Bashar al-Assad has attacked a former opposition stronghold with missiles and artillery shelling in an attempt to crush a simmering insurrection – an unprecedented development in Syria’s decade-long war.
Deraa al-Balad and its surrounds, a district of Deraa city in the southern province of the same name, was targeted with heavy weaponry in tandem with a ground push on three axes from two Syrian army divisions and allied Iran-backed militias early on Thursday morning, in a large offensive which continued throughout the day.
In response to the shelling, rebel gunmen launched counterattacks across the Deraa countryside, killing at least eight pro-regime fighters and capturing dozens of combatants at several military positions and checkpoints, local sources said.
At least four civilians in shelled areas have been killed, according to residents, and large numbers of people have begun to try to flee. There are no medical facilities in the targeted areas.
The violence is the worst fighting to hit Deraa – the birthplace of Syria’s 2011 Arab spring uprising against the regime – since the area was “reconciled” with Damascus in a Russian-brokered deal three years ago.
“We woke up to the attacks at 7am. We are under complete siege, there is indiscriminate artillery, mortars, everything,” said Abu Ahmed, a resident in Deraa al-Balad. “Civilians repelled the ground push to stop the tanks and soldiers entering the town but we have no real armed resistance. There is no water, no power, and we are lacking food.”
Unlike other opposition areas won back by Assad with the help of his allies in Moscow and Tehran, in the July 2018 surrender deal, the majority of Deraa’s inhabitants remained at home rather than being bussed to Idlib province on the Turkish border. Instead, Moscow oversaw the recruitment of Deraa’s rebels into a new local security force known as the Fifth Corps, created to help the exhausted Syrian army in the battle against Islamic State.
Since Isis was driven from southern Syria, an uneasy status quo has emerged: the Fifth Corp are paid salaries by Moscow and are supposed to follow Russian orders, but have managed to retain a degree of autonomy, barring the Syrian military and secret police from areas under their control, sheltering people wanted by the regime, and safeguarding large street protests against the government’s handling of Syria’s struggling economy.
Tit-for-tat bombings and assassinations between former opposition figures and regime forces have since become routine. But mindful of the potential for military escalation if Iranian and Hezbollah forces were to fully embed so close to Israel, Russia has largely frustrated the regime’s attempts to stamp out the fledgling insurgency.
The situation in Deraa deteriorated sharply when the local population decided to boycott May’s fraudulent general election, in which Assad was returned for another seven years in office with 95% of the vote. Regime soldiers began blocking roads and turning off water and power supplies to neighbourhoods home to about 50,000 people, leading to shortages in food and medicine.
Several negotiation attempts between a government security committee and tribal representatives from Deraa al-Balad to discuss giving up arms and installing new checkpoints over the last month have failed, leading Damascus to send military reinforcements to the area earlier this week.
The pro-government al-Watan newspaper called events in Deraa the “start of a military operation against hideouts of terrorists who thwarted a reconciliation deal”.
There were unconfirmed reports by Thursday evening that the Fifth Corp – which has stayed out of the clashes – is mediating a ceasefire deal. Residents reported, however, that fierce fighting has so far continued.
“The escalation in Deraa al-Balad represents a breakdown of negotiations between the leaders of the ‘reconciled’ rebels and the regime, mediated by Russia,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Newlines Institute with extensive knowledge of southern Syria’s dynamics. “Assad is now implementing the ‘solution’ it wanted to impose on Deraa all along – forcing complete surrender and displacement of those who refuse to act as loyal subjects of the Syrian regime.
“Unless Russia intervenes to put an end to the fighting and broker a ceasefire, the fighting will result in even more civilian deaths and displacement, and likely the subjugation of Deraa al-Balad under full regime control.”