AMMAN: Rebel groups and civilians in divided Daraa city say they anticipate renewed government offensives in the coming days as military reinforcements including Syrian army troops and allied militias arrive to the area.
Syrian government forces and allies control Daraa al-Mahata, the northern and western neighborhoods of Daraa province’s eponymous capital, while rebel forces control the city’s southern half, known as Daraa al-Balad. The front line runs from east to west through the city’s center.
Months of heavy fighting in Daraa city began early last year as a coalition of rebel forces tried to prevent pro-government forces from breaking through rebel lines and reaching a strategic border crossing with Jordan just south of the city.
A ceasefire brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan last July ushered in a long-standing pause to the fighting, but the battles left the birthplace of the Syrian uprising in ruins. Pro-government bombardment partially or entirely destroyed eighty-five percent of buildings in rebel-held neighborhoods and completely disabled the city’s infrastructure, Syria Direct reported.
During the more than six months since the ceasefire agreement took effect, intermittent shelling and gunfire by both sides continued in the city, but government airstrikes ceased and clashes reduced to skirmishes along the frontlines. Thousands of displaced residents of the city returned.
A time-lapse photograph shows pro-government gunfire over Daraa city on January 1. Photo courtesy Nabaa Media.
Now, opposition sources and civilians in Daraa al-Balad tell Syria Direct that troop movements in nearby government-controlled territory appear to be a prelude to a new offensive.
“During the last few weeks, we have observed the arrival of military reinforcements —including both regime [forces] and Shiite militias—to Daraa city and Izra,” a town 30 kilometers to the north, a commander with the opposition’s Southern Front said on Wednesday.
He said he also observed operations to raise earthen berms and reinforce bunkers and military posts along the frontlines.
“It’s clear from the movement of regime forces in Daraa city that they’re ready for military operations,” Abu Shamiaa, spokesman for the opposition’s al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room—the entity responsible for coordinating the rebels’ Daraa city operations—said on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, local leaders from rebel-held areas of Daraa met with Syrian government security officials and Russian officers in order to discuss the short-term fate of Daraa city, Lornce Abu Adam, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s 18 March Division, told Syria Direct on Thursday.
At the meeting, which took place in government-held areas of the city, Abu Adam says the local community leaders were offered “either reconciliation or war,” and were told that the de-escalation agreement “will end on February 7,” despite its open-ended framework.
Syria Direct could not verify Abu Adam’s claims.
The spokesman said residents did not yet provide a response to the government.
On Tuesday evening, a number of pro-government militias—including Hezbollah groups and the recently formed Brigade 313—were also monitored assembling in the city, Abu Adam said.
Brigade 313 is a militia consisting of local Shiite fighters trained and funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly headquartered in the majority-Christian town of Izra, north of Daraa city.
Intermittent attacks by both sides punctuated the ceasefire in Daraa from its start. But now, rebel sources and civilians say sporadic gunfire and shelling over Daraa al-Balad turned to almost-daily bombardment in recent weeks.
Daraa city witnessed “a regime escalation of bombardment and violation of the [ceasefire] agreement with elephant rockets and heavy artillery strikes over the past month,” al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room spokesman Shamiaa said, referring to improvised ground-to-ground rockets named for the unique sound they produce.
A rocket strike on the Daraa al-Balad neighborhood in December. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.
Pro-government bombardment increased “to the point where it has become almost daily,” Ayham, a resident of the rebel-held Daraa camp neighborhood, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“There has also been sniper fire targeting high roofs and areas where [defensive] berms lie,” the citizen journalist said. “We’re afraid to sit in front of our homes or on the roof.”
The Hmeimim Russian military base in Syria addressed recent attacks in a statement released through its Facebook page on Tuesday.
“The missile strikes conducted by Syrian government forces in the south Syria de-escalation zone were a response to the threats issued by rebel groups in the area and their suspicious movements,” read the statement, attributed to Hmeimim spokesman Alexander Ivanov.
In a separate statement released on the same Facebook page on January 11, Ivanov accused rebel groups of “looking to bring down the de-escalation agreement.”
The comment came one day after armed groups in the rebel-held Daraa al-Balad neighborhood fired three rocket shells at a government-controlled neighborhood, causing material damage, state media outlet SANA reported.
When asked about the threats mentioned by Ivanov, spokesman Shamiaa told Syria Direct: “We have not issued any threat and we have not carried out any operation on regime areas.”
“Regime forces are trying to provoke us with bombardment until we respond,” he said.
Civilians fear repeated displacement
“All civilians in liberated Daraa city today are terrified of military operations,” citizen journalist Ayham told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“We have relatives in regime-held territory who’ve told us about mobilization and the arrival of mercenaries in the area,” he said.
Abu Musa, a member of the Daraa City Council and resident of Daraa al-Balad, also says the buildup by government forces “created considerable fear among families,” many of whom are recent returnees.
After months of battles in the first half of 2017, just 2,000 residents remained in rebel-held areas in Daraa’s capital city, once home to some 150,000 people. Thousands of displaced residents joined them in the second half of the year, taking advantage of calm brought in by the ceasefire.
“They don’t want to be displaced again,” Abu Musa said.
For the moment, Ayham says civilians are fleeing from district to district as the bombs fall, looking for safer ground. “‘Maybe here it will be safer,’ they say to themselves.”
But Daraa residents fear that a government advance is now inevitable.
“When we see what happened with Beit Jinn and Wadi Barada—other regions that were under ceasefires and then fell—we are scared,” said Ayham.
“This mobilization certainly isn’t for nothing,” Abu Musa said.