Sat 17 Nov 2018

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Battle of Southern Syria Has Started

Assad’s forces fighter sets up anti-tank missile in the town of Tell Fatima overlooking the town of Kafr Shams, northern Daraa - March 2015 (AFP)

Assad’s forces fighter sets up anti-tank missile in the town of Tell Fatima overlooking the town of Kafr Shams, northern Daraa - March 2015 (AFP)

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Being the opposition faction’s major stronghold in Southern Syria, all eyes are fixed on Daraa governorate today, after it entered a new level of the conflict with the arrival of the reinforcements summoned by Assad’s forces and allied militias in the past a few days, which have taken position on the western confrontation lines of the As-Suwayda governorate and the surrounding of the northern countryside on the death triangle’s vicinity.

It can be said that the battle has actually kicked off days after mobilization efforts and preparation. This is attested by the entry of the Russian and Syrian air forces, which both have launched attacks on Saturday, June 23, after the shelling which Assad’s forces have started to pave the way, targeting the eastern countryside of Daraa. In addition to the regime’s official outlets’ media campaign which said that expelling the opposition factions of the areas they control has become a “reality.”

The United States of America has given up on the “Free Army” factions in Daraa in Sync with the Russian air force’s participation alongside Assad’s forces in their attack against the area.

Enab Baladi managed to get a copy of a letter sent by America to the factions on Saturday, June 23, which said “We, in the government of the United States of America, understand the hardships that you are facing now, and we are still advising the Russians and the Syrian regime as not to undertake any military action that violates the “de-escalation” agreement in the southwestern part of Syria.”

America has also declared its attitude saying that “We are fully aware that you have to make your decision according to your interests and the interests of your families and faction as you view them, and you must not base your decision on the assumption or an expectation of a military intervention from our side,” adding that “You have to make your decision based on your estimation of your interests and your families’; this estimation and the decision are up to you alone.”

The letter is considered America’s withdrawal from Southern Syria’s file and of supporting the military factions.

Ra’ed al-Radi, the official spokesperson of the Southern Central Operation Room, confirmed the letter’s content and told Enab Baladi that military confrontations are on at the all the fronts in the eastern countryside of Daraa.

Helicopters and military aircraft covered Assad’s forces attempt at progress towards the al-Lajat and practiced pressure on Busra al-Harir, eastern el-Karak, al-Musayfirah, al-Mlaihat in the eastern countryside of Daraa.

 

Would the Negotiations Succeed?

Negotiations and talks are conducted concerning Southern Syria by active and in control international parties, which have not yet reached a census and to the failure of which the military operation is an indicator, especially the talks that joined America and Russia.

The potential future of the area is so far swinging between tow resolutions, either to undertake actually wage the war, to be thus the biggest battle of its kind in Syria, or to reach an international census that has the ability to stop the war, turning to gratification, similar to what happened in other Syrian areas and governorates.

Awaiting June 25

For the past seven years, the battles between the opposition and the Syrian regime on the ground were accompanied by political meetings and talks, relied upon to arrive at a solution to stop the field combat in return for reconciliations or agreements that resolve under the control of which of the conflicting parties an area, the subject of the confrontations, would settle.

The role of the talks which accompany grand battles is made necessary, taking into consideration the political talks that parallel the confrontations in Eastern Ghouta, the northern countryside of Homs and the city of Aleppo, which marked the beginning of action under the “Astana” Talks, run by three states, Turkey, Iran and Russia, referred to as the Syrian file’s guarantor states.

Southern Syria’s file is not different from the former ones and is today waiting for the outcome of the meeting that brings together the “six states” in Geneva. Despite the fact that the meeting’s point of focus is the discussion of the formation of the constitutional committee, the Sates would spare a space to address Southern Syria and Assad’s forces violations of the “de-escalation” agreement, which included the south last July 2018.

Bashar al- Zuabi, the head of the political office of the “althawra army” faction, active in Daraa, told Enab Baladi that the meeting will issue a decisive and clear decision about Assad’s forces attacks, and the United States is supposed to have a serious attitude, since it refused the violations and started the escalation with a number of statements, the last of which was Nikki Haley’s, the United States Ambassador to the United nations, who said that Assad’s forces are “unambiguously violet[ing]” the “de-escalation” arrangement and that more than 11 thousand people are displaced due to these violations.

“Russia will ultimately bear responsibility for any further escalations in ‎Syria,” Haley said.

The opposition is so far contacting the guarantor states of the “de-escalation” agreement in Southern Syria, al-Zuabi added telling Enab Baladi that incase a political solution is agreed upon, it will be sought; however, if the solution was a military one, the factions will choose resistance and will combat any military action.

