AMMAN: The regime has reportedly captured a transportation hub in southern Daraa province, bolstered by recent rebel infighting that has weakened the front, citizen journalists and rebel spokesmen told Syria Direct Tuesday.
Battles are ongoing outside Sheikh Miskeen, located 75km south of Damascus on the Damascus-Daraa highway that runs south to Jordan.
Pro-regime news media reported Tuesday that the Syrian army and its allies had taken over the city in its entirety [see state-owned SANA's report here], as did the Western news media [see the BBC here].
But the Syrian opposition media, as well as fighters and journalists in the field, say that while most of Sheikh Miskeen itself has fallen, the outskirts are still in play.
“Sheikh Miskeen's situation is precarious,” Mohammad Adnan, spokesman for FSA-affiliated Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair that is fighting on the front, told Syria Direct Tuesday. “The regime is trying its utmost to capture the city,” he added.
The Syrian army began a campaign in late December 2015 to take control of Sheikh Miskeen, considered a strategic target because it sits not only along the highway but on a crossroads connecting Suwaida, Quneitra, and Damascus provinces.
The city’s capture means “severing rebel brigades in Daraa province's east from those in the west,” reported state-owned Russia Today on Monday.
Regime control over Sheikh Miskeen is also likely to prompt “displacement of disastrous proportions” from the neighboring rebel-held cities of Ibtaa and Nawa, now crowded with residents and internally displaced, Ihab Mahameed, a citizen journalist in the vicinity of Sheikh Miskeen, told Syria Direct Tuesday.
Civilians, journalists and opposition fighters blamed recent infighting between FSA-affiliated brigades and one hardline Islamist group as a critical factor in the city's fall to the Syrian army.
“One of the main reasons for the fall of Sheikh Miskeen has been ongoing infighting between Harakat al-Muthanna and the [FSA-affiliated] Southern Front,” Mahameed told Syria Direct Tuesday.
Last Monday, Syria Direct reported on the rise of intra-rebel tensions between Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, of salafi-jihadi leanings, and two FSA affiliates over accusations that the former had engaged in a series of “kidnappings, assassinations and intimidation,” culminating in the abduction of the head of the Daraa Provincial Council.
The fear, said a local activist at the time, is that recent accusations “will affect the ongoing Sheikh Miskeen battles,” seeing as Harakat al-Muthanna has a strong military presence on the Sheikh Miskeen front.
That fear appears to have materialized. Harakat al-Muthanna blocked the passage of an FSA-affiliated Jaish al-Yarmouk convoy headed for Sheikh Miskeen on January 17, according to an announcement circulated by Jaish al-Yarmouk on Facebook.
Twelve rebel brigades, including Jaish al-Islam, declared war on Harakat al-Muthanna last weekend, after the group attacked the rebel-held village of Nasib by the Jordanian border and killed three rebels, reported pro-opposition All4Syria on January 24.
In a video released Monday by the pro-opposition Nabaa Media Foundation, one Daraa resident condemned the feuding brigades for “chasing each other down” all the way to “the Jordanian fence” while rebels were losing ground fast in Sheikh Miskeen.
Civilians and rebel soldiers who appeared in the Nabaa Media Foundation video were united in their demand for rebel brigades to put up a united front against the regime advance.
“O leadership, fighters and Free Syrian Army: Have you forgotten the martyrs' blood, the widows, detainees, have you forgotten what Bashar did to us?” wonders one young man.
“You left everything and we're supposed to start fighting each other?”