AMMAN: A de-escalation agreement in Syria’s southern Daraa province is collapsing after just one month, as heavy fighting between pro-regime and rebel forces rocks the provincial capital and its countryside for the fourth consecutive day on Tuesday.
In what is the largest battle in Daraa city since 2015, hundreds of regime and Russian airstrikes and artillery shells on both sides are flattening entire buildings. Little territory is actually changing hands in the province known as “the cradle of the revolution.”
The Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies control the city’s northern and western neighborhoods, also known as Daraa al-Mahatta, with the support of Russian airpower. On the other side of the Yarmouk River, rebel factions from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar a-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham—a hardline Islamist coalition including former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—hold nearly all of the city’s southern half, or Daraa al-Balad.
Fighting erupted on Saturday after rebels claimed that the regime exploited a May ceasefire agreement to bring Hezbollah and Iranian reinforcements to the battlefronts and launch an attack on opposition-held Daraa al-Balad.
“The regime violated the de-escalation agreement in Daraa with their continuous bombing, and so we couldn’t just stay silent,” Abu Shaimaa, the spokesman for the al-Banyan al-Marsous Operations Room carrying out the battle, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
In May, Syrian regime backers Russia and Iran agreed on a deal alongside Turkey at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan to establish four “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory across the country, including Daraa province.
On Tuesday, however, scores of shells blanketed the provincial capital around the city’s two primary fronts: the embattled al-Manshiyah district and the nearby Daraa Camp.
If the regime succeeds in its campaign, it will bifurcate rebel-held Daraa province—a faithful base of opposition support—and regain a nearby border crossing with Jordan. A rebel victory in the long-coveted al-Manshiya district would provide the opposition with a high-ground position capable of seriously threatening the provincial capital’s government-controlled northern half.
But territorial change along Daraa’s frontlines comes slowly, building by building, as the two bloodied, punch-drunk sides fall back on dug-in fortifications and well-equipped reinforcements.
A rebel fighter mans a machine gun on the al-Manshiyah front in early June. Photo courtesy of al-Banyan al-Marsous.
Far removed from the Daraa city battlefronts, Russian warplanes are unleashing dozens of missiles on opposition-held villages.
On Monday, three reportedly Russian missiles struck a camp housing displaced families, residential homes and roadways in Tafas, a town 15km northwest of Daraa city, killing 12 residents and injuring dozens more in what is “the single worst massacre” since the start of the latest round of fighting in the provincial capital, a spokesman for the Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
Tafas, which houses thousands of displaced residents from elsewhere in Daraa, Homs, Hama and Damascus, was experiencing a period of “relative calm” prior to Saturday’s renewal of clashes, a local resident told Syria Direct.
“But when the battles started up again in al-Manshiyah, the regime began bombing like crazy,” said Tafas resident Mohammad al-Haridin, who says he narrowly avoided the missile strikes on his hometown on Monday.
Neither Russian nor Syrian state media commented on the airstrikes or the ongoing ground battles, instead citing near-daily attacks by “armed groups” on civilians in and around Daraa city.
The gridlocked fighting is an extension of similar battles from earlier this year.
In February, rebel forces launched their campaign—dubbed “Death Rather Than Humiliation”—as a pre-emptive response to, once again, alleged regime troop buildups near Daraa city. Opposition forces told Syria Direct at the time that they feared the SAA would attempt to punch through the rebel-controlled half of the city in order to reach a border crossing with neighboring Jordan. Two and a half months earlier, Jordan indicated its willingness to reopen its border points with Daraa province but on the condition that regime forces hold them.
Since the start of the more than 100-day battle for Daraa city, regime forces have consistently relied on their firepower superiority, particularly from the air. Syrian rebels, meanwhile, lean heavily on suicide car bombs and other conventional weapons strikes.
The block-by-block urban warfare has left scores of combatants dead on both sides with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ibaa News Agency citing as high as “300 fatalities” of pro-regime fighters as of Saturday.