The American position of Assad’s forces movement has not yet been clarified and sources, informed of the developments in Southern Syria, told Enab Baladi that the dispute is about the area’s future between the Russians and Americans, while Israel has already given the green light to the first as to go deeper in the area, providing that Iranian and Shiite militias shall withdraw from the area completely.

The Geneva meeting corresponds to another, for the “Negotiations Higher Committee” will hold its annual meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, and Southern Syria’s file is supposed to top the meeting’s talks, but sources have informed Enab Baladi that the Committee is unable to make a decisive and an effective decision about the area.

The six states, Britain, America, Saudi Arabia, France, Jordan and Germany has the same attitude of the Syrian file and according to the meeting’s agenda, they will meet the “de-escalation” agreement’s guarantor states (Russia, Iran and Turkey).

Russia Has Not Confirmed Its Participation

On the ground, Russia waged the wand of the official operations and issued threats to Saturday evening. The point that could be considered an “unofficial” participation is related to “Tiger Forces,” led by the Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, who are viewed as the spear head of the expected battle, for massive numbers of the forces have arrived at the confrontation lines with the opposition in the eastern countryside of Daraa accompanied by the Russian police and a continuous coverage by Russian media.

Russia, nonetheless, has officially entered the battle and initiated an incessant shelling against Daraa, on Saturday evening, according to the Civil Defense Directorate in the governorate.

Today the battles are active at three axes towards the eastern countryside of Daraa, on a 40 kilometers long line, and Assad’s forces are trying to exclude the area of al-Lajat completely through controlling the two towns of Busra al-Harir and Masikah which form the link between the al-Lajat and the rest of the areas in the eastern countryside.

Incase the area of al-Lajat is excluded, Assad’s forces will avoid entering it militarily and will impose pressure on it as to surrender without fighting. The area is known for its ragged rocky geography and tribal atmosphere which makes it a fort for the opposition factions to indulge in battles that might last for many months.

The tension was not limited to the eastern fronts alone for it also reached the northern fronts in Daraa and those adjacent to rural Quneitra in the area of the death triangle which witnessed massive reinforcements that were not covered by the media, similar to what happened in the direction of As-Suwayda.

Sources have told Enab Baladi that Assad’s forces might entice the death tringle in the a few coming days, in a step to control the city of al-Harra and its strategic hill that reveals a wide area in the northwestern countryside of Daraa.

Tell al-Harra is one of the highest hills in the northern countryside of Daraa, overlooking a huge space of the rural parts of Daraa and Quneitra that helped the opposition factions control them rapidly after they captured the hill in October 2014.

Al-Zaubi explains that Assad’s forces’ action is so far an introduction, for the shelling is random and is not concentrate, which means that the current movements cannot be classified as a real battle to the day.

He expects that Southern Syria will be heading towards the phase of military escalation, pointing out that the factions are ready and capable of combating any of Assad’s forces attacks.

Monitoring the last day’s escalation, Assad’s forces shelling corresponded to the statements issued by America, which al- Zuabi views as an attempt at mocking the international community’s statements.

What Are the Factions Holding on to?

With the approaching military confrontations, a light must be shed on the points of strength and the shortcomings of the opposition factions, which will be a card to show their power and ability or weakness in the expected battle.

In Southern Syria, a number of factions are in action and the majority are under the “Free Army”. On top of these factions are “al-thawra Army,” “Shabab al-Sunah,” “Army of Free Tribes,” “Yarmouk Army,” “Omari Brigades,” “Falojat Horan Brigade,” “Jaysh al-Islam,” the “Artillery and Rocket Regiment,” in addition to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” which spreads in most of the military fronts.

As a preemptive step, the factions announced the formation of a central operations room in Daraa to repel any advance by Assad’s forces, followed by a step similar to the Quneitra factions that consolidated their military operations in the “Al-Fath Al-Mubin” operation room.

At the beginning of June, the factions put a show of power through a military parade that coincided with the arrival of the first of Assad’s forces’ military convoys and was translated as an attempt to “highlight their position” before the regime and its Russian alley.

Last week, talks on social media referred to some of the factions’ reception of a new support from the United States, which had completely halted its funds early in 2017.

Informed sources told Enab Baladi that a limited portion of second generation “TOWII” were offered to the “Artillery and Rocket Regiment” being a specialist in these missiles and trained on using them.

The sources added that the Daraa factions possess a large quantity of “TOW” guided missiles, but they lack heavy vehicles, especially tanks, few of which are deployed on specific fronts only.

