In strategic move, Syria rebels capture key city of Bosra al-Sham, home to UNESCO World Heritage site
BOSRA AL-SHAM, Syria - The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has seized control of the ancient city of Bosra al-Sham after four days of intense fighting.
The city, home to 26,000 Sunnis and 4,000 Shiites before the war, had for four years been a key asset for forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel commanders told Middle East Eye the battle was coordinated from one operations room, and included more than a thousand men from the US-backed Southern Front and the local Islamist movement al-Muthanna.
Preparations were extensive, and one rebel commander told MEE they lasted many days.
By fajr prayer - around 5am local time – on Wednesday, rebels claimed they had routed all pro-government forces from the city, including Hezbollah, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and local Shiites fighting with the loyalist reserve National Defence Forces (NDF).
According to rebels, 22 opposition fighters were killed, compared to nearly 60 from NDF, the Syrian army (SAA) and other forces loyal to Assad. The remaining hundreds of loyalist fighters withdrew east to villages in the countryside of Sweidah Province, less than five kilometres away and still firmly controlled by the Syrian government.
Some loyalist fighters attributed the loss to a lack of government support and a surge of new equipment for rebels.
Abu Hussein, an NDF commander and a member of Bosra’s Shiite community, said his men were unable to withstand the columns of rebels surrounding the city.
“This battle was very big, different to any battle before it. Bosra was besieged by thousands of fighters with many heavy weapons and rocket launchers, tanks and armoured vehicles, American weapons and support from Jordan."
The Southern Front is known to rely on guidance and material support from a Military Operations Command (MOC) centre in Amman staffed by advisors from western and Arab countries.
Abu Hussein thought this support, and the surplus of advanced weaponry on show, had overwhelmed his unit, which he said hadn’t received any direct support in this particular battle.
"Unfortunately, support did not come from the Syrian army. They let us down and Bosra al-Sham fell. If they had sent support Bosra would still be in our hands, but they forgot us,” he said.
Local FSA leader Abu Aws said Bosra’s strategic location made this a particularly important win. Bosra is the link between Deraa Province and Sweidah Province. Both provinces share a border with Jordan, but Deraa is rebel-controlled and Sweidah government-controlled.
Abu Aws said he believed this battle was an important step on the way to a much bigger confrontation.
"The Syrian regime, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces have begun preparing themselves. They’re assembling their forces in Bosra to fight for control of the villages and towns adjacent to Bosra, in the countryside east of Deraa which is under our control,” he told MEE.
Abu Aws made reference to rising fears of foreign fighters staking their own claims in Syria’s historical cities and destroying the country’s cultural heritage.
"Now that the battle is complete and the fortress of Bosra is under the control of the sons of Bosra, of opposition fighters. No one will be able to destroy the ancient Roman castle and the city’s relics. We will protect them,” he vowed.
The city of Bosra al-Sham, 40 km from the city of Deraa and 140 km from Damascus, served as both a religious and commercial capital for several civilizations and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Bosra was an important trading centre on the Silk Road and was a stopping point for centuries of travellers. Bosra’s history is visible: the city’s ancient Roman amphitheatre is just one of a collection of Roman, Greek and other archaeological treasures. Before the war, Bosra frequently hosted seminars and international conferences on global historical cities’ humanity and civilisation.
Local Sunnis and Shiites spoke of tolerance and peaceful co-existence before the war. Marriages, family relationships, business ties and friendships tied people together - not sect.
But at the beginning of the revolt against the rule of Assad in March 2011, locals say some Sunnis from Bosra participated in peaceful protests, but another part of the city's population - Shiites - stood in the face of these demonstrations. The groups began to emerge as distinct, separate and eventually, opposed to each other. Civil war took root. Local Sunnis say the government has largely supported the Shiite community with money and weapons and a flow of fighters with the support of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
After four years of fighting, much of Bosra’s population has fled and large parts of the ancient city are in ruins. The more modern parts of the city have not escaped the damage - scores of homes, shops and neighbourhoods have been shelled and blasted beyond recognition.
Despite the damage, as the sun rose on opposition-held Bosra Wednesday, rebels were jubilant. Some rested, but others moved southwards, vowing to start new battles with what they believed was a weakening government, on the retreat and unable to maintain control.
In the hours after it declared victory, the Southern Front operations room announced a new battle in the countryside of northern of Deraa, nearly 100 km away. By nightfall on Wednesday the battle to control the village of Jedia was ongoing, and 15 rebels had been killed under heavy artillery.
As the government offensive picks up speed, this has become the rhythm of Syria’s war in the south.
But NDF commander Abu Hussein, chased out of his home and sheltering in nearby Sweida, was still hopeful.
“The war goes on. There is profit and loss. We will get back to Bosra eventually and clear out the terrorists.”