Syria rebels dig in for Daraa fight

Opposition fighters rest as they guard a position in a destroyed building in a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. As loyalist forces mop up the last pockets of resistance around the capital, President Bashar Assad appears to already have set his sights on Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 25 April 2018
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Syria rebels dig in for Daraa fight

  • The city is split between rebels, who hold the southern Old City, and regime forces who control the modern districts and government posts to the north
  • Far away from geopolitical interests, civilians are worried about what the escalation could bring

DARAA: On a tense urban frontline in Syria’s Daraa, rebel Atallah Qutayfan has been steadily reinforcing his defensive post for weeks in anticipation of a looming assault by government troops.
The 25-year-old spends his days stacking sandbags to shore up his post overlooking a market in the southern city, and monitoring the amassing regime forces nearby.
“Their reconnaissance planes are constantly above the city. There are daily clashes and they try to infiltrate our positions, but we’ve stopped them,” says Qutayfan.
“Our commanders told us to be ready for an attack by regime forces — and we’re on high alert.”
As loyalist forces mop up the last pockets of resistance around the capital, President Bashar Assad appears to already have set his sights on his next target: Daraa.
The city is split between rebels, who hold the southern Old City, and regime forces who control the modern districts and government posts to the north.
Opposition forces still hold more than two-thirds of the surrounding 3,730-square-kilometer province which borders Jordan.
Seizing the border area could bring the regime both military and economic security, analysts have said.
And a victory in Daraa city would carry symbolic weight — it was the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising against Assad’s rule.
The resurgent regime just this month dealt rebels their biggest blow yet by recapturing Eastern Ghouta, the former opposition stronghold outside Damascus.
That freed up troops who had spent years bombing the Ghouta front.
“After Ghouta, the regime escalated its bombing against us with surface-to-surface missiles, machine-gun fire, mortars, tanks, and heavy artillery,” says rebel fighter Fahed Abu Hatem.
In response, Abu Hatem says, his forces reinforced their positions, dug trenches and erected fresh barricades.
Gritting his teeth, rebel field commander Ibrahim Musalima, 27, insists the extra measures are necessary.
“It’s not fear, it’s readiness,” says Musalima.
“We’re setting up lines of defense and attack, and upping our coordination with the Quneitra rebels to the west, all the way to the border with Suweida to the east.”
Quneitra is the province directly to Daraa’s west, and Suweida neighbors it to the east.
Sections of the three provinces make up a “de-escalation zone” agreed in May 2017 by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.
The US and Jordan have also backed the zone, announcing alongside Russia in July that a cessation of hostilities would begin in the southern sliver.
Despite the steadily increasing violence, Musalima says the south’s rebel factions had been “advised” by their foreign backers not to provoke the regime or its loyalist militias, and to preserve the de-escalation zone.
The subtle warning belies the region’s importance to rival actors in Syria’s complex war.
Assad is keen to recapture the strategic Nasib crossing with Jordan, which the regime lost to rebels in 2015 but whose recapture could generate desperately needed income from cross-border trade.
Meanwhile, the presence of Iran-backed militias in southern Syria, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has irked neighboring Israel.
Far away from these geopolitical interests, civilians are worried about what the escalation could bring.
Umm Mohammad Al-Baghdadi, a 45-year-old nurse in a field clinic in Daraa, describes a constant stream of wounded from shelling and bombing.
“We can’t say we’re not scared of more escalation. After the end of Ghouta, of course the regime is going to go for any area that opposes it,” she says.
“It wants to snuff out the uprising generally, and in Daraa especially.”
Around 30,000 people live in rebel-held parts of Daraa city, according to the local opposition-run council.
Its head Mohammad Abdulmajid Al-Musalima, 38, says residents struggle to cope with severe shortages of water and electricity, and widespread destruction.
“Women and children will bear the brunt of any military escalation, because they’re the main pressure point used by the regime against opposition groups,” says Musalima.
Rebels and local opposition officials alike insist Daraa’s fate will not resemble Ghouta’s, where a five-year siege had worn down rival rebel groups.
“We’re saying to the regime: Daraa is not Ghouta. The armed opposition here is holding it together,” says Mohammad Al-Masri, 60, a member of the local council.
“Here, the front lines are holding on. Our popular base and the rebels are in agreement: Daraa is our city, and we will stand firm in it,” says Masri.


Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed praises Jacinda Ardern and lights up Burj Khalifa to honor New Zealand

Updated 22 March 2019
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Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed praises Jacinda Ardern and lights up Burj Khalifa to honor New Zealand

DUBAI: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, thanked Jacinda Ardern on Friday for her ‘sincere empathy’ following the attack on two New Zealand mosques that killed 50 Muslims.

The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was illuminated in a gesture of solidarity with New Zealand and its prime minister.

Ardern has received widespread praise from around the world and in particular from Muslim countries and their leaders for the way she has handled the aftermath of the terrorist attack carried out by a white supremacist.

“New Zealand today fell silent in honor of the mosque attacks' martyrs,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted. “Thank you PM Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand for your sincere empathy and support that has won the respect of 1.5 billion Muslims after the terrorist attack that shook the Muslim community around the world.”

Ardern led thousands of people in a two minute vigil on Friday as the shocked nation came together to remember those killed in the attack. 

She told those gathered in a park opposite the Al Noor mosque, where 42 people died, that: "New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.”

The prime minister’s response to the killings has been widely admired in helping the country come to terms with the atrocity. In the hours after the shootings she wore a black headscarf and visited members of the Muslim community.

She moved to reassure those caught up in the attacks and hugged survivors at a community center in Christchurch.

“We represent diversity, kindness, compassion,” Ms Ardern said on the day of the attack. “A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who need it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

She did not hesitate to describe the killings as a terrorist attack and said she would refuse to say the name of the killer who carried it out.

But she has also acted quickly with legislation. Her government banned on Thursday the sales of semi-automatic weapons.

“Ardern’s performance has been extraordinary - and I believe she will be strongly lauded for it both domestically and internationally,” political commentator Bryce Edwards of Victoria University in Wellington told Reuters.

Social media has been flooded with messages of admiration for Ardern, with many using her as an example for their own politicians to follow.