Daraa is directly linked to Jordan, the borders of which are the faction’s main gateway to receiving arms from supportive countries, headed by America. But in the past few days, the Kingdom has taken measures on its borders as a preemptive step for any attacks, including the deployment of heavy weaponry.

The Jordanian position is also not clear while Al-Zoubi did not deny the Jordanian moves on the borders, considering them a precautionary measure and routine procedures for fear of any attack on the Jordanian army, stressing that the factions are located less than six kilometers from the borders, and in some areas not more than 600 meters.

Jordan hosted most of Southern Syria-related international meetings on its territory. The most recent was the reception of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it is considered the most prominent party in defining the future of the region in the coming days, being the neighboring country with a border of 375 kilometers.

 

An initiative Similar to that of Rural Homs

On another track to determine the future of the south, Egypt has entered its own negotiating circle, a step similar to what it has done previously in the Eastern Ghouta and northern Homs.

The entry came suddenly under an initiative presented by the ” Syria’s Tomorrow Movement” to a Russian delegation that met with it on the Syrian territory. It included reaching a solution in the south in the same scenario witnessed by the cities and towns of the northern countryside of Homs countryside.

A source from “Tomorrow Movement,” wishes to stay anonymous, told Enab Baladi that the Russians welcomed the initiative and considered the northern countryside of Homs model the most successful in Syria, because it did not lead to a massive displacement of the people and went away from the military option, protecting residential neighborhoods from destruction.

The source added that the meeting was held on Friday, 22 June, and the Russians indicated their intention to proceed with the model of Homs countryside in Daraa, but after the transfer of the initiative to Jordan, which is a key party and without which any agreement in the region cannot be implemented.

The Egyptian intervention included steps to form the constitutional committee, especially after talks about Turkey’s intention to acquire the list of Syrian opposition candidates. According to the source, A delegation from the “Higher Negotiations Committee” met with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and discussed the mechanism for developing the political solution in Syria and the steps necessary to identify the candidates in a balanced manner.

As-Suwayda to the Fore Front

As-Suwayda is a fundamental point that cannot be separated from the future of the South. It has abandoned the political and military discourse over the last seven years, until it topped the political landscape again with the military reinforcements that reached its northern and western countryside and the Russian delegation that visited it to determine its future.

On June 21, a Russian delegation visited As-Suwayda, where a closed meeting joined it with Akl Sheikhdom of the Druze denomination to discuss the future of the governorate.

According to “Suwayda24,” which covers the governorate’s news, the meeting was held at the building of As-Suwayda Provincial Department, attended by Russian officials, major security leaders, the rectorate of Akl Sheikhdom and the area’s prominent figures.

The sources said that the meeting was to discuss the internal situation in As-Suwayda and touched upon the local armed factions, in addition the conditions of the western countryside and the protection of civilians.

And said that the Russians talked about the existence of “terrorist” organizations in the governorate, including the movement of “Rejal al-Karama” and about possible security solutions or reconciliations in the region.

Sources from As-Suwayda told Enab Baladi that meeting discussed the the future of the governorate and the hierarchy of the military administration in the next stage.

They added that the Russians’ visit aims to find out the details of the management of the whole governorate, being a prominent point in Southern Syria and has a strong connection with Daraa governorate.

The meeting was attended by Bishop Saba Esper, members of the region’s Russian Reconciliation Center, Issam al-Hussein, head of the provincial council, Hassan al-Atrash member of the central committee of the Baath Party, Sheikh Najdo al-Ali, director of Islamic endowments in As-Suwayda and Sheikh Saud al-Nimr, as a representative of the area’s tribes.

The meeting came after a statement published by the “Rejal al-Karame” Movement which said that “it was and is still in the position of positive neutrality of any “internal conflicts between the people of the same State.”

The Movement added that it is not a party to the bloodshed and adheres to the constants of its leader Sheikh Abu Fahd Wahid al-Balous and the slogan he always said that “Its prohibited for the Syrian to shed the blood of another Syrian.”

The Movement has also prohibited any violations against or on the part of As-Suwayda and threatened against abusing the status of Jabal al-Arab or its people and refused to hold some of As-Suwayda governorate’s people as accountable for what is happening in Daraa governorate, stressing that As-Suwayda is not the only front from which the military operations are triggered.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syrian regime has tried to win the loyalty of Syrian minorities, as a card, to support its political and military narrative and has attempted since the arrival of its reinforcements to Southern Syria to “create sedition” through missiles that landed in several residential neighborhoods, which led to the death of a number of civilians.

A map showing three potential target positions for the expected battle in Daraa – June 24, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

A map showing three potential target positions for the expected battle in Daraa – June 24, 2018 (Enab Baladi)

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