Fadi Dahouk

The Assad regime’s Daraa campaign is a desperate defensive maneuver

According to a rebel group often described as the best organized mainstream opposition in the country, the south Syria offensive launched by Damascus and its allies will be “the regime’s last breath.”

Illustration by NOW (NOW)

Across an area of more than 50 kilometers, southern Syria is witnessing fierce battles: the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is pitted against fighters from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRCG) Qods Force, supported by Iraqi and Afghan fighters. As all this has unfolded, contradictory reports have surfaced about control of certain areas and the nature of the fighting.


The most precise description of the battle in the south is that it is an Iranian battle. However, according to Abu al-Majd al-Zoabi, executive director of the Southern Front’s press office, the rebel coalition likes to call it the battle of “the regime’s last breath.” Most of the dead, since the fighting started on Monday, he says, have been Iranians and Afghans. When asked about Syrian troops fighting in the battle, he says that their presence is marginal; that they are being used as bait for the FSA; and that foreign fighters are shooting and killing them if they are hit so as to prevent their capture.


Zoabi says a great amount of clamor has surrounded the battle. He also stresses that the regime is carrying out a defensive operation, and is not attacking FSA-controlled areas of Daraa Governorate. It is trying to prevent the opposition taking control of Izraa and Sanamayn, he explains. As the regime’s last and most fortified bases in the area, the two towns form the last line of defense for Damascus in the areas to the west of the capital.


Zoabi explains that the towns of “Deir al-Adas, Naamer, Garfah, Danaji and al-Habbariah form the latest battle line the Southern Front has reached in the fight against the regime. [The regime] is now fighting desperately because that front is the last of line defense [before] Damascus. After that battle line there are three armored divisions preventing us from entering Damascus.” These divisions are “the ninth in Sanamayn, the seventh north of Sanamayn, and the first near to the town of Kisweh to the south of Damascus.”


Over the last two days, pro-government media has consistently stated that Deir al-Adas is under regime control, but Zoabi disagrees: “It’s an attack and retreat situation,” he says. “We are trying to storm Deir al-Adas and [so is] the regime [...] We are attacking from northeast and they are they [are attacking] from the southwest — the center of Deir al-Adas is the combat zone.” This has led to a back and forth “exchange of control between the two sides over the past [few] days.”


With regard to the current situation on the fronts, Zoabi confirms that the regime has made a limited advance in “Al-Habbariah and Tel Makir,” but that on the other hand the Southern Front has advanced towards Syrian Intelligence Chief Rustom Ghazaleh’s hometown “Garfa and Deir al-Adas.” He says that “the regime tried to take control of Deir al-Adas [on Monday]” but that “at four in the afternoon we attacked and were able to advance in [the town]. For now, it is still a combat zone.”


Zoabi says he doubts the regime and the militias fighting with it have what it takes to win the battle; in the past, he explains, the Southern Front has faced far more difficult battles than this one. As an example of this, Zoabi points to the battle for Al-Shaykh Maskin which went on for 104 days, and in which the regime experimented with a new combat tactic it is has gone on to use in the current battle. “[The regime] relied on Hezbollah fighters who would enter the city, carry out a surprise operation, then leave,” he says of the fighting. “But, despite this, all of Al-Shaykh Maskin was liberated, [along with] the 82nd Brigade [base] […] on January 23.”


Zoabi points out that the new element in the current battle is the regime’s attempt to take control in the area through heavy use of firepower: much of the fighting has been done with rocket-propelled grenades, and machinegun usage has been marginal. Over the past two days, this tactic has helped the regime achieve a small advance. Before that, the FSA had inflicted heavy losses in regime and pro-regime ranks, killing 300 fighters by Wednesday evening, most of them from Hezbollah. Additionally, a large number of Iranian and Afghan prisoners were taken; Zoabi confirms that “an Iranian colonel was captured alive.”


On Thursday, reports by pro-regime Lebanese media outlets claimed Hezbollah and regime forces had taken control of Deir al-Adas; something Zoabi says is not completely true. The reports, he says, are part of a media campaign prepared to support operations on the ground. One example of this, Zoabi says, are the reports claiming IRCG Chief Qassem Soleimani was present on the battlefield; he believes this was an attempt to boost the shattered moral of the fighters. He also criticized the battlefield reporting carried out by pro-regime media. “Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen film from the back lines. They move forward by 100 meters then they get out, because the area is a combat zone and they don’t dare to stay in it for long. This is a desperate attempt to raise moral […] They show us fake footage of a couple of burnt out tanks [...] We show them 23 of Hezbollah and the regime’s tanks that we destroyed.”


What will the FSA achieve if it claims victory in this battle? “The gates to the western Damascus countryside will be in our sites,” Zoabi says. He also says that there is no comparison between the strength of the Southern Front and the regime in this battle. Before the current fighting “the Southern Front entered 56 battles [and won]. [Then it] moved towards organizing its ranks into formations; now there are 57 [formations] made up of around 38,000 fighters. It has become a true moderate military institution with local councils that have succeeded in administrating liberated areas.”


“Today, the Southern Front can be considered the nucleus of a national army [that is] free, moderate and disciplined, and observes international law on human rights… We are able to take the reins. Now, more than control and battles on the ground are at stake. We have actually come close to the gates of the west Damascus countryside, and that is what’s keeping the regime up at night. We are fighting to defend our land, our homes and our people, and [the regime] is fighting to defend an occupation project.”


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

Illustration by NOW (NOW)

Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen film from the back lines. They move forward by 100 meters then they get out, because the area is a combat zone and they don’t dare to stay in it for long. This is a desperate attempt to raise moral […] They show us fake footage of a couple of burnt out tanks [...] We show them 23 of Hezbollah and the regime’s tanks that we destroyed.”