(photo above of the occupied Golan Heights by Mouqawamah Music Managing Editor Assad al-Liftawi)
by Hassan Illeik and Firas Choufi, Al-Akhbar English
The latest battles on the southern front in Syria fall within the context of the escalation with Israel in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. Although coordination between Israel and armed opposition groups preceded the attack in Quneitra, the surge in fighters along the Daraa, Quneitra and Zabadani fronts suggests, according to some, a clear Israeli message — namely, that they are able to engage on more than one front.
Even before the latest snowstorm, most Syrian fronts were relatively calm compared to the situation in recent weeks and months, from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to Daraa and Quneitra in the south, including the Hama, Homs and Damascus countrysides. The only exceptions were ISIS’s battles with Kurdish forces in Kobane (Ain al-Arab), and with the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor.
In the past few days, however, there has been an escalation on most fronts. Liwaa al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush stole the headlines with his rocket attacks civilians in Damascus, but significant operations were taking place elsewhere. In Aleppo, opposition fighters launched an attack on the al-Ashrafieh neighborhood to preoccupy the Syrian forces, which are getting ready to expand the area under its control on the northwestern side of the city. The army is trying to close the ring around neighborhoods controlled by al-Nusra Front and its allies, and to break al-Nusra’s two-year-old siege of the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa in Aleppo’s northern countryside.
A new frontline in Zabadani
The most important escalation, though, was reserved for southern Syria’s Daraa and Quneitra fronts, in conjunction with movement along a new front, namely Zabadani and its southwestern side. Last Thursday night, groups from al-Nusra Front — some of them coming from south Qalamoun, others from Serghaya hills and western Zabadani — moved towards the towns of Yabous and Kfar Yabous, north of the Damascus-Beirut international road, activating sleeper cells in the two towns. Al-Nusra’s activity in this area has serious implications because of the possibility of blocking the Beirut-Damascus international road, which is adjacent to the two towns. This has military consequences for Lebanon’s central Bekaa area, where al-Nusra and ISIS claim to have a support base among Syrian refugees. Furthermore, controlling the two towns and expanding towards the south of the international road opens the door to linking Qalamoun with the Damascus southwestern countryside, all the way to Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) and Quneitra. The Syrian army moved quickly to expel the fighters from the two towns and was able to reestablish control. It also pursued fighters in the hills of Zabadani and Serghaya, thus expanding the safe zone north of the Beirut-Damascus road.
The Daraa and Quneitra fronts
The second front is in Daraa. Al-Nusra Front, along with the Islamic factions of Harakat al-Muthana and Ahrar al-Sham, mobilized a large number of fighters over the past week from around Houran. There is also a new faction called al-Failaq al-Awal led by defected colonel Ziad al-Hariri. They managed last Sunday to seize control of the Brigade 82 base, east of the city of Sheikh Miskin, located west of the Damascus-Daraa international highway.
Al-Failaq al-Awal, according to Israeli websites, is the product of Israeli-Jordanian intelligence and military cooperation to build a unified opposition force in southern Syria. According to senior Syrian security sources, the operations room in Amman — which includes Arab and Western intelligence officers, in addition to officers from the Israeli military intelligence directorate known as AMAN — “has been working for about three months to create al-Failaq al-Awal, every 20 days graduating fighters from training camps in Saudi Arabia and the city of Zarqa in Jordan.” According to these sources, as soon as a new al-Failaq al-Awal unit (40 members) graduates, it gets “US-made 125 mm rocket launchers from Jordan in addition to Land Cruisers, four (DShK) Dushhka machine guns, two SPG-9 guns, mortars and two bases for Tao rockets with 10 shells.”
After the storm, the Syrian army observed “the entry — through Tal Shihab border crossing with Jordan — of more than 450 fighters who had trained in the Jordanian and Saudi camps, including Libyans, Moroccans, Jordanians and Syrians.” The sources say: “The Israeli role has overshadowed the role of the Jordanian intelligence in Daraa, where Jordan had the biggest influence, because the disagreement among Jordan’s security and military agencies over their involvement in the war against Syria is turning the south into an area of utter chaos.”
The purpose of the attack on Brigade 82 — according to sources in the field on the southern front — is not only to control the military base but also to “control the Damascus-Daraa road.” According to security sources, however, the army “absorbed the shock of losing the base, withdrew with the least possible losses and worked hard to establish new positions in the neighboring towns of Qirfa and Nimr and on the eastern side of Sheikh Miskin, west of the highway, in order to protect it.”
