March 26, 2015
The al-Jaish al-Awal rebel coalition captured the regime stronghold of Busra a-Sham in southeastern Daraa province on Tuesday, cutting off supply routes running between the provinces of Daraa and Suwayda.
The mixed Sunni-Shi’ite town—a UNESCO world heritage site—was the regime’s largest stronghold in southeastern Daraa, and was reportedly reinforced by fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite militias.
A total rebel encirclement of the town and the subsequent inability of reinforcements to reach to beleaguered troops threw pro-regime Shiite militias into a state of disarray, facilitating their defeat, Ahmed Hourani, alias of the head of the Busra a-Sham LCC, tells Syria Direct’s Ghalia Al-Mukhlati.
Making matters worse, the rebel fighters, including Islamist groups led by Jabhat a-Nusra alongside several FSA-affiliated brigades, repeatedly refused to negotiate a truce with the regime’s governor of Daraa.
“The pro-regime Shiite militias… just didn’t expect the battle to end up the way it did, with the rebels completely encircling them,” al-Hourani says.
“Retreat was not an option, as the rebels had encircled the city before the battle even started.”
Q: What spread so much fear and panic among the ranks of the pro-regime Shiite militias during the battle of Busra a-Sham?
Extreme fear and panic gripped the pro-regime Shiite militias. Some were seen fleeing in tears, ditching their uniforms as they ran for their lives. They just didn’t expect the battle to end up the way it did, with the rebels completely encircling them. Regime supplies and troop reinforcements couldn’t get through the rebel blockade, and neither could Shiite militias coming from Suwayda to relieve their encircled comrades inside Busra a-Sham.
It didn’t help that they saw many regime soldiers killed right before their eyes. Retreat was not an option, as the rebels had encircled the city before the battle even started.
Rebel fighters pose in the conquered citadel this week. Photo courtesy of Busra al-Sham LCC.
Q: Is it true that the governor of Daraa tried several times to get in touch with the Free Syrian Army [FSA] to negotiate a truce?
Yes, the governor tried to get in touch with more than one person in the rebels’ leadership actually, but those attempts failed.
Q: Can you tell us more about a statement issued by notable Druze in Suwayda and elites in Daraa warning about the regime’s attempt to co-opt the Druze in the fight against the rebels? Is there any truth to it?
In terms of the Druze, the National Defense Forces (NDF) is mostly drawn from Suwayda province, a Druze stronghold. And there are other sectarian games the regime plays with the intention of driving a wedge between the Houran coast and its mountain hinterland, especially since so many sons of Suwayda province were killed after joining the NDF.
So journalists in Daraa released the statement you’re talking about. And we think like-minded Druze elites were aware of the matter. Currently sharp sectarian polarization plays a major role in the [regime’s] recruitment of many [Druze].
This in turn led to a dispute between the Druze and Shiites in Busra a-Sham, which degenerated into armed clashes after the NDF decided to pull out of the city after the battle began.
Q: What are the rebels doing to protect the ruins of Busra a-Sham?
From the start, the rebels have tried to avoid hitting any archeological sites–they’re trying to save Busra a-Sham’s great historical heritage. But let’s not forget how the regime toppled the “Bed of the King’s Daughter.”
We’re also aware of the regime’s activities before the revolution. Back then, the Shiites had a green light to dig for artefacts, under the protection of the local security branch. The officers were splitting whatever they dug up.
Today, they are sending whatever they have in the way of money, and artifacts outside of Daraa. I personally witnessed excavation operations, conducted with both primitive and modern machinery. They would move the remains at their leisure, and split them up with the provincial governor and head of the security branches.
Q: Is it true that some Shiite fighters fled and surrendered to the FSA?
After the FSA distributed pamphlets—in order to avoid bloodshed—which read “whomever enters the mosque is safe, and whomever surrenders is safe,” some Shiite soldiers tried to escape, as eyewitnesses will attest.
But the regime* chased them and arrested them before a single one could enter the mosques, and then liquidated them so they would be a warning to others, so that they would not think about running away.
*CORRECTION NOTICE: The previous edition of this interview indicated that the rebels killed retreating soldiers. This is incorrect. It was in fact the regime who killed the soldiers, according to Ahmed Hourani. Syria Direct regrets the error.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.