Syria rebels launch “southern
storm” in Daraa

The Southern Front backed by Islamist battalions aims to seize the provincial capital.

Syrian rebels prepare for the "Southern Storm Battle". (YouTube/Asefat Aljanoob)

BEIRUT – Syrian rebels have launched a long-anticipated offensive to seize the city of Daraa as part of their wider campaign to roll back regime forces from the province south of Damascus.


The Free Syrian Army-affiliated coalition operating in Daraa on Thursday morning trumpeted the start of its Southern Storm Battle with a series of dramatic announcements while rebels began to shell the provincial capital amid the regime’s aerial bombardment.


“After God bestowed consecutive victories upon us on proud Houran fronts, it [became] incumbent upon us to answer the call of the Syrian revolution’s cradle [and] liberate what remains of its occupied soil,” the Southern Front announced in video posted to YouTube.


“Therefore, we announce the central operations room for the Southern Storm battle, from the heat of fighting and the purity of coordination and mutual support,” the rebels’ spokesperson said.


The rebel coalition shortly afterward issued a second video statement in which it warned that the international highway connecting Daraa to Damascus was now a “closed military zone.”


“Approaching it is forbidden because the road [will be] under Mujahedeen fire, from the morning of 25 June 2015.”


The Southern Front’s new campaign comes after it seized the regime’s 52nd Brigade base—the second largest one in southern Syria—approximately 25 kilometers northeast of Daraa on June 9.


A week later, rebels began an offensive to clear the remaining regime positions in the Quneitra province that runs to the northwest of Daraa.


Southern Storm has been widely anticipated, with Southern Front commanders telling media outlets in recent days that the battle was in the works, while the pro-regime Al-Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon reported in the beginning of June that the armed opposition was poised to launch a massive blitz in the region.


Battlefield balance


The battle for Daraa erupted on Thursday morning as Southern Front rebels backed by Islamist battalions engaged regime forces in heavy fighting.


“Fierce clashes raged [Thursday] morning in Daraa between regime forces and allied militiamen on one side and 51 [FSA-affiliated] groups and Islamic battalions on the other side,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.


The monitoring NGO added that the rebels were “targeting regime forces in the city with mortar rounds and artillery as they opened heavy fire on troop concentrations in the vicinity of Atman,” a town a few kilometers north of Daraa.


The regime responded to the offensive with an uptick of its aerial bombardment, dropping at least 60 barrel bombs on rebel-held areas in southern Daraa, according to the SOHR.


Meanwhile, the pro-Damascus Al-Akhbar reported in the morning that the regime “intensified air raids on militant clusters in the villages of Saida, Elnaymah and Ibtta in rural Daraa as well as Kharrab al-Shahm in the Daraa al-Balad [area] inside the city.


A Southern Front spokesperson explained in a video that the battle “was prepared with precision and mastery.”


“All the factions working in the Southern Front are taking part, as well as the battalions working on the ground,” he said.


“God willing, we bring them tidings of an imminent victory.”


A local media activist told Alaraby Aljadeed that the operation aims to “liberate the center of Daraa and the surrounding military positions controlled by regime forces, as well as the villages of Itman and Elnaymah, and the military barracks they house.”


“The locations where fighting will begin include the Al-Manshia neighborhood, the Al-Sadd road and Mokhayyam Daraa, [which form] the gateway into the center of the city,” Ibrahim al-Munajjar told the London based daily.


Protection of civilians


The long-anticipated start of the Daraa battle had been delayed due to efforts to ensure the evacuation of civilians from the city, according to rebels and media activists.


According to an Ajnad al-Sham spokesperson interviewed by pro-opposition daily Asharq Alawsat, the attack had postponed “suddenly, yesterday at dawn” in response to “requests by residents, local authorities and mukhtars in Daraa to stop until the civilians had left the city.”


“At 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the decision to freeze the battle was taken in order to evacuate civilians,” the spokesperson said.


Meanwhile, an official speaking in one of the Southern Front’s press videos vowed that the armed opposition would aim to protect the fleeing civilians’ property.


“We reassure our civilian brothers in the interior that their property will be protected through the [formation] of security committees,” he said.


“All of this is under a program prepared by the higher central operations room.”


FSA-Islamist cooperation


The Southern Front’s assault on Daraa comes in close coordination with Islamist groups active in southern Syria, despite the FSA-affiliated rebels’ disavowal of the Al-Nusra Front’s recent move to create an “Army of Conquest” alliance in southern Syria.


The Southern Front on April 13 officially cut off ties with Nusra and only last week it said that the Al-Qaeda-linked group was not participating alongside it in its Quneitra offensive.


Despite these media statements, Nusra had reportedly assisted FSA rebels defend against a failed regime offensive in the Daraa province town of Busr al-Harir in late April.


The SOHR in its Thursday report on the fighting said that Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra were taking part in the Daraa assault, while Islamist commanders played down tension with the Southern Front coalition.


“On the field we are [united] against the enemy, and coordination between all the factions continues [unbroken],” Ahrar al-Sham’s official spokesperson Ahmad Qura Ali told Alaraby Aljadeed.


“The statements issued by the Southern Front recently, in which it announced it would not cooperate with… the Army of Conquest, will not have any effect on fighting against the regime.”


Meanwhile, the pan-Arab daily quoted a local activist Ibrahim al-Munajjar as saying that “the statements issued by the Southern Front recently, in which it announced it would not cooperate with… the Army of Conquest, will not have any effect on fighting against the regime.


“Moreover, the Army of Conquest’s Al-Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement are factions that cannot be excluded, in view of the [fact that] they are well distributed in Daraa.”

Syrian rebels prepare for the "Southern Storm Battle". (YouTube/Asefat Aljanoob)

God willing, we bring them tidings of an imminent victory.