May 13, 2013

By Ahmed Kwider and Kristen Gillespie

AMMAN: Uncertainty around the fate of the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazalah continued on Monday, one day after the regime appeared to capture it from the rebels in Daraa province.

Opposition media reported that fighting continues for control of the south Daraa city, which lies along the Damascus-Daraa highway and stretches into Jordan, but could not be verified. The road is the regime’s only land route into Jordan, a major trading partner, and the main artery for reinforcing its military posts in Daraa province.

“If the FSA loses the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, it would be a serious setback after a series of victories they have won in Daraa province,” said Aseel al-Abdullah, 35, a teacher by training and spokesman for the Syrian Media Center in Daraa.

A citizen journalist from a nearby town captures images of smoke plumes rising from Khirbet Ghazaleh after it fell from rebel hands to the Syrian army on Sunday. Gunfire crackles in the background.Video courtesy Kherbet Ghazaleh Coordination.

Regime forces “completely conquered” Khirbet Ghazaleh on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

After weeks of sporadic fighting, the regime offensive on the town intensified last week, with activists estimating army forces fired up to 1,000 mortar shells into it.

Local opposition news posted video and photographs of the town under siege, with large smoke plumes drifting into the air on Sunday and reports of Syrian forces burning houses and buildings inside the city of an estimated 25,000 people.

The FSA’s Daraa Military Council spokesman says that the rebels are focused on a plan that will lead them into the Syrian capital.

“We are working according to a military plan that aims to enter Damascus by the end of the summer,” said Feras Ahmed, a spokesman for the FSA’s Daraa Military Council. Ahmed did not deny problems in coordinating with fighters on the ground in Khirbet Ghazaleh, but said the FSA is working on “presenting the world an institutionalized military that provides an alternative” to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army.

Abu Abdullah, 50, passed Khirbet Ghazaleh last week on his way into Jordan. The former government official, who held a sensitive office that he asked not be disclosed, made his way through government checkpoints using his official ID. He said that checkpoints were situated along the highway every 50 to 100 meters in certain parts of Daraa where fighting is most concentrated.

“The army had Khirbet Ghazaleh surrounded to prevent the FSA from capturing that section of the international road,” Abu Abdullah said. “The regime wants to recapture Khirbet Ghazaleh entirely because the international road was cut for a few days” last week, he added.

Activists say that while the fall of Khirbet Ghazaleh does not necessarily mean the fall of Daraa province, it is a setback in the Free Syrian Army operation to “liberate” it. For weeks, the English-language media has been reporting Daraa as being on the verge of falling in the rebels’ column, but the concentrated army operation has some pro-revolution Syrians wondering whether the FSA can win in the region.

“There are many reasons [for the FSA’s inability to conquer Daraa], including the density of the regime’s military presence in the province and the closeness of these formations to each other, which makes coordination and support easier between them,” said Caisar Habib, 29, an independent citizen journalist from Daraa.

One-third of the Syrian army is stationed in Daraa, and the flat topography appears to favor conventional over guerrilla warfare.

The disconnect between the FSA’s Military Council leader, Ahmed Nimah, and the fighters on the ground, hinders the rebels’ progress and has for months, activists say. Nimah, who is based in Jordan, is a frequent target of rumors and accusations by Syrians in Daraa, who call him a stooge of Jordanian, Saudi, Israeli and American intelligence that are deliberately keeping advanced weapons out of FSA hands in Daraa due to fears they could be used against Israel in the future.

“We hold the military leadership in the FSA and especially the traitor Ahmed Nimeh, whose warehouses are full of ammunition and equipment, and we hold him responsible for the fall of Khirbet Ghazaleh,” said the FSA’s Khirbet Ghazaleh Media Office in a statement.

“We intended to liberate the Houran entirely [Daraa province] by cutting this road,” said the FSA’s Khirbet Ghazaleh Media Office in a statement. “That dream evaporated due to the shortage of munitions.”

Last Wednesday, the FSA withdrew from Khirbet Ghazaleh after running out of ammunition, but resumed fighting the next day.

“Most of the achievements in Daraa have happened without Ahmed Nimah,” said Aseel Abdullah of the Syrian Media Center.

The rebels still control swathes of villages in the southern province, including towns east, west and south of Khirbet Ghazaheh, but with the capture of Khirbet, one less rebel threat is cleared from the highway.

The unclear FSA chain of command also leads fighters to make unilateral declarations of victories, calling an area liberated after removing regime ground forces, shabiha or checkpoints but while still remaining under distant artillery fire and airstrikes, activists said.

Additional reporting by Nuha Shabaan and Jacob Wirtschafter