ISTANBUL - A southern rebel alliance is making another a big push to try to capture Dara’a city, and Syrian government warplanes are lashing back with intensive air raids. Rebel commanders and political activists say the raids include the dropping of barrel bombs on predominantly civilian districts.
The offensive, which started June 25 on the city and nearby towns including Al-Ghazleh, has seen battlefield advantage seesawing between the insurgents and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with early rebel advances reversed.
The intensity of the fighting is testimony to the strategic and symbolic importance of Dara’a, where the bloody 2011 suppression of reform protests against the government triggered the four-year-long civil war.
If the rebels manage to secure the city, it would have enormous ripple effects on Assad’s regime, say analysts.
“Should they succeed, they may achieve enough momentum to advance to Damascus and may force the Assad regime to contract from outlying areas, including southern, eastern and northern Syria where the regime is also challenged,” according to Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
“A successful operation by rebels in southern Syria could therefore alter the stalemate of the Syrian war, even though rebels across northern and southern Syria are not coordinated,” she added.
Within the past 24 hours, the Syrian air force has mounted more than 40 airstrikes on the town of al-N’eemah and on the eastern outskirts of Dara’a, activists said. Dramatic pictures of bombardments and close-quarter fighting involving rebel machine gunners behind sandbags have been posted online by the insurgents. Explosions can be heard in nearby Jordan.
The Tariq al-Sad and Al-Balad districts of Dara’a have been targeted increasingly, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-opposition monitoring group that relies on local activists for its battlefield information. The Observatory tweeted that “regime warplanes heavily barrel-bombed the districts, causing a massive impact.”
The southern rebel alliance, made up of 54 moderate and Islamist factions, is considered by analysts and Obama administration officials to be more cohesive than northern insurgent coalitions and has recorded some significant gains in the south in recent weeks. It has also managed to limit ties with al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, something their counterparts in the north have not manged to do, which prompted Western unease and the reduction of U.S. support to northern militias.
Reversals by Government Forces
But early gains last month in Dara’a were reversed by government forces, rebel commanders said. The Syrian government has strong regular and irregular forces in the province, with the 5th Armored Division headquartered in Izra’a.
In June, militias aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and allied Islamist brigades stormed Al-Balad and Al-Manasheer districts in Dara’a and Al-Ghazleh, but the Syrian government barrel-bombed 60 rebel positions, activists reported. A rebel attack on the highway linking the city with the Syrian capital was also repelled.
The renewed rebel push began Tuesday with FSA Southern Front militias launching on assault on southern districts in Al-Ghazalah and later on Dara’a.
Rebels claim barrel bombing by the regime has caused civilian casualties. Syrian government media has counterclaimed at least four civilians were killed and dozens were injured as a result of rocket attacks by rebels positioned in the districts of al-Nueimeh and al-Nazihin targeting adjacent government-held neighborhoods.
Syria’s official news agency, SANA, quoted the director of Dara’a National Hospital, Walid al-Shnnour, as confirming the casualties, saying the bodies of four people as well as 40 wounded had been transferred to the hospital.
Independent verification of the two-week offensive is hard to obtain; the battlefront has been too dangerous for rights workers and Western journalists to risk. But commanders and analysts say the insurgent position has not been helped by some Islamist brigades and al-Nusra deciding to form another alliance, the Army of Conquest, modeled on one that helped northern rebels capture the city of Idlib. FSA brigades resisted the rival, which was announced June 20, and declined to cooperate with it.
“The insurgents have complained ... about a lack of coordination between the two main coalitions fighting Assad in the south, blaming a lack of cohesion for their inability to deal a decisive blow to the regime,” according to Thomas Joscelyn, an editor of the Long War Journal, a publication reporting on jihadist groups.
The effort of al-Nusra and aligned hard-line Islamist brigades to re-create a coalition in the south that subsumes moderate and FSA-linked militias has prompted a push-back with several Western-backed brigades, including the First Army, Seif al-Sham Brigades and the 24th Infantry Division, issuing statements reaffirming their commitment to establishing a secular-based democracy in a post-Assad Syria.