FSA, Nusra and Ahrar offensive against reported Islamic State affiliates leaves ‘no safe corridors’ for trapped civilians

AMMAN: The alleged Islamic State affiliates and the Southern Front, currently battling each other in southwest Daraa province, have declared the area a military zone and ordered civilians to leave, but residents and activists say there is no way out.

The corner of southwest Daraa, bordering the Golan Heights and Jordan, is part of the Yarmouk Basin, comprising several plains with two deep valleys cutting through them. Over the last three weeks, thousands of people fleeing the fighting have taken rough footpaths to descend into one of the valleys. They either stay there or climb up to hospitals and camps for displaced people on the FSA-controlled eastern side of the valley.

“All of the parties have declared the Yarmouk Basin area a military zone and called for us to leave our homes in order to protect us from the shelling,” displaced resident Abu Yaarub al-Hourani told Syria Direct on Tuesday. However, “nobody has secured safe corridors or passages for us to leave.”

On March 21, Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk broke out of its pocket of territory in southwestern Daraa, attacking positions and towns held by the Southern Front and Islamist militias including Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat a-Nusra. Pushing roughly 7km to the east, LSY linked its territory with that of ideologically similar Harakat a-Muthanna al-Islamiya.

While it is not immediately clear what sparked LSY's offensive, tensions with Nusra date back to late 2014.

LSY and Muthanna deny any official connection with the Islamic State, but local rebels repeatedly accuse them of cooperating with IS and using shared tactics and ideology.

In recent days, the Southern Front, Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham rolled back all the LSY and Muthanna advances and are now moving forward with an offensive to take their pocket of territory.

As the fighting continues, both sides are telling Yarmouk Basin civilians to get out of the way of the fighting, but aren’t helping them to do so.

“The mujahideen are preparing to use all available weapons, not just precision weapons,” read an announcement posted online by Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk on Wednesday. The faction called on Yarmouk Basin residents to “vacate your homes as soon as possible and not expose yourselves to danger.”

Southern Front FSA brigades and their allies also previously declared several towns in the Basin to be military zones, warning residents to leave.

“The presence of civilians poses a large obstacle to us in future operations because the areas controlled by IS are filled with civilians,” Southern Front spokesman Essam a-Rayyes told pro-opposition news site All4Syria in an interview on Wednesday.

“There are hundreds of families surrounded in the Yarmouk Basin right now,”  local resident al-Hourani told Syria Direct. “Nobody is looking to help us,” he added. “They just issue announcements.”

Some civilians are left trapped by advancing armed forces. Others are making the difficult and dangerous journey eastwards on foot through rugged terrain towards FSA-held territory, as al-Hourani was able to do with his family 10 days ago.

“It took us two days to descend into the base of the valley and then get out onto the other side of the Yarmouk Basin,” says al-Hourani, describing his family’s flight from Jaleen to FSA-held Amouriyeh.

“The paths we followed on foot are extremely difficult due to mudslides. There were also dozens of stray shells from both sides falling to the bottom of the valley.”

When fighting began three weeks ago, “the number of displaced reached around 2,000 families,” Daraa Civil Defense spokesman Amer Abazeid told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

While some of the initially displaced returned to their towns after Southern Front and Islamist factions forced LSY and Muthanna forces to withdraw in recent days, “displacement continues in the areas where there are ongoing clashes,” says Abazeid.

Civil Defense members are working on foot to aid fleeing civilians, using the same paths to descend into the valley and help carry children and belongings. They are also distributing aid and moving the displaced into nearby schools and camps in Zayzoun and Amouriyeh, on the eastern side of the valley.

“Cars can’t get to the bottom of the valley, though some residents are using horses for transportation,” says Abazeid. “We are helping the elderly, women and children move out of the valley via rough paths over long distances.” Four displaced women have given birth in the bottom of the valley, he says, while a fifth made it to a nearby field hospital.

“We are calling on all the parties to keep us out of this, to stop the fighting for several hours so that the rest of the residents will be able to leave,” says displaced resident al-Hourani. “Nobody is responding to our appeals.”

“The civilians are the ones losing in these factions’ wars.”

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.