Regime escalates punishing campaign on Daraa city after rebels bet on risky offensive to keep Jordan border point

AMMAN: Daraa city and the surrounding countryside are witnessing the most intense regime bombardment since 2015, prompting school and hospital closures as Syrian regime and Russian forces work to stave off a rare rebel offensive.

A rebel battle to capture a regime-held district in the southern provincial capital of Daraa city raged for a third day on Tuesday. The major operation was launched on Sunday, a spokesman for the rebel operations room told Syria Direct, “to prevent regime forces from advancing to the border crossing with Jordan.” The border is four kilometers south of Daraa city.

Syrian regime forces control Daraa city’s northern and western neighborhoods, while Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias control Daraa city’s southern and eastern neighborhoods—though fighting is now centered in a southeastern neighborhood along the key Jordan Street, which leads directly to the nearby border crossing.

The fighting in the southeastern al-Manshiyah neighborhood is led by the recently formed hardline coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), as well as Ahrar a-Sham and FSA factions.

 Daraa city on Monday, February 13. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

While rebels battled regime forces on the ground, residents of opposition-held neighborhoods of Daraa city and its suburbs on Tuesday saw “intense bombs of various types that the area hasn’t seen for a long time now,” Abu Shaimaa, a spokesman for the rebel al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room told Syria Direct on Tuesday. He blamed regime and allied Russian forces for the bombardment.

On Monday and Tuesday, airstrikes pounded residential apartment blocks in the city, as dense clouds concealed warplanes, according to videos post online by Daraa-based media outlets Yaqeen Media Foundation and Nabaa Media Foundation.

Syrian state media agency SANA reported that regime forces on Tuesday “carried out special operations against terrorist groups affiliated to Jabhat al-Nusra…in al-Manshiyah neighborhood,” but did not mention airstrikes.

By Tuesday afternoon, opposition factions controlled “40 percent” of the neighborhood, after they “seized a regime explosives storehouse and destroyed a tank,” al-Banyan al-Marsous spokesman Abu Shaimaa told Syria Direct.

Launched on Sunday, the previous two days of clashes saw rebels hit Syrian army positions in al-Manshiyah with two suicide car-bombers and a massive tunnel bomb.

At least 12 civilians were killed during the bombardment over the past three days, according to the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, a local rights violations monitor.

Relative to the reported intensity of airstrikes and artillery fire, the number of civilian casualties appears low. The reason, sources on the ground in Daraa told Syria Direct, is due largely to widespread displacement from the city and its suburbs in recent days, meaning the bombs are often falling on empty houses.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 families from rebel-held districts in Daraa city fled their homes in recent days to stay with relatives in the countryside, or sleep outside on farmland and in orchards, Civil Defense spokesman Amer Abazeid told Syria Direct on Monday.

Now, Daraa city “is all but empty of residents,” Abazeid said. He estimates that some 200-300 families remain inside rebel-held areas of the city, home to roughly 100,000 people before the war.

 The Daraa Field Hospital on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Despite the relatively low civilian casualty count, at least one nearby hospital is too destroyed to treat the wounded—including those with shrapnel wounds and other injuries.  Another, located in Daraa city, is “60 percent destroyed” from the airstrikes and artillery bombardment, Dr. Abd a-Rahman al-Musalmah, the hospital’s director, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“This is the first time that it was directly hit,” al-Musalmah said, after missiles reportedly struck the hospital building late Monday evening. “The external structure is totally destroyed, and the medicine we had in storage is also ruined.”

“We don’t think it can be repaired soon.”

Daraa’s opposition-run Provincial Council temporarily suspended schools across Daraa city and its outskirts on Tuesday, due to the danger from “indiscriminate” bombings, according to a statement posted online.

The schools were shuttered on Tuesday “after the intense bombings” on at least seven rebel-held towns and villages outside the provincial capital, Atef al-Uthman, principal of a high school in Yadoudah just five kilometers from Daraa city, told Syria Direct.

“The last time we shut down schools like this was a year and a half ago,” in the summer of 2015, he said. “It’s impossible to do our jobs while also guarding the safety of our students.”

The most recent clashes come two and a half months after Jordan—a longtime supporter of southern Syrian rebels opposed to Bashar al-Assad—indicated its willingness to reopen its northern border crossings with Daraa province if they were recaptured by regime forces.

“The borders cannot be opened unless regime forces from the Syrian army take control of them,” Chairman of the Jordanian Joint Chiefs-of-Staff Mahmoud Freihat told BBC Arabic in a videotaped interview on December 30, referring to the shuttered Daraa and Naseeb border crossings.

Dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation,” the last rebel offensive is the largest of its kind in Daraa city since 2015, when Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, along with Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat a-Nusra, launched a military campaign against Syrian government forces in the city and its surrounding countryside.

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Ahmad Yassin

Originally from Daraa, Ahmed left Syria in 2013 due to the worsening security situation. He joined Syria Direct to learn journalism and use it help his community.

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.