out by Abu Riyan al-Muhajir, reportedly a Jordanian citizen.
Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Monday that SAA units were “facing attacks by Nusra terrorists” in Daraa city but that they had “seized control of the combat situation after the terrorist organization suffered heavy losses.”
On Sunday, two residents of regime-held Daraa were killed and others injured by rebel artillery fire, SANA reported.
Regime warplanes and artillery pounded rebel positions and neighborhoods in Daraa city on Monday, while rebels claimed they captured several regime positions, in announcements circulated on the messaging app Telegram.
‘The city is all but empty’
Leading up to Sunday’s rebel attack, one week of intense regime ground bombardment of all rebel-held neighborhoods in Daraa city had left them virtually deserted, local authorities told Syria Direct.
“More than 1,500 artillery shells and rockets have fallen on opposition-held Daraa city” in recent days, Amer Abazeid, the spokesman for the Daraa Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Monday.
Multiple opposition sources have reported that elephant rockets (unguided, improvised missiles named for the sound they make when launched) were heavily used throughout the bombardment.
Al-Banyan al-Marsous, the rebel operations room, cited “indiscriminate” artillery fire, including highly destructive elephant rockets, as one of the motivations for launching the latest battle.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 families from Daraa city have fled to the nearby countryside to stay with relatives or sleep rough on farmland and in orchards to escape heavy artillery bombardment, said Civil Defense spokesman Abazeid.
“The city is all but empty of residents,” Abazeid told Syria Direct. “Our role was to evacuate those inside, but some people refused to leave,” he added. Abazeid estimates that 200-300 families remain inside rebel areas of the city, which was home to roughly 100,000 people before the war.
The opposition’s Daraa city council has virtually “no funding or resources to provide for these families,” Samer al-Homsi, a member of the civil body told Syria Direct on Monday. The council is keeping records of the displaced and communicating with local and international organizations to solicit help, said al-Homsi.
Amidst cold, rainy weather in southern Syria, “conditions are harsh, especially for the children,” Sameer al-Musalmeh, a resident who recently fled his home in opposition-held Daraa city, told Syria Direct on Monday.
“The local council gave us some cans of food, but they were used up by the next day.”