Relentless Russian strikes drive mass displacement in south Syria

AMMAN: Tens of thousands of Daraa residents are fleeing a combination of regime ground advances and aerial bombardments by Russian and regime forces, local opposition authorities say, with one estimate of up to 80,000 people displaced.

Some Daraa residents are heading south to the Jordanian border, joining 15,000 to 20,000 who are already there. Others go to neighboring Quneitra province, with many more internally moving from town to town, fleeing when fighting worsens. While there’s no clear-cut pattern of displacement, thousands of people are making the difficult choice to leave their homes with no guarantee of any sort of safe haven.

“Some of these families are living in open-air camps, or under trees amidst harsh weather conditions, lacking the basic necessities of life,” Noura al-Hourani, an activist in the west Daraa countryside told Syria Direct.

While some displaced residents have received aid in the form of fuel and blankets, “there are no [wide-scale] relief campaigns providing what these families need,” al-Hourani says, since many “fled with only the clothes on their backs.”

Reported Russian airstrikes on multiple Daraa towns continued on Tuesday, with airstrikes, material damage and civilian casualties reported by pro-opposition media in at least four rebel-held towns north of Daraa city.

The result? Tens of thousands of residents are fleeing their homes and seeking refuge deeper in rebel-held territories in the east and west Daraa countryside as well as largely rebel-held Quneitra province bordering the northwest Daraa countryside.

“The large scale of the air raids in different parts of the province has displaced more than 80,000 residents,” the elected opposition Daraa Provincial Council wrote in a statement posted on social media Sunday. The council cited the “difficulty to find shelter for them," adding that “the lack of food and medicine and closure of the Jordanian border has exacerbated the suffering.”

“Increasing Russian bombardment and the random dropping of barrel bombs onto residential areas and infrastructure have increased displacement, and killed and injured civilians,” the Council wrote, appealing to the international community “to take serious steps” to stop regime attacks and Russian airstrikes in the province.

 Smoke rises in Daraa’s al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah following an alleged Russian airstrike on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Yaqeen Media Foundation.

“The situation [faced by the displaced] is absolutely miserable,” Ibrahim Noureddin, an FSA rebel spokesman in the province told Syria Direct. “Internal displacement is increasing, and there is no room for them” in some of the towns they flee to.

Diverse rebel factions ranging from moderate FSA factions to an allegedly pro-IS brigade control the majority of Daraa province. Regime forces hold territory in the north bordering Outer Damascus as well as along the Damascus-Daraa highway. Despite the reality on the ground, Russian officials maintain that the target in Syria is terrorists.

“Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations,” Istanbul-based daily Hurriyet quoted Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov as stating in a press conference last Wednesday. “I don’t see why these air strikes should be stopped.”

Toward a bifurcated province

The most recent wave of displacement to hit Daraa province began with the recent regime campaign for Sheikh Miskeen and accompanying Russian airstrikes there and in nearby rebel-held Daraa towns, All4Syria reported Sunday, citing local activists.

Daraa-based citizen journalist Ihab Mohameed warned of “displacement of disastrous proportions” speaking to Syria Direct shortly after regime forces took Sheikh Miskeen in late January.

Last Friday, Syrian regime forces supported by Russian airstrikes seized control of the town of Ataman, 3km north of Daraa city, securing a section of the old Daraa-Damascus highway and extending defensive lines for regime forces in the provincial capital.

Ataman sits at the main northern entrance to Daraa city. Regime forces currently hold the northern half of the provincial capital, while rebel brigades control its south and the nearby border crossing with Jordan .

Russian air support has played a key role in achieving regime military advances in Daraa. Over the 48 hours it took for regime forces and allied militias to take control of Ataman, “around 90 raids” by Russian warplanes struck the town, Abu Rashid al-Hourani, a member of the pro-opposition Shahid Media Foundation told Syria Direct on Monday.

At the end of December, regime forces launched battles to capture the strategic city of Sheikh Miskeen, around 75km south of Damascus on the old Daraa-Damascus highway running parallel to the M5. Sheikh Miskeen sits not only along the highway but on a crossroads connecting Suwaida, Quneitra and Damascus provinces.

After capturing Sheikh Miskeen from rebel forces two weeks ago, regime forces continued to concentrate their efforts on towns along the highway, ultimately seeking to assert control over the 85km supply route.

 

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

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.

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 Mofeed

Mohammed Mofeed is from Aleppo province. He moved to Jordan to finish his college degree in telecommunication engineering in 2013. Prior to joining Syria Direct, he worked in marketing and became interested in journalism after reading many politicized articles on the Syrian uprising.