AMMAN - The southern Syrian province of Daraa borders both Israel and Jordan -- it is also considered the gateway to Damascus.
With the strategic stakes so high, the area has seen fierce battles between regime and rebel forces since the early months of the conflict. As recently as April, the rebel offensive in Daraa was on the upswing, with the international media predicting that it was about to fall in the rebels’ column.
But a sharp upsurge in regime shelling, compounded with questionable Free Syrian Army (FSA) tactics on the ground, has the opposition worried that the crucial southern region will slip out from under them.
Another factor poses a challenge to the rebel commanders: the presence of Hezbollah fighters. Eyewitnesses in the province say the presence of professionally-trained and motivated Hezbollah militias among the regime’s ranks is a further source of intimidation.
“They’re different in the way they fight,” Daraa-based lawyer Qaisar Habib says. “They’re bold, with high morale, and they’re more experienced.”
Another activist, the head of the pro-revolution Daraa Media Office -- who asked to remain anonymous for his security -- says that the presence of the Shiite Lebanese militants has been reported in the villages of Izra and Sheikh Miskeen, as well as the town of Bosra.
A "case study"
As the United States and regional powers openly begin training FSA forces in Jordan, activists on the ground say they are waiting to see the impact.
“The Daraa region has become a case study for how external aid to both sides impacts the situation on the ground,” says Saber Safer, who leads the Hamza Assadallah brigade of the Free Army, presently in Tel Shihab.
With international assistance on both sides, according to opposition sources, the fighting in Daraa has assumed a more sectarian character. Hezbollah’s presence there reflects the prominent Shiite elements among the population of certain nearby cities and villages. Bosra, which has a population of over 30,000, has served as a stronghold for the regime due to its Shiite population of about 5,000, who -- while a minority -- provide a critical mass of support for the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.
“Hezbollah [fighters] don’t follow the orders of the checkpoint command,” says Muhammad Abu Abdo, a field commander and public relations coordinator for the FSA who is based in the Daraa city suburb of Sheikh Miskeen. “They have a separate command from the army, and it seems they’re given authority over the Syrian soldiers.”
Abu Abdo says that Hezbollah fighters are being bussed in from Outer Damascus to Bosra as well as the Nasib border crossing with Jordan. Nasib has been made a priority for Hezbollah reinforcements, who sources say pass along the regime-controlled Damascus-Sawayda road into Daraa “with ease.”
SANA, the official Syrian news agency, counters with daily reports that the Syrian army is successfully inflicting “terrorist” casualties, many of whom it claims to be foreigners, in Daraa and its suburbs.
Last week, SANA said that the regime army had “killed and injured a number of terrorists in Daraa and its suburbs.” Citing an unnamed military source, SANA reported that the Syrian army had successfully targeted Jabhat A-Nusra hideouts in the towns of Ankhal and Mzairib in Daraa province, “killing and injuring a number of terrorists, among them Yemenis.”
Foreign militants are not the only ones in Daraa who are secretly crossing borders. The flow of Syrian refugees into and out of Jordan hinges on the security situation in Daraa as well. Recent clashes in Syria’s southern arena have centered on military checkpoints and border crossings -- the most important of which is the official Nasib crossing into Jordan.
Ammar Hmoud, a UNHCR (UN's refugee agency) official in Jordan, announced late last month that nearly 59,000 of the Syrian refugees who had entered Jordan over the past two years have since opted to return to Syria, with hundreds more following suit this week. Still, many refugees are continuing to flee the violence, deteriorating humanitarian situation, and rising prices of food, says Moaz Al-Ta’ani, of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) in Houran.
Lifeline across the border
Official statistics have the number of Syrians remaining in Jordan at close to 500,000, and the upsurge in violence across the border in Syria has led to a “dramatic decrease” in those returning, according to a UNHCR report.
Daraa-born Saber Safr, the leader of the Hamza Assadallah brigade, notes that maintaining control over unofficial border crossings is a priority for the rebels to “provide more secure roads for the people going back and forth from Jordan.”
Jordan has been a lifeline for the FSA and the besieged residents of Daraa, in terms of both military and relief aid, with pro-revolution observers saying that losing Daraa would be a crushing blow for the revolution.
“The bakeries of Daraa are all dependent on the flour that comes from Jordan under the banner of relief aid,” says Mohammad al-Rifae, a journalist from the Um Walad village in Daraa. He says that while those areas still under regime control enjoy full access to food and gas supplies, the areas under FSA control are being suffocated by regime blockades, a strategy employed by the regime and its shabiha allies around Syria.
Muhammad Abu Abdo, the FSA field commander in Sheikh Miskeen, says that he is barely able to feed his soldiers, and that as of last week, flour and gas supplies had been exhausted.
With additional reporting from Abdulrahman al-Masri