By Abdul Rahman Al-Hourani and Avery Edelman

DARAA: Thousands of families have returned to an opposition-held region of southern Syria in recent months amid a period of relative calm, although recent clashes between pro-government and opposition forces nearby are causing fears that violence could return.

The northern countryside of Syria’s Daraa province, located along the country’s southern border with Jordan, has seen a significant drop in violence since the beginning of the year, prompting the return of many displaced residents who fled the region during previous years of intense government bombardment.

The number of returnees peaked last month, according to local councils in the area, after the May 6 announcement of a Syrian “de-escalation plan” developed at peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The plan, sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, calls for a cessation of “warfare between [Syrian] government troops and armed opposition units” in four rebel-held “de-escalation zones,” according to Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian Defense Ministry.

Rebel-held areas of Daraa and neighboring Quneitra province make up one of the four zones. Up to 800,000 civilians live in the zone, according to the ministry.

Residents of Daraa’s northern countryside told the Syrian Voice that they hope the de-escalation plan signals that the relative calm will continue, allowing the economy to improve and life to return to normal.

However, a recent escalation in the fight for Daraa’s eponymous provincial capital to the south, which is split between pro-government and opposition forces, is now causing concern among those residents that the violence will return.

Airstrikes hit Daraa city on June 5. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.

Thousands return to Daraa countryside in recent months

Fadi a-Riyabi, a member of the local council in the northern Daraa city of Inkhil, confirmed that large numbers of displaced persons have returned to his city in the last two months, bringing the number of families there to about 5,000, up from 2,000 at the end of last year.

He told the Syrian Voice that the returnees are coming from regime-held areas of the country, camps for displaced persons along the southern border and the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Another northern town, Salmeen, has received 315 families since the start of the year, after being “nearly emptied by intense bombing” in the prior years, according to Loay al-Rifai, president of the town’s local council.

Abo Suleiman, a 35-year-old English teacher, is one of those who returned to the northern countryside after the de-escalation agreement was announced. He was initially displaced from his home to regime-held areas of the province in 2013.

“The primary reason [for my return] is the cessation of bombing and shooting,” he said, adding that he hopes the de-escalation agreement will result in increased economic activity and a return to normal life.

Mostafa, a resident of the northern city of Jasem, told the Syrian Voice that he also returned following the May agreement, after four years in a camp near Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“I decided to leave the suffering in the camp and return to repair my home after my city calmed down,” he said.

He noted the economy has “recovered” and that many others are also now repairing damage to their homes.

Abo Mahdi, a restaurant owner in another northern city, Inkhil, says the region has been calm since the beginning of the year and that business has increased significantly in the same period.

“I was preparing about five or six kilograms of shwarma each day [previously], but during the last six months the amount has exceeded 14 kilograms. Requests for grilled chicken have also increased three-fold.”

Thousands of families have returned to the northern Daraa city of Inkhil in recent months.

Although residents describe positive changes, al-Rifai, of the Salmeen local council, told the Syrian Voice that his organization is struggling to meet needs as the population rises rapidly.

He said that the council is providing bread to residents and is trying to repair water networks in the town as quickly as possible.

A-Riyabi, of the Inkhil council, also said his council is providing bread to residents, but that the rise in returnees has “posed an obstacle to the full provision of services.”

Clashes in provincial capital spark fear

While residents are returning to the northern countryside, clashes between rebel groups and pro-government forces are raging in Daraa city, which has seen over 500 airstrikes by the Syrian regime since Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

The attacks come as the Syrian army, which currently controls the city’s northern and western neighborhoods, is reportedly planning a major offensive to take full control of the provincial capital, seen as a gateway to a strategic border crossing with Jordan just four kilometers to the south.

The looming offensive has sparked fear in the countryside that government attacks in the capital will extend to all opposition-held areas of the province, according to Abo Hammam, president of a media center in Inkhil.

Mohammad Ali, a resident of the same city, says the fears reflect the Syrian government’s “indifference toward civilians, regardless of whether they are near or far from the areas where clashes are taking place.”

The civil defense force in Tafas aided injured civilians after an airstrike on Monday. Photo courtesy of the Daraa Civil Defense.

An airstrike on Monday in the town of Tafas, located in the western Daraa countryside about 15 kilometers north of Daraa city, seemed to suggest that resident fears are not unjustified.

The attack, allegedly executed by Russian warplanes, killed twelve civilians and injured dozens, the town’s civil defense force reported.

It was the first attack of its kind to hit Tafas since March, ending a period of calm there and signaling that the fight for Daraa city may indeed expand to the countryside in the coming days.

Original Arabic article found here.