With closed borders behind them and a Syrian government offensive out front, the inhabitants of the last rebel stronghold in southwestern Syria are now trapped in a fast-developing humanitarian catastrophe.

With the fighting centering on the city of Daraa, where the anti-government rebellion first broke out back in 2012, this strategic pocket of opposition territory has been battered for days by airstrikes, artillery and armored assaults.

Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee, heading either for the nearby Jordanian frontier, or toward the heavily militarised Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

81,000 displaced lacking food, water

“More than 81,000 people have been displaced in this region since the offensive began,” says Karl Schembri, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s media adviser for the Middle East region. “It’s a very desperate situation.”

Those fleeing lack food and water, along with adequate shelter, as they crowd into public buildings and spaces away from the fighting. As temperatures soar, a massive health risk is also developing.

Aid workers, too, have reportedly come under fire and have been forced to flee, further hampering efforts to help the refugees.

Meanwhile, the fighting has also caused alarm, as it potentially brings Israeli forces eyeball-to-eyeball with Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah troops fighting for the Syrian government.

The offensive is also being read by some as an indicator that this long conflict is now entering its final phase.

“I think we have to deal with the Syrian crisis from the perspective of 2018, not 2012,” says Amman-based independent geostrategic analyst Amer Al Sabaileh. “This means that there has been a complete change that we have to adapt to, on both the military and political fronts.”

Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 28, 2018.Syrian government forces have been ramping up their bombardment of rebel-held areas of the south since June 19, and allied Russian warplanes carried out their first raids on the region in a year on June 23. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED
Smoke rises above opposition-held areas near the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime and allied forces on June 28. Russian planes carried out their first raids on the region in a year on June 23. Photo: AFP/ Mohamad Abazeed

New offensive

The current fighting erupted on June 16 in what had previously been a relatively stable part of southern Syria.

Guaranteed by Russia, Jordan and the US under a June 2017 deal as a ‘de-escalation zone’, the southwest has been under the control of a range of Islamist and non-Islamist opposition groups, joined together into the Al Bunyan Al Marsous Operations Room (BM).

Back in April, however, when Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, took the last rebel-held area near Damascus – Eastern Ghouta – government troops have been freed-up for a new offensive.

The southwest is close to Damascus and in an isolated position, surrounded by sealed borders. This makes it hard for the rebels there to obtain weapons and equipment, leaving them militarily weaker than some of the other opposition forces.

These factors made the southwest the obvious target for a new round of fighting, with the government of President Bashar Al Assad determined to regain control of the entire country.

Yet, “The area presented a problem for the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers,” says Joost Hiltermann, programme director for the Middle East and North Africa with the International Crisis Group. “The presence of Iranian-backed militias in the region would be a red line for Israel.”

Since the 1967 October War, Israeli troops have been in occupation of the Golan Heights, which overlook the southwestern, rebel-held area.

Israel sees Iran and its ally Hezbollah – which has also been fighting alongside government troops in Syria – as existential threats. It has also reacted strongly on several occasions to their presence in Syria, launching heavy missile and airstrikes against them.

“The Russians have therefore been looking for a way to negotiate a deal whereby the takeover of the south would be peaceful, with political agreement,” says Hiltermann. “As far as we can tell, this hasn’t come about yet, but may still be being negotiated.”

Such a deal would require agreement not only with Israel, but also the US, which has backed Syrian rebel groups in the past and maintains a military base inside Syria at Al Tanf, some 250km to the northeast of Daraa.

A deal would also need the approval of neighboring Jordan, the de-escalation zone’s third guarantor. Indeed, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Washington earlier this week, while US National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Moscow. These moves may well be part of that tricky negotiation.

However, the offensive continues, with consequences that are already proving catastrophic for many.

Humanitarian crisis

The rebel-held areas in the southwest lie either side of a narrow corridor under government control that runs into the northern part of the city of Daraa.

Recent days have seen government forces try to loop around the rebel-held part of the city to capture a neighboring airbase and sever the single road out to the Jordanian border, which lies only a few kilometers to the south.

This has led to a wave of refugees fleeing the fighting, mostly towards the Jordanian frontier, although some have headed west, towards the heavily mined and fortified Golan Heights.

Yet, while Jordan has in the past welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in 2016 it shut its border with Syria after a car bomb at a crossing killed a number of Jordanians. Since then, those fleeing fighting elsewhere have been trapped against the frontier fence. With little aid able to reach them, makeshift camps have sprung up, with many sleeping in the open and enduring terrible conditions.

One of the most notorious of these unofficial refugee settlements is known as ‘the Berm’, as it is walled in by giant sand barriers. This is now home to some 50,000 people – and getting food and water to them has been very difficult. At one point, exasperated aid workers reportedly swung a crane loaded with crates of food over the fence, dumping the contents on the sand for the refugees to grab.

The Berm is, therefore, “a stark reminder of what we don’t want to see happen again,” says Schembri.

So, Jordan is now being widely pressured to re-open the border. Yet, with around 1.3 million registered and unregistered Syrian refugees already in the country – and an economic crisis – the country cannot cope with a new influx.

“This is a responsibility that Jordan cannot handle alone,” says Al Sabaileh. “It’s obvious, too, that there has been a big change in the way the international community deals with the issue of refugees. In the end, it has ended up being Jordan’s responsibility.”

This is a view that aid agencies also have some sympathy with.

“Jordan needs international help to cope with this,” says Schembri, whose agency has nonetheless joined others in calling for the border to be re-opened. “Jordan’s generosity in the past has been astonishing – especially when you see Europe and the US arguing over taking a few hundred people, while here they’ve taken hundreds of thousands. Jordan needs our support – and financially – fast.”