Deraa is a strategic point for the opposition: they could use it as a launch pad to attack Damascus, and it was one of the more vocal opposition areas at the start of the conflict.
We asked Isabel Nassief, an analyst at the Institute of the Study of War that focuses on southern Syria, to weigh in on the state of the battle.
Syria Deeply: Geographically, where’s the fighting happening?
Isabel Nassief: Fighting between regime and rebel forces happens throughout Deraa province, particularly along the Deraa-Damascus and Damascus-Amman highways, and the southern suburbs of Damascus. To the left and right of Deraa, you have Qunaitra and Swaida provinces, which at this time do not have high operational importance.
The number of kinetic incidents in Deraa tend to move in tandem with those in Damascus, and was most intensive in September, leading up to when Jabhat al-Nusra took the Deraa-Ramtha border crossing. Right now, the focus is on the north, so Deraa hasn’t been a huge priority — obviously, there continues to be fighting there, but the kinetic activity has been lower than it was in the early fall.
SD: Physically, what does the fighting in Deraa look like?
IN: Traditionally, direct clashes, and regime artillery and air strikes have concentrated in and around towns which lie on critical supply lines, particularly those between Deraa city and Damascus. In December and the beginning of January, the regime began dropping barrel bombs. This is unusual in the south and is something the regime tends to do more in Idlib and Aleppo, indicating that the regime is tied up in the north and doesn’t have the ground troop capacity to deal with Deraa.
SD: What’s unique about the battle here?
IN: It’s probably the most contested area on a provincial level. I’d say it’s more difficult, in Deraa, to see definite areas of control than in other provinces.
This is because in the early stages of the conflict, the regime’s strategy was to take control of urban centers in order to conserve ground troops. This strategy pushed rebels into the surrounding countryside where they developed strongholds. In Idlib for example, the regime controlled the city center but rebels had a strong presence in the countryside in areas like Jebel az-Zawiya. In Deraa it’s different, because the regime presence is more spread out in the countryside. Deraa is historically heavily militarized, since it’s on the border with Israel, so the regime, to start with, had a lot of military presence there.
Another factor is that in the north, the Turkish border is very porous and creates a fluid situation with rebels moving back and forth for supplies and reinforcements. But in Deraa, [neighboring] Jordan has its border very tightly controlled, and that impedes the rebels’ ability to establish support zones in the countryside which are as robust as those along the Turkish and Lebanese borders.
The other interesting thing about Deraa is that the population there has influence. Until recently, there was a lower National Defense Force presence in Deraa, which could suggest that the population is less predisposed to mobilize on behalf of the regime. For the rebels, more than other provinces, armed groups are attuned and accountable to popular demands. As groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have become more dominant there, they are still constrained by the wishes of the local population, which has made it a more a tempered, moderate rebel dynamic.
SD: In terms of the overall battle for Syria, what’s the significance of Deraa?
IN: Deraa is one of the places in Syria where rebels have a very strong presence, and it’s in Damascus’s backyard. So you would expect the regime to want to control Damascus and then rout rebels from Deraa, but its current priority seems to be reestablishing its control in Aleppo. The regime’s objective in Deraa is therefore limited to blocking the rebels’ ability to make logistical connections between Deraa and the southern suburbs of Damascus. The regime wants to stop the rebels from using Deraa as launch pad to attack Damascus or a support zones which would bolster rebels in the Damascus suburbs.
Rebels operations in Deraa seek to establish a contiguous area of control along the border in which they can exercise freedom of movement and develop supply lines form the Jordanian border. This would enhance their ability to use Deraa as a point from which to attack Damascus. The Syrian uprising began in Deraa and so it also has huge symbolic importance for opposition.
SD: What will be the government’s focus the next few months? Will Deraa be overlooked as it focuses on Aleppo?
NI: The focus for the regime is going to continue to be northern parts of the country and the central corridor, which would include the Damasucs-Aleppo and the Homs-Latakia highways. Although a mobilization of the Druze population in Swaida or increased spillover into Israel or Jordan would change the southern dynamics.
SD: Will the Druze be a major player in the coming months?
IN: For the Druze, it’s really about self-protection, and they will fight against whoever endangers their ability to protect themselves and their land. If Jabhat al-Nusra antagonizes them, they are more likely to fight with the regime. There are a lot of Druze self-protection militias that have developed, and they have the bodies and they have the people to stock those militias. But I but don’t think they have a developed fighting force.