Thousands of civilians flee towns near Daraa’s frontlines as rebels talk of ‘preemptive strike’ against government forces

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians are fleeing opposition-held towns along frontlines with Syrian government forces in southern Daraa province amid claims of an upcoming rebel offensive and the first pro-government airstrikes there in approximately eight months.

“We have decided to launch a preemptive strike against the regime,” Abu Jawwad, a commander with the opposition’s Southern Front, told Syria Direct from the eastern Daraa countryside on Monday. Military operations are set to begin “shortly,” he said.

The commander asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because he is not authorized to speak to the media. The Southern Front is a loose coalition of rebel factions that previously received substantial US funding through the Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC).

Syrian government warplanes bombed Daraa province for the first time in approximately eight months on Monday, conducting 10 airstrikes in a number of towns and small cities in the province’s eastern countryside, local civil defense personnel and media sources told Syria Direct.

The strikes breached an uneasy calm in Daraa that was ushered in with a Russian-, US- and Jordanian-backed ceasefire agreement over Syria’s southern provinces last July. In the following months, thousands of displaced residents took advantage of a reduction in violence to return home.

Now, with the return of airstrikes and possible new rebel activity in the south, Daraa’s relative calm could be in jeopardy.

Southern Front commander Abu Jawwad told Syria Direct that his faction’s preparations to attack government forces came after they “received information suggesting that regime forces are preparing a military operation in southern Syria.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm the commander’s claim.

Smoke rises following an airstrike in the east Daraa city of al-Hirak on Monday. Photo courtesy of al-Hirak City.

The Southern Front has not released any official statements regarding upcoming operations against government forces.

Pro-Assad military reinforcements arrived to Daraa province in January, Syria Direct reported. At the time, rebel commanders said they observed operations to raise earthen berms and reinforce military posts in Daraa city.

New military operations in southern Syria would also aim to “ease the military pressure” on the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, where an ongoing government assault claimed more than 1,000 civilian lives in recent weeks, commander Abu Jawwad said.

‘Heating up’

As rumors of a rebel offensive circulate, residents and local officials say thousands of civilians living in settlements near frontlines in the eastern and western Daraa countryside left their homes in recent days in anticipation of renewed violence.

Ahmad, a resident of the east Daraa town of Busra al-Hariri, told Syria Direct he decided to leave his home on Sunday after a local FSA faction encouraged residents to leave ahead of a potential military operation. He asked that his full name not be published, fearing repercussions for relatives in government-held territory.

“We were told that leaving town would be best for us and our safety,” the 25-year-old nurse told Syria Direct on Sunday from the town of al-Karak—about 15 km south of Busra al-Hariri—where he is now staying with his family.

Busra al-Hariri was one of the eastern Daraa towns hit by government airstrikes on Monday.

Abu Jawwad, the Southern Front commander, confirmed that rebels conducted what he described as voluntary evacuations in a number of Daraa villages, including Busra al-Hariri, beginning late last week.

Ahmad’s family was one of an estimated 550 families—thousands of individuals—who left Busra al-Hariri since Saturday, according to statistics provided to Syria Direct by the town’s local council. Most of the families travelled south, to other villages and cities in the eastern Daraa countryside, including al-Hirak, al-Jiza and al-Karak.

Hundreds of residents from a number of towns in the western Daraa countryside also fled the province for neighboring Quneitra province over the past week, Abu Muhammad, director of the al-Karama displacement camp, told Syria Direct.

“About 35 families” from Daraa arrived at the displacement camp, Abu Muhammad said. Some of the displaced joined relatives already in the camp while others were given tents and water tanks. The camp turned away a second group of displaced Daraa residents, the director said, because it was at capacity.

“There was a lot of talk among civilians about a military operation,” Alaa Sadqa, a resident of the western Daraa town of Ibtaa told Syria Direct from the al-Karama displacement camp. “We grew more and more scared.”

Amin al-Marzouqi, a representative of the Daraa Provincial Council’s Statistics Office, confirmed “mass displacement” in some parts of the province. Approximately 1,300 people left Daraa city over the past 48 hours, he said. The Statistics Office monitors provincial developments in coordination with local civil society and governance organizations.  

“The region is heating up,” Southern Front commander Abu Jawwad said.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

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.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.

Tarek Zaid al-Hariri

Tarek is from Daraa. He studied education at Damascus University for one year before coming to Jordan in 2013. There, he gained a bachelor’s degree in business management. He joined the Syria Direct training program because he wants wants to help his country achieve pluralism and democracy through journalism.

Sulaiman al-Ebrahim

Sulaiman completed his schooling in Daraa province, but the war prevented him from continuing his education at a university. He previously worked as a media activist and photographer in southern Syria. Sulaiman sees the Syria Direct training program as a first step toward a professional career in journalism.