Fidaa Itani

Hezbollah, Iran advance and incur losses in Daraa

Two FSA commanders describe conditions on the battlefield in southern Syria.

Syrian government forces wave the Syrian flag while standing on top of a building in Deir al-Adas in the Daraa province on February 11, 2015 after President Bashar al-Assad

AMMAN — “We’re not used to facing regime and Hezbollah forces at night… The night was ours, they used to prefer working in the day,” says Abu Osama al-Jolani, deputy commander of the First Army, a coalition of three Free Syrian Army (FSA) units.


“Yes, on the first day our forces were shocked: the enemy’s forces were advancing in the night, scouting then removing mines. Preparatory shelling began on positions in Al-Maymana and Al-Maysara, and night forces advanced without covering fire in the center. We lost 10 fighters on the first day, and the attacking forces also sustained a high number of losses.”


For months, FSA forces have observed groups of Hezbollah fighters and preparations for battle in the Damascus countryside’s Tel al-Hawa and Quneitra’s Nabaa al-Fawwar. These preparations — as well as communication in Lebanese Arabic and Farsi at the two sites — suggest that operations will soon move towards Al-Harah, which the FSA liberated in October 2014.


Countermeasures were “in keeping with our capabilities,” says Abu Salah, leader of the Saif al-Sham Brigades. Abu Osama says these measures followed a different rationale to his enemy’s preparations: “We cannot confront regular armies in face-to-face warfare with all the open possibilities they have. We have decided to get back to basics — guerrilla warfare and inflicting the largest amount of losses possible on the enemy.”


The first day of operations was a shock to the FSA. Three formations took part in the standoff: the First Army, Alwiya al-Furqan and the Saif al-Sham Brigades. All three were forced to retreat after Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attacked with Syrian air and artillery support.


The operations took place on the front running through the towns of Deir al-Adas, Danaji, Tel Marahi, Tel Fatima and Tel Makir. In addition to nighttime attacks, combat reconnaissance operations were carried out: the attacking force sent in small groups that would try to break though FSA lines and blend in. Where they managed this they discovered defensive strengths and weaknesses. Then, they would be followed by a large armored force that would execute major attacks at the weakest points.


This tactic has a high human cost, especially for the attacking force. Nevertheless, it is a highly-effective method for revealing weak points. Consequently, the weakest defenses were breached. This is one of the factors that contributed to the success of the attacking force. On the other hand, the tactic led to a great many injuries — some of the wounded were air lifted to Damascus in the first days of the offensive before being returned to their home countries.


A third tactic used by the attacking force was to storm areas then quickly withdraw as soon as it came under heavy fire. This allowed it to reduce the strain on itself at the same time as wearing down FSA forces and depleting their ammunition. The attacking force was able to tire out the poorly-resourced FSA fighters through attack-and-retreat operations in which it set the timing, amount of force used and speed. The defending force believed it had been recapturing areas, but in reality it had only been expending energy, ammunition and fuel. Meanwhile, over the course of a month, the attacking force has been preparing itself for a drawn-out battle.


FSA commanders on the southern front stress that most of their losses were incurred during the first days of fighting and have been marginal. Conversely, Hezbollah and IRGC attackers, as well as some regime forces, have been heavily hit; testimony to this is borne by pictures of some of the dead. Additionally, 43 IRGC and Hezbollah members were killed in one ambush, and 20 more in another. Then there are the attacking troops killed on the first day of fighting. Finally, information has emerged from the area’s hospitals detailing the number of injured, and revealing the transfer of Lebanese and Iranian bodies to Damascus.


When the battle stopped, FSA commanders thought the weather conditions were the reason. Then a Western state informed them it was because of the high number of injuries they had inflicted on their adversary — the foreign attackers had been obliged to restructure their forces. The FSA were also told that true leadership of engagements and control of joint operations rooms was now the exclusive preserve of the IRGC and Hezbollah — Syrian officers had been completely overruled. The execution of 12 Syrian Army officers had been carried out almost at random to show regime forces their only choice was to obey the Iranian-Lebanese joint operations room. This was done to teach the Syrians they could not retreat or try to stab the foreign forces in the back.


But fighting will resume. “We are aware that the regime’s army could invade the area within days or weeks, but we also know that they want to magnify the battle,” says one commander on the southern front. “They could achieve their goal of reaching Tel Harah. [If they did] they would take control of the surrounding hills, which for reasons we won’t declare here are a vital supply line for us. However, it would attract more attention from the public if they achieved this after weeks of combat accompanied by media spin, [claiming they are] fighting Israeli-supported Muslim extremists; something they have [already] been saying in their news outlets.”


In truth, the only defending forces in the first days of operations were the First Army, the Saif al-Sham Brigades and Alwiya al-Furqan. Later on, support came from a large number of brigades and factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which contributed several dozen fighters.


On the other hand, combat methods will change on the southern front, especially in the battle for Quneitra. Abu Osama says he expects the FSA to use guerilla warfare tactics, and that moving out of inhabited areas may be useful — especially if this can reduce the spilling of innocent blood. He believes fighting should move to a location chosen by the rebels, not the occupying forces: liberating a piece of land, bearing the burden of its administration, protecting the inhabitants and securing their sustenance is not the FSA’s main task. More importantly than that, they must ensure that every meter the enemy advances comes at a high human cost.


“We will not fall into [the same] trap [we fell into] in Yabrud and Qusair,” says Abu Osama. “And we won’t allow the battle to be inflated so the occupiers can magnify their victory. Let them advance, we will plant the body of one of their officers or fighters every meter.”


Fighters on the southern front expect the battle to go on for a long time. They believe it will last a month or more. The attackers will try to besiege and surround the FSA. The first signs of this appeared when operations began on 7 February. The FSA will be pushed to mobilize all defending forces, making it easier to wear down. This situation will play out over a long period dominated by rocket attacks and annexation of territory. The attacking forces will try to inflict the highest losses possible on the defending forces and push them into a trap of defending what cannot be defended. They will also try to keep the FSA busy delivering aid to civilians in combat zones or caring for refugees moving to the interior of Daraa and Quneitra Governorates. While this is going on, the attackers will decide when to set “zero hour”; the time when they will invade all areas up to the border and announce their resounding victory.


FSA commanders are preparing for work in difficult climatic conditions and wasteland areas. Within a few days the way things are developing will become clearer. In the meantime, Hezbollah and the IRGC will continue to broadcast political propaganda: General Soleimani is the liberator of Al-Quds and FSA members are enemy agents. Those young men will continue the fight, in mountains and desolate areas, to protect their land from a regime that has long oppressed them. They will also be confronting a foreign enemy; a force that has come to improve its position in negotiations with the United States at the expense of Syrian territory and the Syrian people.


This article was originally published by Al-Hayat and has been translated from the original by Ullin Hope. 

Syrian government forces wave the Syrian flag while standing on top of a building in Deir al-Adas in the Daraa province on February 11, 2015 after President Bashar al-Assad's army, backed by Hezbollah and Iranian officers, pushed rebels out of the area. (AFP/STR)

We will not fall into [the same] trap [we fell into] in Yabrud and Qusair,’ says Abu Osama. ‘And we won’t allow the battle to be inflated so the occupiers can magnify their victory."