For ‘first time,’ wave of IED attacks strikes Daraa Civil Defense

A few men crept in the shadows outside the Civil Defense station in opposition-held Daraa city late Sunday evening.

Their movement attracted the attention of one of the first responders. As he went out to investigate, he saw the men sprinting into the darkness. They left behind a black bag with an improvised explosive device (IED) set to explode.

The Civil Defense team on duty called in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) bomb-disposal squad. The FSA defused the device, narrowly avoiding the fourth such attack in less than two months.

In Syria’s southern Daraa province, an unprecedented wave of IED attacks has killed five Civil Defense first responders, including the former director of the Daraa Civil Defense on March 20.

 Aftermath of a May 2 IED that killed four members of the Daraa Civil Defense. Photo courtesy of the Daraa Civil Defense.

Attacks against the Civil Defense are far from new: Since March, airstrikes and artillery fire have damaged or destroyed at least 17 Civil Defense stations across opposition-controlled territory. However, Mustafa Mahamid, the director of the Daraa Civil Defense, says the March bombing that killed his predecessor was “the first time that we’ve ever been hit by an IED in Daraa province.”

In the southern Syrian province that borders Jordan, IED attacks are now killing more Civil Defense responders than airstrikes and mortar fire combined.

“In the north we’re bombed with airstrikes, and in the south we’re hit by IEDs,” Mahamid tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.

Q: There has been a wave of IED attacks against Daraa Civil Defense teams in recent weeks. When did this first start, and have you previously faced such attacks over the course of the six-year war?

Civil Defense teams in Daraa are being targeted. It started at the end of March when the director of the Daraa Civil Defense, Abdullah a-Sarhan, was killed by an IED [in the east Daraa countryside]. This was the first time that we’ve ever been hit by an IED in Daraa province.

Q: And there have been subsequent attacks of a similar nature?

There have been four IED attacks so far, and we’ve lost five of our men as a result. The first one was the [March 20] attack on the head of the Daraa Civil Defense.

The second was the [May 2] targeting of a Civil Defense ambulance, which killed four people, including the head of the Civil Defense in the east Daraa countryside town of Bosra al-Harir, and injured three other volunteers.

The third attack [on May 6] targeted the Civil Defense’s unexploded ordnance team in Daraa city and injured three people.

 A man rides his motorcycle past damaged buildings in Daraa city, March 16. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

The fourth and most recent attack took place Sunday evening as IEDs were being planted in the vicinity of the Civil Defense station in Daraa al-Balad [Ed.: The southern side of Daraa city, also known as Daraa al-Balad, is almost entirely under rebel control and is the site of a months-long battle between regime and opposition forces]. There were a number of IEDs set to explode at the Daraa al-Balad station, by the dormitory, the office and the garage.

One of our members was aware of some strange movements in the vicinity of the station. When he left to see what was going on, he saw a group of people leave a black bag near the station and run away. When we got close, we found that there was a bomb ready to explode. We informed the local operations room of the Free Syrian Army so that they could pursue those responsible for planting the IED. The FSA’s engineering team responded to scene and disarmed the bomb.

Q: Have you been able to determine who is responsible for carrying out these attacks? What do you see as the motivation here?

I can say with complete certainty that the attacks are being carried out by the regime’s forces and its sleeper cells.

[Ed.: Syria Direct could not verify that the regime is behind the attacks, though the Syrian Defense Ministry posted a video on March 21, showing an IED destroy a car at the same location where Abdullah a-Sarhan, the head of the Daraa Civil Defense, is reported to have been killed. The Syrian Defense Ministry claims that that attack targeted “the terrorist group Jabhat a-Nusra.”]

The Civil Defense is on the side of everyone in rebel-held areas. We’re here to serve everyone: civilians and combatants, Muslims and non-Muslims. We do our work without discrimination. We have no enemies here except for the regime and its followers. 

After the [March 20] targeting of Abdullah a-Sarhan, the regime published a video of the attack, which confirms beyond a doubt that the regime was responsible for it.

What we’re seeing right now is the continuation of the Russian and regime campaign to target Civil Defense stations and teams all across Syria. In the north we’re bombed with airstrikes, and in the south we’re hit by IEDs. It’s all done for the purpose of shutting us down. This is the same campaign that [the Russians and the regime] have been carrying out against us for years now.

Q: How have these IED attacks affected your work? Are there steps that you are taking to prevent similar attacks moving forward?

These attacks do not deter the Civil Defense from doing its job. The regime’s direct attacks on our vehicles and on our members do, however, undermine security in the area, which hinders our work. There’s no doubt it slows down our response times and our ability to move the injured, especially given that we’ve started using farther-away routes to ensure our security.

Q: Has the Daraa Civil Defense sustained other, non-IED casualties since March?

Since March, there have been six [non-IED] bombings and airstrikes on Civil Defense teams, which have killed two of our members and injured eight others. Five of the attacks were on the Civil Defense station in Daraa city, and the sixth was on the station in the town of a-Naeema.

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.

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.