Syria’s southern rebels face simultaneous attacks by ISIL and Assad
AMMAN // Syrian rebels in the south-west of the country, including groups backed by the West and Arab Gulf states, are facing simultaneous assaults by regime forces and ISIL, with at least 110 people reportedly killed by the extremists in 48 hours.
The fighting, which is taking place close to Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan, was so intense that Amman closed nearby schools on Thursday, fearing the threat of stray shells or missiles.
For more than a week, rebels in the city of Deraa, 60 miles south of Damascus, have been battling a heavy air and ground assault by troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Street fighting has raged across the frontline that divides Deraa’s urban centre in two – the northern section under Syrian regime control, and the southern sector in rebel hands.
Rebels say Damascus is trying to advance towards the Ramtha-Jumruk border crossing. All of Syria’s border posts with Jordan have been under rebel control since the last one fell to them in April 2015 and it would be a significant gain if regime forces could take one back.
Rebel forces involved in the fight include groups backed by the secretive Military Operations Command, or MOC, in Amman, which is staffed by western and Arab army and intelligence officers. Independent rebel factions are also involved, along with fighters from Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the group formerly known as Jabhat Al Nusra before its split from Al Qaeda.
The rebels are facing Syrian military units, along with Iranian and Shiite militia groups. Iranian military forces have also been active in Syria’s southern region, where they have fought alongside the Russian air force. It is not clear, however, what level of involvement they have in the current Deraa offensive.
The attack in Deraa had been anticipated by rebels and onlookers since the fall of rebel-held territory in Aleppo in December. It was expected that, with resources freed up, the Syrian regime would redouble its efforts in the south, hoping to emulate its successes in the north.
Pro-government forces began their campaign in Deraa on February 9 with air strikes. According to Syrian opposition activists and rebel military sources in the city, hundreds of bombs, including notorious barrel bombs, were dropped for 10 days, destroying medical facilities, killing medical staff and hitting civilian areas.
Regime ground forces then began to advance south, pushing back a frontline that had been largely static for months. Rebels fought back and reversed some of those gains, taking regime positions in the area of Mansheyeh.
Although the regime push has so far failed to make a significant breakthrough, the assault was so intense, and the destruction to all major ad hoc medical facilities so complete, that the opposition-run local council responsible for administering rebel-held territory in Deraa declared the city a “disaster zone”.
As the rebels battle regime forces in Deraa, fighters allied with ISIL have launched their own assault on rebel-held territory to the west of the city.
In a lightning offensive on February 19, an ISIL affiliate called the Khaled Bin Waleed Army took control of Tal Jamoa’a, a strategically important hilltop and former regime military position, as well as the villages of Sahem Al Jolan, Tseel, Adwan and Jileen.
The Khaled Bin Waleed Army had been under a rebel-imposed siege in the area for months, after a failed attempt by MOC-backed factions to destroy it last year. The siege had, however, been leaky, and ISIL fighters and weapons had been smuggled through blockade lines with the connivance of some moderate rebels who received bribes from the extremists.
ISIL’s success in taking new territory near the border with Israel appears to have been aided by sleeper cells in the villages it seized. Activated simultaneously at midnight on Sunday, these cells surprised moderate rebel factions and ISIL fighters were able to seize rebel fuel and weapons depots as a result.
Another critical element in ISIL’s success was the absence of any air attacks against them. Regime and Russian air strikes have been directed solely at more moderate rebel factions.
ISIL-linked social media sources said there had been a “rapid collapse” of rebel defence lines, with 20 members of the Free Syrian Army – as moderate rebels are still commonly known – killed in the process.
Casualty numbers remain unclear but in the opening hours of the fighting, at least nine ISIL fighters and 18 moderate rebels were killed – six of them were prisoners taken by ISIL who were executed.
The death toll has since climbed rapidly, with opposition activists in the area saying 110 people – mainly rebel fighters but also civilians – had been killed by ISIL in the 48 hours that followed the militants’ capture of the villages. Some were reportedly killed as punishment because family members were fighting for moderate factions.
Following the assault, moderate rebels shored up their lines and counter-attacked. By Tuesday they had retaken Tal Jamoa’a and Adwan but ISIL fought back and a day later had once again forced the rebels out.
The regime’s current offensive in Deraa has been central in allowing ISIL to make its recent gains west of the city, according to moderate rebels and independent military analysts.
“The fighting in Mansheyeh [in Deraa], and the losses incurred by rebels there has allowed the Khalid Bin Waleed Army to succeed,” said an independent military adviser in Jordan.
Syria’s southern front has been more stable than northern and eastern parts of the country, and dominated by more moderate rebel forces, thanks in large part to Jordan’s tight control of the border.
Moderate rebels have also been assisted by the MOC, which has provided them with weapons and intelligence, and the United States has been running a secret training programme for moderate rebels out of Jordan.
But there are signs that international backing, which has never been sufficient to allow a decisive rebel victory in the south, may be drying up. Reports from rebel sources suggest the MOC has been playing a reduced role on the southern front since the election of US president Donald Trump, who has yet to outline an American policy for the Syria crisis.
* Phil Sands contributed from Brunswick, US, and is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at New America
Updated: July 21, 2017 06:48 PM