‘Russian warplanes’ strike Daraa province as Damascus presses attack on southern rebels

AMMAN: Dozens of air and artillery strikes pummeled a collection of rebel-held towns in Daraa province on Sunday, local sources told Syria Direct, as forces loyal to the Syrian government press a major campaign to reclaim one of the country’s last rebel strongholds.

In the northeastern Daraa town of al-Hirak, at least 10 pro-government airstrikes hit “the main roadways and marketplaces” on Sunday morning, Yousef Ahmad, a media activist and town resident told Syria Direct via WhatsApp at the time, with explosions audible in the background of his recordings.  

The al-Hirak bombings included airstrikes by Russian warplanes, the town’s local council reported on Sunday.

In the nearby, rebel-held town of Busra al-Harir, local media reported as many as 70 airstrikes on Sunday, including several purportedly conducted by Russian aircraft.

Russian state media did not report any bombings in southern Syria on Sunday.

Sunday’s bombardment comes less than two weeks into a Syrian government-led air and ground campaign against opposition-controlled territory in the country’s southern Daraa and Suwayda provinces that began on June 15.

An airstrike in al-Hirak on June 21. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

Since then, the assault has displaced as many as 60,000 Daraa residents from their homes, Daraa Provincial Council member Eyad a-Zobani told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Daraa, home to an estimated 750,000 civilians, is one of the last remaining rebel strongholds in Syria after a systematic pro-government campaign this year saw the formerly besieged territories of East Ghouta, south Damascus, northern Homs and East Qalamoun captured by the Syrian government and local rebels displaced to the country’s northwestern reaches.

With central Syria now almost entirely under state control, the government appear to have set its sights on rebels in Daraa, launching its largest assault on opposition territory there since a de-escalation deal brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan came into effect last July.

In the weeks leading up to the June 15 operation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied militias—including the elite Tiger Forces—were spottedamassing along the frontlines in the south, Syria Direct reported at the time.

“We’ve headed for the south,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the state-owned SANA media agency on June 13, two days before bombardment began in Daraa.

“We’ll give space for the political process,” Assad continued,referring to the possibility of talks between Damascus, rebels and their international backers. “If it isn’t successful, the only option that remains is to liberate [the south] by force.”

Daraa province holds major strategic and symbolic importance to both the Syrian government and the opposition. Nestled between the borders of Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, it was a major artery for international trade before opposition fighters seized much of the province in 2012.

At the beginning of the Syrian uprising, protests in Daraa were some of the most massive and intense, galvanizing other parts of the country into demonstrating against the state. As a result, the province is often dubbed “the cradle of the revolution,” with rebels there receiving on-and-off support from the United States and other Western nations.

 
Displaced Syrians in eastern Daraa province on Friday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.

The capture of Daraa by the Syrian government, through either a military campaign or political settlement, would be a major victory for the government. Securing the Syrian-Jordanian border could resume international trade between Damascus and Amman for the first time since the war began and deal a crippling blow to rebel forces entrenched in the country’s south.

‘They gave Russia the green light’

Rebel factions in Daraa merged into a central operations room last Thursday to counter the pro-government assault which, so far, has been largely limited to a collection of towns in Daraa’s rebel-controlled northeast.

The Syrian government, alongside Iranian-backed militias, are “attempting to breach [rebel] fronts and advance” under air cover from Russian warplanes, a rebel commander in the central operations room told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Sunday. The commander requested that his name and faction not be mentioned in this report as he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Pro-government forces tried to advance on several fronts in northeastern Daraa over the weekend, the commander said, but denied pro-Syrian government claims that Assad’s forces had succeeded in capturing more than a half-dozen villages and towns in northeastern Daraa.

In a communique distributed to southwestern Syrian rebel commanders via WhatsApp on Saturday, the US Embassy in Amman—once a major provider of financial, strategic and material support—informed opposition fighters that they should not expect any military backing from the United States.

“We were surprised by our ally’s decision to abandon us,” the rebel commander told Syria Direct. “It’s given Russia the green light to attack and bomb us.”

The American message—later circulated on social media by journalists and activists—noted the “difficult conditions” faced by southern rebels, adding that the US is “advising” the Russian and Syrian governments not to attack areas included in last year’s de-escalation deal. However, the message stressed that opposition fighters are “alone” in deciding whether to fight or surrender.

“You need to make your decision on your estimation of your interests and the interests of your families,” the statement concluded.

“This estimation and this decision is in your hands alone.”

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.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.