Things are looking grim in Daraa. Nearly three years after the protests there that morphed into civil war, Syria’s southernmost city is locked in stalemate.
Daraa is where the revolution began, and today it’s where opposition fighters hold some of their strongest footing. Daraa is the last Syrian stop on the Damascus to Amman highway and the capital of Daraa governorate, which shares a long stretch of border with Jordan. It’s a working-class country town with plenty of strategic value.
Daraa could also be where the revolution ends. Players on both sides of the conflict are whispering — sometimes loudly — about a rebel-led spring insurgency towards Damascus, and a mid-March regime-led counter-insurgency back south from the capital’s suburbs.
It’s difficult to cut through the propaganda in Syria. And in Daraa, where there are no foreign journalists, it’s especially tough to know what’s true.
Media organizations like Fars News Agency (out of Tehran) and Al Manar (which is Lebanese and affiliated with Hezbollah) trumpet news on a daily basis of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) taking out foreign terrorists and cutting down insurgents.
But pro-regime activists are more candid up close. “The insurgents are currently on the offensive in Daraa,” said Leith Abou Fadel, the editor of independent website Electronic Resistance and a die-hard Assad supporter. “They are making the gains at the moment.”
Or are they? “The battles in Daraa are ongoing but they aren’t like what the media talks about,” said Omar al Hariri, a journalist with the activist-based Shaam News Network. “There have been no big gains and no new weapons used.”
And here lies the first of Daraa’s frontlines — the media.
Everyone has a part to play in this war of information, admitted Charles Windsor, the activist with a nom-de-guerre who helps run Tahrir Souri network. “Sometimes we are shits and we hide information,” he said. “But most of the time they are the bullshitters.”
On the ground, things are just as complicated.
Daraa is split into two parts: Daraa al Balad, the old town, and Daraa al Mahatta, the modern city. These districts are connected by bridge. Much of the old town is now rebel-controlled and the neighborhoods that are held by the regime are under near-constant rebel assault. But in Daraa al Mahatta, the tables are turned. Here, the regime holds all but two neighborhoods, Tariq al-Sad and the Palestinian refugee camp – areas it is going after hard.
The regime also holds the highway that cuts south through Syria all the way to the al Nasib Border Crossing, which means its access to this crucial international transit route is free and clear all the way to Jordan. But stray off the highway and things look different. Daraa is currently the rebels’ to defend – and that defense has kicked up a gear in the last month.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main rebel player here, but the al Nusra Front is also present, as are two more Islamic groups, the Ahrar al Sham Movement and the al Muthanna Islamic Movement. There’s no organized Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) presence in Daraa, yet, and the vast stretch of border is tightly controlled by the FSA.
“There is no Nusra or any other Islamic fighters along the border because the Jordanian government prefers to deal just with the FSA,” said al Hariri of Shaam News.
The border is desolate and heavily militarized. Management of human and freight traffic requires cooperation from both sides — a partnership that seems to be working. Goods are still heading north from Jordan, and controlled waves of refugees are still heading south.
But not everyone who wants to leave Daraa is getting out. Al Hariri estimates there are at least 4,000 displaced people waiting in villages and fields for Jordanian border guards to give the all-clear to cross — another indication of functional border relations.
“Large groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in the border towns because Jordan isn’t accepting as many refugees as before and they are making them wait for so long,” al Hariri said.
Recent video from the IDP camps mushrooming on the Syrian side of the border reveal a roiling anger towards the Jordanians who can’t, or won’t, let everyone cross at once.
Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s top man in Jordan, spends plenty of time at the border helping the Jordanian Armed Forces receive new arrivals. It’s a complex, fast-moving situation. "We've got an idea of how many IDPs there are in Daraa, but we don't know how many want to cross. Half the population in Daraa has already moved to Jordan,” Harper told VICE News.
One thing rumored to be crossing the border in the other direction is foreign influence, in the form of Saudi Arabia-supplied weapons, Jordanian jihadists, and US-trained FSA fighters.
“That Saudi and America have a hand in this is a matter of fact,” said Thaer al Ajlani, a journalist with Slab News, a pro-regime outlet. He cites the presence of anti-tank concourse missiles in East Ghouta and Qalamon as proof positive that Saudi is providing heavy weapons.
Fadel, of Electronic Resistance, is equally convinced: “We know for a fact that weapons from Saudi Arabia arrived at the ports in Aqaba, Jordan.”
Fadel said he has seen reports of MANPADS — anti-aircraft weapons that could give the Syrian Air Force cause for concern — falling into rebel hands in Yabroud, near Damascus. And he thinks he knows where they’re coming from. “Jordan would be the perfect location for the insurgents to receive MANPADS because they are very close to Saudi Arabia, and the US can teach them how to properly use them.”
This as-yet unproven belief, that the Saudis, the Americans, and the Jordanians are colluding to import opposition strength and steel to overthrow the Assad regime, is shaping the present and future of Daraa.
On February 1, rebels launched the cheekily titled Battle of the Geneva Houran. (Houran is a name for this region of Syria.) While the first days of the operation yielded victories across Daraa and the Golan Heights, the SAA fought back with fierce aerial bombardments and, most devastating for those on the ground, more and more barrels crammed with explosives rolled out of low-flying helicopters.
“From the beginning of February the regime increased its use of barrel bombs in Daraa,” says al Hariri. “Tens of them fall daily on most of the opposition-held areas, concentrated where there are lots of civilians.”
According to activists and journalists, this aerial warfare was ratcheted up even further on Friday February 21. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted 30 civilian deaths and 20 rebel deaths in Daraa in the week that followed. Casualty numbers have remained high into March as the SAA continues to push hard against the rebels.
Neither of the pro-Assad sources interviewed for this article thinks the rebels have it in them to make it from Daraa to Damascus. Al Ajlani describes the capital as “a red line” with special forces protecting its entrances, and Fadel says the suggestion makes him laugh, so misplaced is the thinking. But there’s no denying that the regime has begun to release a surge of firepower on Daraa.
If Assad and his inner circle believe a southern insurgency is possible, this could be its counter. If not, we may be witnessing the start of a tightening of the screws on Syria’s rebellious southern front.
Towards the end of our interview, Fadel noted that the SAA sent more reinforcements to Daraa on Sunday March 1. “So the future tends to look rather bleak for the insurgents,” he said.
The following day, Charles Windsor was back with intel on another southbound offensive from Damascus, this one launching out of Kanakar in the western suburbs. It was one to watch, he said — the beginning of the counter-surge on Daraa.
What was the deal, I asked Windsor — was it a secret or not? Even with his contacts, was such powerful information just floating around? Could it be that easy for the rebels to grasp the regime’s plans and fight back?
Windsor doesn’t think so. “They are very smart. They won’t let it spread. I am too far from the regime cycle and the ones inside it will never say anything. It’s a strong regime.”
The battle for Daraa isn’t over.