After weeks of military buildup, Syria's government has launched a fierce attack to re-capture the town of Sheikh Miskeen, in south-central Daraa province, strategically located just west of the M5 highway linking Damascus and Amman.
The effort by Assad’s ground forces has been aided with air cover by Russian jet fighters and is challenging rebels at the very birthplace of the Syrian uprising, driving thousands of Daraa civilians towards the Jordanian border.
Five years ago Daraa residents rose up in outrage after 15 children were arrested and tortured for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school.
Much of the civilian population fled across the border years ago where they now constitute the majority of the nearly eighty thousand residents of Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
The London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that nearly 14,000 people lost their lives in Daraa and neighboring Quenitra province over the course of the war.
During the past week Syrian loyalist forces, with significant aid from both their Russian and Iranian allies, have conducted major operations in southern Syria, particularly in Daraa.
“Airstrikes spread panic among the militants and many have fled but there are still some entrenched inside the town and we are looking for them,” said General Hassan Hassan of the Syrian Arab Army’s 5th Armored Division’s Headquarters.
Syrian government and Russian sources both say the Free Syrian Army has completely abandoned Sheikh Miskeen and the fighters who remain belong to the Islamist Nusra Front organization.
The FSA has denied leaving the battlefield and on Thursday night tweeted out a claim that it had hit government forces in Sheikh Miskeen with “hell fire cannons”.
Both Nusra and the FSA have faced major operational setbacks over the last month.
Government forces are credited with a targeted killing of Nusra’s Daraa commander Abu Jleibib al-Ordoni in December and FSA fighters have complained of a lack of funds and weapons reaching them from their military operations center in Jordan.
Now Assad and his allies are taking advantage of “Operation Inherent Resolve”- the international campaign against Islamic State in Syria’s northeast – to regain ground in the country’s northwest and south including both Daraa and Quenitra, which is adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“The FSA has denied leaving the battlefield”
“Government forces have breached our province down the middle,” said Modar Shanwan, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council in Quenitra.
The Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah has joined Syrian Army operations against rebel positions in Quenitra province prompting the Israeli Air Force to bomb targets on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border in recent days.
Jordanian officials say they understand why civilians are fleeing the war zone in Quenitra and Daraa but need time to process the nearly twelve thousand refugees stranded at the border.
“We have to screen asylum seekers for potential connections to terrorist organizations and as long as we see that the refugees are not in an immediate risk of being bombed, we simply cannot let so many in at once,” said government spokesman Mohammed Al-Momani.
“Jordan’s security considerations transcend everything else. We will do our international humanitarian duty but we need the international donors to meet their pledges to support these people.”
Professor Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a leading Syria expert, believes the rebels failure to make gains in Syria’s south over the summer has made them and the population who supports them more vulnerable during the current offensive by the Russian supplied and supported government army.
“Unless the southern rebels manage to reorganize, unify, and go back on the offensive, I think the events of summer 2015 might end up being seen as a turning point in the southern war,” Landis said.
“Assad is definitely in a stronger position than he was half a year ago and can still hope for a bigger dividend in 2016,” said Landis.