July 15, 2013

 Michael Pizzi and Ahmed Kwider look at the implications of prolonged fighting in Syria’s southern province of Daraa, which borders Israel and Jordan, in the second of this two-part series.

AMMAN: As a series of miscalculations and infighting plagues rebels in Daraa province, the Free Syrian Army has increasingly had to deal with the added challenge posed by Hezbollah fighters.

Eyewitnesses in the province say the presence of professionalized and motivated Hezbollah militias among the regime’s ranks is intimidating.

“They’re different in the way they fight,” says Daraa-based lawyer Qaisar Habib. “They’re bold, with high morale, and they’re more experienced.”

Another activist, the head of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office, who asked to remain anonymous for his security, says that the presence of the Shiite Lebanese militants has been reported in the villages of Izra and Sheikh Miskeen, as well as the town of Bosra.

As the United States and regional powers openly begin training FSA forces in Jordan, activists on the ground say they are waiting to see the impact.

“The Daraa region has become a case study for how external aid to both sides impacts the situation on the ground,” says Saber Safer, who leads the Hamza Assadallah brigade of the Free Army, presently in Tel Shihab.

With international interference on both sides, according to opposition sources, the fighting in Daraa has assumed a more sectarian character. Hezbollah’s presence there reflects the prominent Shiite elements among the population of certain nearby cities and villages. Bosra, which has a population of over 30,000, has served as a stronghold for the regime due to its Shiite population of about 5,000, who, while a minority, provide a critical mass of support for the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.

“Hezbollah [fighters] don’t follow the orders of the checkpoint command,” adds Muhammad Abu Abdo, a field commander and public relations coordinator for the FSA who is based in the Daraa city suburb of Sheikh Miskeen. “They have a separate command from the army, and it seems they’re given authority over the Syrian soldiers.”

Abu Abdo says that Hezbollah fighters are being bussed in from Outer Damascus to Bosra as well as the Nasib border crossing with Jordan. Nasib has been made a priority for Hezbollah reinforcements, who sources say pass along the regime-controlled Damascus-Sawayda road into Daraa “with ease.”

SANA, the official Syrian news agency, counters with daily reports that the Syrian army is successfully inflicting “terrorist” casualties, many of whom it claims to be foreigners, in Daraa and its suburbs.

Last week, SANA said that the regime army had “killed and injured a number of terrorists in Daraa and its suburbs.” Citing an unnamed “military source,” SANA reported that the Syrian army had successfully targeted Jabhat A-Nusra hideouts in the towns of Ankhal and Mzairib in Daraa province, “killing and injuring a number of terrorists, among them Yemenis.”

Foreign militants are not the only ones in Daraa who are secretly crossing borders. The flow of Syrian refugees into and out of Jordan hinges on the security situation in Daraa as well. Clashes in Syria’s southern arena of late have centered on military checkpoints and border crossings, most important of which is the official Nasib crossing into Jordan.

Ammar Hmoud, a UNHCR official in Jordan, announced late last month that nearly 59,000 of the Syrian refugees who had entered Jordan over the past two years have since opted to return to Syria, with hundreds more following suit this week. Still, many refugees are continuing to flee the violence, deteriorating humanitarian situation, and rising prices of food, says Moaz Al-Ta’ani, of the LCC in Houran.

Official statistics have the number of Syrians remaining in Jordan at close to 500,000, and the upsurge in violence across the border in Syria has led to a “dramatic decrease” in returns, according to a UNHCR report.

Daraa-born Saber Safr, the leader of the Hamza Assadallah brigade, notes that maintaining control over unofficial border crossings is a priority for the rebels to “provide more secure roads for the people going back and forth from Jordan.”

Jordan has been a lifeline for the FSA and the besieged residents of Daraa, in terms of both military and relief aid, with pro-revolution observers saying that losing Daraa would be a crushing blow for the revolution.

Eliot Brown, an arms blogger who monitors the Syrian conflict from London, says that Croatian weapons first arrived in Daraa in late 2012 via Jordan. These weapons provided a critical boost to the disadvantaged FSA fighters and their allied groups.

“They aren't the most advanced weapons, but they are effective against the armor used by the Syrian army,” says Brown. They “made a massive difference in the Daraa region, where the opposition were very poorly equipped.”

From Daraa, these weapons have spread to other armed rebel groups.

“Eventually they [started] appearing in the hands of Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, and I've heard of armed groups trading and selling arms to each other, so it wouldn't surprise me if that's how they got them,” says Brown.

With promised US arms failing to materialize and new that Russia is continuing to boost Assad’s forces with ballistic missiles, among other heavy artillery, the rebels are increasingly hurting for more weapons.

The arms flow might be the last thing on the minds of Daraa’s residents, however, who are seeing their food rations dwindle amidst the regime’s crippling offensive across supply routes.

“The bakeries of Daraa are all dependent on the flour that comes from Jordan under the banner of relief aid,” says Mohammad al-Rifae, a journalist from Um Walad village in Daraa. He says that while those areas still under regime control enjoy full access to food and gas supplies, the areas under FSA control are being suffocated by regime blockades, a strategy employed by the regime and its shabiha allies around Syria.

Muhammad Abu Abdo, the FSA field commander in Sheikh Miskeen, says that he is barely able to feed his soldiers, and that as of last week, flour and gas supplies had been exhausted.

The opposition’s political leadership in exile recognizes that Daraa might be at its tipping point. Following a late-night government raid in Al-Karak Asharqi, Houran that killed eleven people on June 28th, the Syrian National Coalition released a statement urging the international community to intervene in Daraa.

“Civilians in [Houran] are at risk of torture and starvation, a tactic Assad forces deploy regularly in attempt to break the will of the Syrian people.”

With additional reporting from Abdulrahman al-Masri