Since the beginning of July, the city of Deraa in south-western Syria has been the scene of intense fighting between rebel soldiers and the Syrian army. For 75 days, a government siege on rebel-held neighbourhoods forced thousands of civilians to be displaced from their homes. After the Syrian regime broke an initial truce agreed at the beginning of September, a second ceasefire was negotiated by Russia on September 5. Our Observer describes a city struggling to get back to normal after weeks of fighting.
The city of Daraa, in the southernmost tip of Syria, close to the borders with Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, is known as the birthplace of the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011, which led to the Arab Spring and civil war. The zone has been under the regime’s control since 2018, but the old quarter of the town, known as Daraa al-Balad, is home to several rebel groups.
From June 25 until September 8, the Syrian government imposed a strict blockade on Daraa, preventing the arrival of food or medical supplies. The town also suffered intense aerial bombardments from pro-Iranian and regime forces. The reason: the rebel province boycotted the presidential election back in May 2021 – a vote that was unsurprisingly won by incumbent President Bashar al-Assad.
Amateur videos show aerial bombardments of missiles and barrel bombs. Barrel bombs are an improvised and unguided weapon usually dropped from a helicopter. They have been banned by the United Nations Security Council because of their lethality. According to the Martyrs Documentation Office in Daraa, 16 civilians and 23 fighters were killed between July 29 and August 31. More than 38,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and the destruction of the town.
The dropping of bombs in the al-Sadd neighbourhood on August 28, 2021. The missiles being dropped are ‘Elephant’-style missiles, according to the author of the Facebook post.
On September 1, a truce was agreed between the Syrian army and the armed rebel groups in the province, before being broken the same day by the Syrian regime with missile strikes on neighbourhoods considered to be rebel strongholds, in particular Daraa al-Balad and al-Sadd.
Airstrike on the old town of Daraa al-Balad, September 1, 2021.
A second ceasefire was agreed on September 5, brokered by Russian officials. On September 9, Syrian forces entered the town to set up checkpoints and collect weapons surrendered by rebel forces.
‘The regime forces prevented supplies of food, water and electricity from coming in’
Ayman Abu Noqta is the spokesperson of the Horan Free League, a collective in Daraa province trying to raise awareness of what’s happening in the country. He described how, with the blockade ongoing, the humanitarian situation in the town is deteriorating.
The day before the ceasefire, September 4, the airstrikes started up again around midnight with Sejjil surface-to-surface missiles [an Iranian-manufactured mid-range missile] along with artillery shelling and rocket launchers. These bombs targeted the town centre of Daraa al-Balad, the al-Sadd neighbourhood and the Palestinian refugee camp on the edges of the town. The rocket fire killed several civilians and at least three fighters that night.
In this video filmed on August 26, 2021, in Tafas, 13km north of Daraa, the person filming says that there have been ‘more than 20 rockets’ fired at the town.
We counted 253 surface-to-surface missiles and Golan rockets [a type of multiple launch rocket system developed by the Syrian regime in 2018] that hit Daraa over 75 days of siege. Fourth division militias [elite armoured divisions in the Syrian army that have been accused of crimes against humanity] have absolute control over certain areas in the city, and civilians can’t evacuate these zones.
This video posted on Facebook on September 1 shows the damage to the Mansour mosque in Daraa al-Balad after the Syrian army bombarded the city.
The humanitarian situation is catastrophic: people’s houses and businesses have been completely destroyed, along with public buildings. Tens of thousands of residents left the city in July and August to seek refuge with family in the countryside. The city went for almost a month and a half without food supplies, medicine or medical help. We have documented victims of attacks who died of their wounds because of the lack of emergency medical help. The regime forces prevented supplies of food, water and electricity from coming in. There hasn’t been any flour for a month and a half.
The person who filmed this video is crying for the loss of his family and other residents of his neighbourhood, as well as the destruction of the city.
‘We think that the regime will respect this new truce’
The new truce agreed on September 5 allows the regime to set up four extra checkpoints and to oblige rebel fighters who want to stay in Daraa to hand in their weapons. Regime forces are also allowed to search civilians’ houses, in the presence of the Russian military police and members of Daraa’s negotiation committee. On September 6, 150 people deported from Daraa were able to settle their situation with the authorities and come back to their homes. Finally, all of the military reinforcements sent to the fourth division are supposed to leave the province and end the blockade.
The person who filmed this video is a resident of Daraa. He is celebrating the arrival of Russian troops in the city on the first day of the truce, on September 1, 2021.
Over the next few days, we’re expecting the roads leading to Daraa al-Balad which are currently under blockade to open again, and for the armed forces to leave. That will result in the progressive return of displaced people as well as those deported and sought by the regime. We think that the regime will respect this new truce because Moscow is putting pressure on the Syrian authorities. Civil councils are starting to prepare for the return of those who have been displaced and are helping residents to rebuild their destroyed houses. We really need national and international humanitarian aid.
Despite the truce, the armed forces of the regime arrested civilian members of the opposition in the countryside around Daraa on September 6. In the last month, 44 civilians have been arrested, including 14 who were then released in August.