Failaq al-Awal fighters and groups allied with it attacked Syrian army positions in al-Dalli, al-Fuqaia and Tal Muhajabi in Daraa’s western countryside. Meanwhile, north of Sheikh Miskin, al-Nusra Front, Harakat al-Muthana and Ahrar al-Sham launched an attack on army positions in al-Sehailyieh and the power station. Security sources confirmed however, that: “there has been no breach of this line which is the line of defense for the city of al-Sanamayn and the line separating Daraa from southern Damascus.” The sources stressed: “The army was able to contain the attack but the danger persists due to the insistence of the operations room managing the fighters and the Israeli direction.” The sources confirmed: “A large number of fighters were ambushed by the army which pretended to leave the position leading to dozens of dead and wounded.”
The third front is on al-Salam Highway, i.e., the Damascus-Quneitra international road. After a series of attempts in the last few weeks to attack the town of Saasaa, its checkpoint and the nearby Mazare Hasno, and threaten Qatana, the fighters tried to control the highway across from Khan al-Shih, launching an attack from the surrounding farms with rockets and mortar shells, and attempting to establish a position near the highway.” Sources, however, said army checkpoints foiled the fighters’ attempts. Al-Akhbar learned that the army reinforced its positions overlooking the highway all along the way and set up additional checkpoints from Saasaa all the way to the cities of al-Bath and Khan Arnaba northeast of Quneitra.
Al-Nusra Front and Israel
Information from prominent Syrian security forces, as well as sources in the field on the southern front, concur that “the these three fronts are connected to each other.” The sources indicate that “the fighters’ recent activities were the result of operations orders issued by the Jordanian operations room, in coordination with Israel, to manage the armed groups’ operations in southern Syria.” The sources confirm that al-Nusra too is subject to the commands of this operations room, stressing that operations along the three fronts were linked to developments in Quneitra even before the Israeli attack on the Lebanese resistance’s convoy. After the progress achieved by al-Nusra and its allies on more than one front in the southern province, and their control of a number of army positions and bases in the past month, the army and the forces accompanying it took measures to halt this progress while they prepare to take back what they lost. This is critical given the strategic position of the area adjacent to the occupied Golan Heights whose control by the armed opposition forces could represent a possible threat to the Beirut-Damascus road and to the capital’s southern suburbs. The sources believe that “the fighters’ activities aim at keeping the army and its allies busy after the Israeli attack and the insistence of the resistance on retaliating against the Israeli army.”
Therefore, the resistance axis sees al-Nusra Front and its allies in south Syria as one of Israel’s tools, which the Zionists use to send a message that “the army’s back side will also be in danger if the Golan front is opened.” The sources point to the Israeli air raid on Tal al-Shahem, and the Brigade 90 leadership in Quneitra on Wednesday morning — which it claimed was in retaliation for the rockets launched on the occupied Golan Heights the day before (Tuesday) — to support their view. Tal al-Shahem, in addition to the hills of al-Shaar, al-Kroum and al-Bazaq play a pivotal role in defending the cities of al-Bath and Khan Arnaba against attacks by al-Nusra and Harakat al-Muthana from Jibata al-Khashab and the villages of al-Humaidieh, al-Hurriyah and Ophamia which are adjacent to the border with the occupied Golan Heights. The opinion in the liberated part of the Golan Heights is that the Israeli air raid on Tal al-Shahem was a message that any operation against the Israeli occupation forces in the Golan will be met by Israeli air force shelling to “pave the way” for the fighters in southern Syria.
The road to Sweida is safe
The Suwaida ambush was an unpleasant surprise for al-Nusra Front and its allies in al-Lajat area located west of the Sweida-Damascus highway in Daraa’s western countryside. An infantry convoy from al-Nusra Front fell was ambushed last Friday with highly explosive IEDs in the Biyarat al-Hamam area, on the outskirts of the town of Baraq, adjacent to the highway and near Khalkhala military airport. The ambush led to the death of most members of the group estimated by sources in the field to be 50 fighters. In addition, the nearby air force intelligence checkpoint arrested two fighters who had survived the ambush. The Israeli media showed a lot of interest in the ambush after Al-Manar TV aired a report about it. Israeli military analysts wondered about the kind of explosives used and their severe destructive ability. Fighters from al-Lajat and Basr al-Harir tried several times to block the highway without any success and tried to use the road as a passage from al-Lajat and Daraa to al-Asfar area in the desert. In light of the increased skirmishes between ISIS and Jaish al-Islam in the Bir al-Qasab area on the eastern side of the highway, the Syrian army is trying to help the residents of the surrounding villages develop their abilities to protect the road and defend their villages.