Islamic State affiliate’s surprise offensive pays off as rebels distracted in Daraa city

AMMAN: An Islamic State affiliate in southwest Daraa province launched a surprise attack against rival factions on Monday, capturing several villages in what appears to be an opportunistic assault against rebels distracted by fighting with the regime in the nearby provincial capital.

Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW), a brigade ideologically similar to the Islamic State (IS) that holds territory in southwest Daraa province, launched a multi-pronged surprise attack just after midnight against territory held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar a-Sham.

The attacking forces faced little resistance, as the bulk of opposition forces in the area had been redeployed to the nearby provincial capital in recent days to shore up an ongoing rebel offensive against the Syrian regime there.

By the time the sun came up on Monday, JKW had captured territory as far as eight kilometers east of its base in a pocket of territory nestled between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the east and Jordan to the south. Along the way, the hardline faction captured several villages and a key hill from the Southern Front and their allies, which had blockaded JKW for approximately one year.

An online statement by JKW on Monday claimed the group had killed “20 apostates” in the Yarmouk Basin area of southwest Daraa and captured weapons and ammunition amidst “ongoing clashes.”

IS-affiliated news agency Amaq also reported a “large advance by JKW” on Monday following a “swift collapse of the defensive lines” of the Southern Front and their allies.

The JKW attack was swift and unexpected, rebel and civilian sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday. JKW launched a multi-pronged attack and reportedly activated sleeper cells in the towns they captured.

“This attack was a stab in the back,” Suheib a-Raheel, the spokesman for Alwiyat al-Furqan, one of the largest FSA brigades in the Southern Front told Syria Direct.

Rebel and civilian sources told Syria Direct on Monday that amidst “chaos and confusion,” rebels put up little fight and withdrew from their positions.

“Many personnel had been sent to the Daraa battles,” Abu Muhammad, an activist in the immediate vicinity of the latest fighting, told Syria Direct. “The factions left the smallest number of fighters possible at their positions.”

The activist also claimed that JKW personnel had used the walkie-talkies of defeated FSA personnel to give other fighters orders to withdraw.

FSA spokesman a-Raheel confirmed that rebels withdrew, citing the division of rebel forces between the Yarmouk Basin and the battle in Daraa city as one reason for the loss.

Unconfirmed reports of summary executions by JKW in the town of Tseel during the clashes also circulated online on Monday.

Opposition sources in the area claimed that JKW fighters raided pharmacies and food stores amid the fighting and sent goods back to their stronghold in the encircled Yarmouk Basin.

‘Split in two’

At time of publication, heavy ground fighting was ongoing throughout the Yarmouk Basin as Southern Front rebels and their Islamist allies fought to stall and turn back the JKW advance.

Some rebel forces withdrew from ongoing battles with the regime in Daraa city on Monday in order to stave off the IS affiliate’s assault.

 Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed fighters in Daraa in recent months. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

“Now, the factions are split,” said FSA spokesman Suheib. His faction, Alwiyat al-Furqan, currently has forces in Daraa city as well as on the fronts with JKW.

Monday’s battles were particularly intense in the surroundings of the strategic Tal al-Jumoua, a hill overlooking the opposition-held town of Nawa and much of the southwest Daraa countryside. Before last night’s JKW offensive, Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham forces held the hill. 

Ahrar a-Sham reportedly recaptured the town of Hayt on Monday afternoon, killing 10 JKW fighters and capturing a tank, the group said. FSA fighters said they recaptured a second town, Jileen, later in the day.

Because last night’s attack—in towns like Tseel and Sahm al-Jolan—was reportedly carried out by internal sleeper cells, clashes continued in the towns for hours on Monday, even as JKW reportedly controlled the surrounding countryside.

JKW ultimately captured Sahm al-Jolan completely on Monday evening, opposition sources reported, while clashes continue near Tseel.

Muddying the water further, unidentified warplanes reportedly struck rebel-held areas near the clashes with JKW in the west Daraa countryside on Monday, Syrian opposition media reported. Neither Russian nor Syrian state media has reported the bombings.

“This fighting will have a big impact, especially on the factions participating in both battles,” said west Daraa activist Abu Muhammad. “It will take pressure off the regime.” 

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.

Mohammed al-Falouji

Originally from Daraa province, Mohammed studied economics at Damascus university. He was an active participant in the activism of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 and 2012. Later, Mohammed reported for Syrian media outlets including Orient News.

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.