In battle for Daraa city, rebels advance in regime’s ‘impenetrable’ district near Jordan border

AMMAN: Syrian rebels are close to capturing the southern half of Daraa city on Tuesday, two months after the combined force of hardline Islamist and moderate opposition fighters launched a preemptive battle to prevent the Assad regime from regaining a nearby border crossing with Jordan.

If the alliance succeeds in its campaign, it will create a buffer zone that blocks the Syrian government from bifurcating rebel-held Daraa province, a swathe of territory that sweeps down and forms a “U” shape all the way to the border with Jordan.

Daraa province, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, has been a base of opposition strength. Over time, the Assad regime carved a sphere of influence both throughout the northern countryside and within the eponymous provincial capital. Most notably, the regime maintains control over the M5 highway, the main artery that connects Daraa city and the outlying towns to the capital and the rest of the country.

A rebel victory in the al-Manshiya district, the regime’s primary base in south Daraa city for bombing nearby opposition territory, would also provide the rebels with a high-ground position capable of seriously threatening the provincial capital’s government-controlled northern half.

Syrian regime forces currently hold the northern and western neighborhoods of Daraa city while on the other side of the Yarmouk River, which runs through the provincial capital, Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions control the 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.

In February, rebel forces launched their campaign—dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation”—two and a half months after Jordan indicated its willingness to reopen its border points with Daraa province only if regime forces held them, Syria Direct reported.

In what is the largest battle in Daraa city since 2015, opposition forces say their preemptive strike focuses on capturing two regime-held districts—al-Manshiyah and Sajnah—the government’s heavily fortified and last remaining holdings in the southern half of the city.

On Tuesday, opposition sources told Syria Direct that they now control more than “85 percent” of al-Manshiyah, an elevated district from which the regime bombardment has menaced rebel-held positions across the provincial capital and the wider province for years.

Rebel forces made rapid advances in the initial days of the surprise campaign in February, capturing as much as 50 percent of the contested district. But fighting quickly reached a stalemate in subsequent weeks, as the opposition faced dug-in regime fortifications, supported by “hundreds of Russian airstrikes.”

Despite near-daily airstrikes, opposition forces resumed their advances this past week with rebel sources pointing to heavy and sustained firepower, regime attrition and simultaneous battles elsewhere in the country as reasons for their success.

 A rebel fighter stands amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in rebel-held Daraa, March 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

Rebel forces are leaning heavily on suicide car bombs and other conventional weapon strikes. Meanwhile, the regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied militias appear to have redirected resources in recent weeks to their other campaigns, including the fighting in northern Hama.

“Any operation in Syria will of course lighten the pressure on another ongoing battle by spreading out the regime,” Abu Shaimaa, the spokesman for the al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room carrying out the battle, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “That being said, there’s been no let-up from the regime’s warplanes or their helicopters.”

Since the rebels targeted regime positions in al-Manshiyah with two suicide car-bombers and a massive tunnel bomb on February 12, regime and Russian aircraft have reportedly launched more than 550 airstrikes and dropped nearly 500 barrel bombs on rebel frontlines and surrounding areas, multiple opposition sources told Syria Direct. Meanwhile, the block-by-block urban warfare has killed scores of combatants on both sides.

With rebels fighting on Tuesday to recapture the final blocks of al-Manshiyah, once considered to be “an impenetrable fortress,” says Al-Buraq al-Mafalani, a local media activist, the prospect of an opposition victory “will turn the entire calculus in Daraa city on its head.”

Together, al-Manshiyah and the northern adjacent Sajnah districts overlook all regime territory north of the provincial capital’s dividing Yarmouk River. From this position, opposition forces could theoretically shell regime military holdings in the city’s northern half, also known as Daraa al-Mahatta, with greater ease.

The rebel groups currently battling SAA forces in Daraa city include 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 FSA factions working in Daraa city.

While rebel spokesmen remain tight-lipped regarding any potential next steps, Abu Shaimaa of al-Banyan al-Marsous seemed to indicate that fighting will be “advancing towards the liberation of all of Daraa city.”

 Aftermath of purported Russian airstrike on southern, rebel-held Daraa city on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Both regime and Russian state media are providing limited coverage of the Daraa city fighting beyond the occasional reference to “terrorists” killed. One pro-regime outlet reported on Sunday that the “Russian Air Force saves the day in Daraa,” preventing the “jihadist rebels” from capturing more than what they estimate to be “70 percent” of the al-Manshiyah district.

Inside the rebel-held southern side of Daraa city, also known as Daraa al-Balad, sources on the ground describe a scene of devastation in the wake of the regime’s two-month bombing campaign.

More than “80 percent of all infrastructure in the districts of Daraa al-Balad” is destroyed, Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani, a spokesman with the pro-opposition Daraa media outlet Horan Free League, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Few civilians remain inside the city’s southern half as thousands of families fled for surrounding villages and camps across the province in the early days of fighting back in February, Syria Direct reported.

Despite the destruction and displacement, local sources uniformly relayed a sense of excitement about the rebel military campaign.

“The battles have given us hope again,” Abu Ahmad al-Qateifan, a resident displaced from Daraa city to the countryside told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “These battles are real, they are sincere and they are led by true revolutionaries.”

The Daraa city battle has “returned popular support for the revolution and the hope of salvation from the criminal regime,” he added.

Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani of the Horan Free League said the “Death Rather Than Humiliation” campaign has “reinvigorated the spirit of those who had so much despair in their hearts with the worsening situation in Daraa.”

 

 

 

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.