AMMAN: An ongoing rebel blockade of Daraa’s western Yarmouk Basin region controlled by alleged Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk is leaving residents and farmers trapped as battles between the factions resumed on Wednesday, military and civilian sources in the area tell Syria Direct.
More than six weeks ago, Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk broke out of a pocket of southwest Daraa province under its control, attacking 7km to the east, joining forces with ideologically similar ally Harakat a-Muthanna. The two brigades attacked positions and towns held by the FSA’s Southern Front, Ahrar a-Sham and Jabhat a-Nusra. It is not immediately clear what sparked the fighting, but tensions between LSY and Nusra date back to late 2014.
The Southern Front, Ahrar and Nusra responded with a counteroffensive against LSY, rolling back all of LSY’s gains and setting their sights on the latter’s remaining pocket of territory in southwest Daraa’s Yarmouk Basin region.
The Yarmouk Basin is an area comprising several plains and two deep valleys in the corner of southwest Daraa province, bordering the Golan Heights and Jordan. Control is currently divided between LSY to the west and the Southern Front and allied Islamist groups to the east.
Amidst the fighting, thousands of Yarmouk Basin residents have been displaced, while those living in LSY’s remaining territory are blockaded and trapped by the FSA, Ahrar a-Sham and Nusra.
Ten days ago, the FSA imposed an official blockade of the LSY-controlled part of Yarmouk Basin, announcing on April 24that “the entry and exit of vehicles between areas controlled by LSY and Muthanna (IS) are absolutely forbidden.”
FSA forces allowed blockaded Yarmouk Basin residents to come and go for two hours on Tuesday. Vehicles were allowed to leave but not to return. Photo courtesy of the High Military Council in Nawa.
The road closures came in response to LSY’s use of them “to send car bombs into our areas, to carry out assassinations and smuggle weapons and fuel,” a source from the FSA’s High Military Council in Nawa city told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “They used civilians to move these materials.”
Farmers of the LSY-controlled territories say their produce is rotting and the losses are mounting.
“Around 15 trucks of squash were ruined and had to be fed to the sheep and cows,” a farmer in the blockaded area who requested anonymity told Syria Direct last week. “I’ve lost more than SP12 million [approx. $54,580] as a result of the battles.”
While a surplus of local vegetables such as cucumbers, beans and squash has driven down costs for residents inside the LSY-controlled area, though incurring losses for farmers, the prices of other goods have shot up. Rice currently costs around SP2,000 [$9] a kilo, while a tank of cooking gas is SP20,000 [$90], according to internal sources.
A delegation of tribal leaders from the blockaded territory met representatives of the FSA and Islamist military factions as well as opposition provincial government officials on Tuesday in order to call for an end to the blockade.
“The road is cut off, our farms are losing money and produce is being destroyed because we can’t leave for FSA areas,” a tribal member of delegation said in a video of the conference.
Afterwards, FSA forces opened the road between LSY-controlled Ayn Dhakar and FSA-held Tseel for two hours on Tuesday. Yarmouk Basin residents who wanted to leave and return to LSY-held areas had to go on foot and bring in only what they could carry. Vehicles carrying produce for sale and the cars of residents not intending to return were allowed to leave.
The same delegation source said that “medicine, gas, milk, flour and bread” entered the blockaded area while “farmers were allowed to bring out their crops to sell after a careful search.”
“We walked on foot for three kilometers,” Yarmouk Basin resident Khaled, who left the LSY-held area to buy bread and returned during Tuesday’s two-hour window told Syria Direct.
“There wasn’t enough time to leave and come back after buying the necessary supplies that are missing here.” While farmers’ vehicles of produce were allowed to leave, Khaled says that shipments of bread, flour, milk and gas did not enter as agreed, a claim that Syria Direct could not confirm.
“Hundreds of families” seized the two-hour chance to leave the LSY-controlled pocket on Tuesday, citizen journalist Muhammad al-Madheeb, who is in the area, told Syria Direct. “In [FSA-controlled] Nawa, there are around 200 families,” while others are in three nearby FSA-held towns.
Daraa province’s governor of rebel-held territory, Yaaqoub al-Ammar, promised to “communicate with our brothers in the operations rooms to secure a corridor for people’s needs and provide a timetable for aid,” in a video statement of Tuesday’s meeting produced by the opposition provincial government.
Southern Front factions are “studying the possibility of opening a corridor for residents only, to prevent it from being exploited by LSY,” in the east of the LSY-held pocket, a member of the FSA Southern Front told Syria Direct on Wednesday, requesting anonymity.
Large-scale fighting that had stalled for approximately two weeks erupted again on Wednesday, when the Southern Front attacked near the LSY-held town of Ayn Dhakar, north of the group’s pocket of territory, sparking fears of further displacement and violence against civilians.
“The battles have resumed today,” the same anonymous Southern Front member confirmed on Wednesday, adding that “we have taken a final decision due to the need to resolve the battle as soon as possible.”
The Southern Front source defended its blockade of the LSY pocket, saying it is in the interest of residents.
“The road has been closed to keep citizens safe, since it’s being targeted by both sides,” said the Southern Front member.