July 12, 2013

As the battle for Syria’s southern province ‘tosses and turns,” residents tell Michael Pizzi and Ahmed Kwider why the war for attrition grinds on in Daraa in the first of this two-part series.

AMMAN: While the blockaded city of Homs falls to ruin at the hands of the government army in central Syria, a tumultuous contest is playing out in the south as regime forces and rebels vie for control of the province considered the gateway to Damascus.

The rebel offensive in Daraa province was on the upswing as recently as April, with the international media predicting that it was about to fall in the rebels’ column, but a sharp upsurge in regime shelling since May, compounded with questionable Free Syrian Army tactics, has the opposition worried that the crucial southern region will slip out from under them.

Activists reported a series of regime air raids this week, with shelling from MiG jets targeting the rebel-controlled eastern part of the provincial capital, Daraa city, and fierce exchange of fire between the FSA and the regime at the National Hospital in the Muhatta district of the city, where regime forces are currently holed up. Heavy regime shelling this week has also struck the rebel-held towns of Jasem and Ankhal just outside Daraa city, incurring casualties and setting wheat fields ablaze.

0711Daraa

Map by: Abdulrahman al-Masri

“The war [in Daraa] tosses and turns,” says Moaz al-Ta’ani, a media activist with the revolution’s Local Coordinating Committee in Daraa province.

The region where the revolution first erupted, Daraa has been the FSA’s most successful front in 2013, a fact that even the Syrian Defense Minister has publicly acknowledged. Despite the fact that about 40% of the regime’s forces are deployed in Daraa province, the FSA has still managed to gain control over most of the old city of Daraa, as well as a handful of strategic towns and villages, most recently capturing Da’el.

Due to Daraa’s location along the Israeli and Jordanian borders, the government operates a high density of military bases and checkpoints that make movement along highways and roads tenuous in the best of times. The highway to Jordan also runs through Daraa into Damascus, hence the province’s reputation as the key to securing the capital.

Skirmishes over these critical Daraa checkpoints and towns erupt daily now, as government forces shell those “liberated areas that the regime lost and has not been able to reclaim,” says Moaz al-Ta’ani.

“We are witnessing a military escalation from both sides.”

Regime shells over the past month have been hitting at least a dozen towns and villages in Houran, a rural area of Daraa’s south, on a daily basis as part of Assad’s attempts to restore control over the region he once ruled with an iron fist.

Activists say that over the last two months, a series of rebel losses attributed to inadequate weaponry and poor coordination between rebel factions have many worried that the regime is beginning to make inroads along the crucial Jordanian border.

“The regime army will recapture Daraa completely because the FSA is negligent,” says Qaisar Habib, a pro-opposition lawyer who lives by the FSA-controlled border crossing of Tel Shihab near Daraa city.

“They liberate an area and then sit [on it] without doing anything to liberate another one,” he says, echoing a common theme among Daraa-based activists in recent months who cite a lack of coherence among FSA battalions.

The regime struck key rebel-held towns along the Damascus-Jordan highway in May and June, capturing Khirbet Ghazaleh, Itlaa and parts of Bosra.

Poor coordination among FSA brigades may be to blame for the regime’s gains. Ahmed Annama, who heads the FSA’s Daraa Military Council from his base in Jordan, has been widely criticized for withholding arms from rebel brigades.

Annama “is breaking the Free Army’s back,” says Abu Ya’rab, a correspondent for the Free Syria media network in Daraa who asked that his full name not be used, calling the FSA’s Military Council “traitorous.”

“The Council represents Horan’s rebels and the people of Horan are not used to betrayal or treason,” Annama told a group of activists in a Skype chat this past March. “The battle for the Houran has taken the largest portion of arms,” Annama said during a session organized by the online news site Itijah Muashkis, adding that “the second largest number of weapons has been given to Daraa because of the violent battles there.”

Still, by late June, it seemed that Daraa was beginning to slip from the FSA’s grip, and with it, crucial supply routes from Jordan for everything from guns to flour would be lost.

A critical reprieve in rebel losses came on June 28, when the rebels captured the major military checkpoint of Binayat in Daraa city. But Assad’s forces responded this week by pounding contested and rebel-held towns in Daraa from both air and ground.

The province has been critical throughout the uprising, both symbolically and strategically. Protests began in March 2011 when security forces arrested a group of teenagers for spray-painting an anti-regime slogan on a mosque wall in Daraa city, and an uprising was born.

Daraa is also the crucial southern gate to Jordan, with numerous official and FSA-controlled border crossings along the frontier. The rebels have ostensibly been trying to carve out a path to Jordan from the city of Daraa for months to facilitate transit of both refugees and weapons, but the regime remains in control of most major roads, halting opposition movement within the region.

A proposed no-fly zone along the Jordanian border in Syria, which many are pressuring the United States to institute and President Obama has yet to rule out, would aim to do just that.

 “It is what we’ve been asking for from the beginning,” says Abdul Jabar al-Akidi, who heads the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council, about the potential no-fly-zone, which would reach 25 miles into Daraa province.

Some rebel fighters, however, are skeptical that a buffer zone would be much help.

“The regime can attack any place in Daraa from Damascus without its air force flying there, so at the end of the day a no-fly zone would be useless,” says Abu Jarah, commander of the Al-Beit battalions in Idlib province, in the north of Syria. For this reason, Abu Jarah wants a buffer zone along the Turkish border, where he says it would make a bigger difference.

Either way, activists say, it is Syrians caught in the crossfire who are paying the price.

“The civilians inside are destined to death,” says lawyer Qaisar Habib.