Aftermath of pro-government airstrikes on JKW-held territory on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Muhammad al-Ajami.
AMMAN: Pro-government warplanes bombed an Islamic State affiliate in southwestern Daraa province for the first time on Wednesday, local sources told Syria Direct, as the hardline group pressed its own attack on a nearby opposition-held town.
Civilian and military sources on the ground in and near the Yarmouk Basin—a valley nestled in the southwestern corner of Daraa province that is largely controlled by local Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW)—said Wednesday’s strikes were believed to have been conducted by either Syrian or Russian military aircraft.
Muhammad al-Ajami, an activist in the opposition-held Yarmouk Basin town of Ajami that neighbors JKW territory, provided Syria Direct with images and videos of aerial bombardment on Wednesday. Al-Ajami asked that his real name not be published.
The Yarmouk Basin is the only portion of Daraa province’s southern border with Jordan that remains outside Syrian government control after opposition forces turned over a roughly 50-kilometer stretch of territory to pro-government forces on Sunday, Syria Direct reported.
Wednesday’s airstrikes on the Yarmouk Basin—allegedly the first government strikes against JKW since the IS-linked group was founded in May 2016—began hours after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing against government forces just southeast of JKW territory on Tuesday evening.
In an online statement, IS claimed a “soldier of the caliphate” killed 35 Russian and Syrian personnel and injured 15 others in the west Daraa town of Zeizoun. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported Tuesday’s attack, which it said killed “at least 14” pro-government fighters.
Russia’s Defense Ministry rejected allegations that Russian personnel were killed in a suicide attack on Tuesday, Russian state news outlet TASS reported. Syrian state news had not reported an attack in Zeizoun by the time of publication on Wednesday.
As airstrikes fell on JKW territory on Wednesday, the group’s fighters were pressing the second day of an attack on Hayt, a western Daraa town held by Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters—longtime rivals of the IS affiliate.
Hayt—which has not yet signed a reconciliation agreement with Damascus—lies sandwiched between JKW-held territory to the north and west and recently recaptured government holdings to the south, virtually cut off from other rebel-held areas except via a series of deep valleys and ravines that flank the town to the east.
“Daesh is trying to break through via a number of fronts,” Hayt local council president Abu Ubeida told Syria Direct on Wednesday, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The battles haven’t ceased since dawn.”
On Wednesday, JKW seized a hill overlooking Hayt and bombarded it with shells, missiles and automatic gunfire, sources in the town told Syria Direct. The bombardment killed a woman and three children, Abu Ubeida said.
Despite Wednesday’s reported airstrikes against JKW, “the regime has not yet launched a [ground] military operation” against JKW, a rebel military commander in Hayt told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Following Tuesday’s car bombing and after taking over neighboring territory from opposition factions, pro-government units were “mobilizing forces” near frontlines with JKW on Wednesday, the commander said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
More than ten thousand residents of the JKW-held pocket fled the area for nearby opposition-held territory in recent days, “fearing the start of a military operation,” SOHR reported on Wednesday.