Deadly rebel infighting in Daraa: ‘What is happening is a war in every sense of the word’

Last Monday, alleged Islamic State affiliates Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk and Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiya broke out of a pocket of territory they control in the southwestern corner of Daraa province, attacking FSA Southern Front and Jabhat a-Nusra forces. LSY and Muthanna pushed roughly 7km to the east and took control of several villages. While it is not immediately clear why LSY went on the offensive now, tensions between the group and Nusra date back to late 2014.

The four factions continue to battle each other for control of villages east of LSY’s original pocket of territory, in the Yarmouk Basin area bordering the Israel-controlled Golan Heights to the west, and Jordan to the south.

Many civilians trapped between rebel infighting in southwest Daraa province are now “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster,” two Daraa journalists tell Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.

Thousands of civilians living in the contested territory have fled their homes and are living “out in the open, on farms,” says Abu Hamzah al-Daraawi, a citizen journalist in the west Daraa countryside.

Fleeing residents are trapped by the frontlines and can’t get out. “Nobody is evacuating the civilians, not even from areas of active clashes.”

“We aren’t aligned with any warring group,” says Hassan al-Muhammad, the pseudonym of a journalist and resident of a contested town.

“We don’t want anyone to rule us. We just want you to leave the civilians out of your battles.”

Abu Hamzah al-Daraawi, west Daraa citizen journalist:

Q: What is life like for residents caught in the fighting?

The ongoing clashes have blockaded the people of the Yarmouk Basin [where the fighting is occurring] and all of the residents, where there is active fighting, have fled.

We are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Food prices have spiked, there is no flour, and water has been cut off for more than a week due to the closure of the water turbine. Maintenance workers have been unable to make repairs to the water infrastructure because of the fighting.

All of the roads leading out of the Yarmouk Basin (through Adwan, Tseel, A-Sheikh Saad) are cut off [by the fighting]. Most of these areas used to be calm and were filled with internally displaced people from different parts of Daraa. Many of the residents are now living out in the open, on farms and in the plains.

To make matters worse, Harakat a-Muthanna is blowing up the bridges and main roads to prevent the Southern Front and Nusra from advancing.

 Displaced southwest Daraa residents on Monday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Q: How many civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting? What kind of weapons are being used?

Around 23 civilians have been killed, including a family of five in Tseel (a father, mother and three children).

What is happening is a war in every sense of the word. The fighting factions are using heavy weaponry such as rocket launchers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, heavy artillery and different kinds of light weaponry.

Q: How do residents view the fighting? How have they responded?

People are in a state of shock. This attack was not expected, and there is a state of anger and disapproval among the residents, while LSY and Harakat a-Muthanna security forces move to quell any civilian mobilization.

All the residents are calling for the factions to leave civilians out of their battles. It’s enough that Assad’s planes kill us.

Q: Residents and activists are calling for civilians to be protected. Has there been a response? Are civilians being evacuated from battle zones?

Nobody has responded to civilians’ calls. On the contrary, on Saturday [Harakat a-Muthanna] fired upon and dispersed a demonstration in A-Sheikh Saad calling for all sides to stop the fighting.

Unfortunately, nobody is evacuating the civilians, not even from areas of active clashes. We call on all the warring parties to keep civilians separate from this conflict, to open a safe road for civilians to leave and to allow medicine, children’s milk and food to enter, or else we’ll starve.

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Hassan al-Muhammad, a journalist and resident of the west Daraa town of Tseel captured by LSY last week:

Q: How are the townspeople living in Tseel after LSY took control? Is there any harassment of activists and FSA members?

After Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk took control, things got worse. Many residents fled in fear of LSY security forces, and are living outside the town in the farms and plains.

LSY fighters carried out an arrest campaign of FSA members in town, for what it called repentance, and forced them to pledge loyalty to LSY. They are also searching residences for weapons.

LSY personnel called over loudspeakers and posted announcements in the streets calling on any individual with connections to the FSA to repent and announce their allegiance to them.

 Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk fighters in the west Daraa town of Sahm al-Jolan after taking control on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Dawaa al-Haq.

Q: To your knowledge, did civilians die in the recent clashes? Talk more about what is happening on the ground.

Yes, on Friday an entire family of five was killed. An artillery shell originating from the nearby, FSA-held Jamuua hill fell on their residence in Tseel.

The factions are using all types of light and heavy weaponry, from rocket launchers and heavy artillery to tanks.

Q: What messages would you like to direct to the fighting factions in the Yarmouk Basin?

We call on everyone to leave our area out of the fighting. We aren’t aligned with any warring group.

We don’t want anyone to rule us. We just want you to leave the civilians out of your battles.

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.