Syria’s southern provinces are unique among opposition-held areas in having limited the expansion of Islamist extremist groups. The Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL), Ahrar al-Sham, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), successor to the Al Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, maintain only a modest foothold at best in the region, compared with the much larger, more influential “Southern Front” coalition, made up of moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions that support democracy.
The Assad regime nonetheless continues to label many factions of the Southern Front as “terrorists” and to violate a cease-fire brokered in July by the United States, Russia, and Jordan.
This letter, written in July and August, is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where much of the world press cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The project, based at Stony Brook University’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, is funded by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. New York–based freelance journalist Jeremy Hodge, a former editor of the Yemen Times and Syria Direct, edited. As Hodge notes in his accompanying piece, here, the author of the article below, Khaled al Zubi, was killed, along with his 1-month-old son and brother, by a roadside bomb soon after filing his article.
Dera’a—In July, in one of President Trump’s first foreign-policy advances, the United States, Russia, and Jordan brokered a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and opposition forces in the country’s southern provinces along the Jordanian border. The deal raised many people’s hopes that a new era had begun, one that would rein in Bashar al-Assad’s military operations against his own people. That’s not the way it worked out.
Several weeks ago, I awoke late at night to the whizzing sound of regime aircraft circling the skies above my village, Muleiha Sharqiyya, and my 1-month-old son, crying. It was his first experience with warplanes in his short life, and no doubt scary. I rolled over and quickly scanned my phone; friends on WhatsApp were saying that several hundred Syrian and Russian forces were gathering outside Sama Hneidat, just east of Muleiha Sharqiyya, in apparent preparation for an assault. Not more than 15 minutes later, FSA rebel convoys carrying reinforcements could be heard passing down the main road heading east, toward the regime buildup.
Muleiha Sharqiyya is part of a string of towns in Syria’s southernmost Dera’a province that collectively form a sort of border between regime- and opposition-held territory. Our hamlet of 6,000 faces several regime-held towns located just under two miles east, well within range of small artillery. A few miles south looms the sprawling Tha’la military air base, where Assad’s forces regularly assemble before launching assaults on cities and towns in east Dera’a.