AMMAN: Rebels in Syria’s southern Daraa province are bracing for a “widespread attack” by regime forces, Free Syrian Army (FSA) sources tell Syria Direct, following a weeks-long military buildup by the Syrian regime and its allies in the province.
The reported buildup follows more than seven months of relative stagnation on the fronts between opposition fighters and regime forces in Daraa province.
“Syrian regime forces have brought heavy reinforcements, including vehicles and personnel” to multiple positions in regime-held territory in Daraa province and neighboring Quneitra province over the past 10 days, a rebel spokesman from one of the largest FSA factions in the Southern Front told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity for security reasons.
The Southern Front is a US-backed coalition of FSA brigades and is the largest rebel faction in the province. The group, alongside Islamist factions and an Islamic State affiliate, control most of Daraa province. Regime forces hold a corridor of territory that begins outside Damascus in the north and runs down the M5 highway through the middle of the province, ending with several neighborhoods in the provincial capital of Daraa city.
The FSA spokesman and a second Southern Front rebel, who also asked not to be named, said dozens of Syrian Arab Army troops and foreign militiamen arrived at regime frontlines in Daraa province prior to and during the latest ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow. The reinforcements brought the number of regime forces at several key points to "approximately 4,000 fighters," he estimated.
“The regime made use of the ceasefire to prepare for future military actions in the area,” he said.
Civil Defense personnel evacuate Ibtaa residents on September 2. Photo courtesy of Daraa Civil Defense.
Syrian state media has not mentioned a military buildup in Daraa, but did report violations by rebel forces during the one-week ceasefire that ended on Sunday.
The strip of regime-held territory in Daraa province includes most of the old Daraa-Damascus highway connecting the provincial capital with the national capital, but two rebel-held towns lie on this highway: Ibtaa and Dael, roughly 10km north of Daraa city.
Rebels say the two towns are likely targets of an expected attack after regime forces captured al-Katibah al-Mahjourah, a defunct air defense battalion roughly 1km southeast of Ibtaa, on September 2.
“Taking control of the towns would enable the regime to take complete control of the Damascus-Daraa highway passing through them,” the first FSA rebel source told Syria Direct.
If regime forces took the towns, it would open a new artery for supplies and reinforcements and support a subsequent “widespread attack” and a westward push into the rebel-held countryside, he added.
The capture of the abandoned battalion was the first major advance by either rebels or the regime on their frontlines in Daraa since the government forces captured Atman, north of the provincial capital, this past February.
A commercial area in Dael after a regime bombing on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Daraa Civil Defense.
A September 11 video report by pro-regime Iranian news agency Al-Alam showed regime soldiers at al-Katibah al-Mahjourah building berms and digging ditches there just before the internationally brokered ceasefire went into effect the following day.
“Our current fortifications are a starting point for any later action in the area ahead of us, Dael and Ibtaa, in the coming days and stages,” said a regime officer in the video.
‘Displacement began after the regime advanced’
Thousands of residents of Ibtaa and Dael have fled their homes over the past three weeks, fearing a regime ground advance and seeking safety from ongoing aerial and ground bombardment of the two towns.
“Displacement began after the regime advanced on the battalion” on September 2, Abu Zain al-Hourani, a citizen journalist in Ibtaa, told Syria Direct. The regime victory was followed by “heavy bombardment of the town with various weapons.”
While the international ceasefire that went into effect last Monday offered some relief from the bombings, the attacks began anew on Sunday after the Syrian Arab Army’s General Command announced the ceasefire was over.
On Sunday, opposition sources reported nine people killed by four barrel bombs in Dael, accompanied by artillery shelling of both towns that continued for the next two days.
At time of publication on Wednesday, multiple barrel bombs and airstrikes by regime aircraft were reported in Dael and Ibtaa. Pro-regime news site Damascus Now tweeted that “warplanes are targeting the positions of armed groups in Ibtaa and Dael in the Daraa countryside with a number of airstrikes” on Wednesday.
Of approximately 30,000 residents of Ibtaa—a number including 12,000 displaced people—70 percent have fled the town over the past three weeks amidst airstrikes and shelling by the regime, activists and residents told Syria Direct.
So far, fewer have fled Dael, which lies slightly farther from regime frontlines. There, activists and residents estimate that around 20 percent of the total population of 60,000 people have fled westward.
Displaced residents have sought shelter in the relative safety of west Daraa countryside towns including Nawa, Jasim, Sahm, Sheikh Saad, Tel Shahab and others, where they are struggling to secure adequate food and shelter.
“People fled in a rush,” said citizen journalist al-Hourani, “with the clothes on their backs and whatever was easy to carry.” As a result, those who are unable to pay elevated rent prices in the towns they fled to are living in derelict houses or out in the fields and orchards.
“The local council only gives bread,” Muhammad, a displaced resident of Ibtaa who fled his home earlier this month told Syria Direct.
“Some residents gave us food and blankets.”