Moon of Alabama
UN organizations claim high internal refugee numbers in southwest Syria due to recent fighting in Daraa governorate. A review of the evidence finds that these numbers are implausible.
Over the last two weeks the long announced operation of the Syrian army and its allies to liberate southwest Syria from terrorist organization and 'rebels' proceeded well. The eastern part (red) of the 'rebel' held area has been recovered without much serious fighting. Most towns in the area accepted the Russian offers to reconcile with the Syrian government. The various local 'rebel' groups in those towns handed their heavy weapons to the Syrian army, joined the army or laid down their arms. Other fled further south. Those groups who resisted received a short but sharp lashing by the Russian airforce and Syrian artillery until they were convinced to give up or move out. There were only few casualties. The Syrian army recovered more then ten tanks and a huge amount of ammunition (video) that the sponsors of the rebels had previously delivered to them. Among the weapons found were at least 7 U.S. delivered TOW anti tank missile systems. A fifteen minutes long report by the Russian language ANNA TV documents the campaign (vid, English subs).
Daraa governorate, July 5 2018
Over the last few days negotiations with groups which control the M5 highway and the Nassib-Jaber border crossing to Jordan proceeded but failed. Among other issues the 'rebels' demanded to tax future transports through the crossing. The demand is unreasonable and was rejected. This morning a new Syrian army operation was launched with the aim to reach the crossing and to reestablish government control over the border area.
The outcome is assured. The 'rebels' can not match the air and artillery capabilities of the Syrian army and its allies. The borders to Jordan and Israel are closed and no resupplies are coming through. By the end of the week the Syrian army will control the area and the border crossing.
The fighting will then continue westwards along the border to envelope and besiege the southern part of the city of Daraa which is still under 'rebel' control. The following operation will take the western area on the borders towards the Israel occupied Golan Heights. That phase of the operation will be more violent. There are several hard line groups in that area including an Islamic State aligned group and the al-Qaeda offshoots Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al Sham. The U.S. has made clear that it will not intervene in the Syrian operations in the southwest. Israel retracted its demands of an additional buffer zone. The UN demarcation line of 1974 between the Israel occupied Golan and Syria will be reestablished. The battle in the southwest is essentially coming to an end.
There are still attempts by the usual suspects to involve the U.S. into the fight by warning of the "Iranian" bogeyman on Israel's (undeclared) border. But there are no Iranian units in southwest Syria and the Trump administration is unlikely to fall for such calls.
Other propaganda outlets raise the claimed plight of refugees in the area. But it is not clear where those refugees are supposed to have come from. The now cleared eastern part of the Daraa governorate was taken via reconciliation agreements with relatively little fighting. Civilians stayed in place or have since returned. The operation towards the Nassib-Jaber crossing only started today. Thus this report published by AFP on July 2 made little sense:
Daraa (Syria) (AFP) – More than a quarter of a million people have fled a Russian-backed government onslaught on southern Syria, the United Nations said Monday, in the latest civilian exodus in the seven-year war…
The violence has pushed waves of terrified civilians out of their homes at a shocking rate, the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) said Monday.
"We were expecting the number of displaced in southern Syria to reach 200,000, but it has already exceeded 270,000 people in record time," said UNHCR spokesman in Amman Mohammad Hawari.
No further source for the claimed number of refugees was given. A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published yesterday even speaks of up to 325,000 displaced persons. Where are those supposed to have come from?
The report (pdf) says:
The sustained violence in south-west Syria has further resulted in the displacement of some 285,000-325,000 individuals since 17 June. Of those, up to 189,000 IDPs have moved to areas in immediate proximity to the Golan Heights and up to 59,000 displaced to areas in close proximity to the Al-Nasib border crossing with Jordan.
The report includes this map.
Source: OCHA report
The arrows on the map say that 54,000 to 59,000 fled from the eastern part of the formerly 'rebel' held area which the Syrian army recovered by reconciliation. That number is already inexplicably high. Even more curiously the map shows most of the "285,000-325,000 IDPs" (Internally Displaced Persons) in the northwestern part of the rebel held area.
Quneitra detail of OCHA map
A large stream of IDPs, 164,000-171,000, is shown in the upper left of the map. Why are people supposedly fleeing that area?
We can compare the OCHA map with the constantly updated frontline and news map on Liveuamap. Here is the map of the larger area of June 17 on the left and of July 5 on the right.
There is no visible change in the frontlines of the Quneitra region in the upper left of these map. A review of the news from the area, including through the archives of the opposition friendly Syrian Observatory and the newsfeed of Liveuamap, finds that there were no ground attacks in the area during the last two to three weeks. There are also no reports of aerial bombing or of artillery strikes. There area was completely quiet. There is also no news at all of any large refugee movement in that area.
Neither the OCHA map nor the UN report explain how, when or why 164,000-171,000 people supposedly moved the few miles towards the Israel occupied Golan Heights. There is no evidence that this claimed movement of IDPs, who may or may not exist, happened at all.
Where does the OCHA claim come from?
The nearly unreadable fine-print of the OCHA map says about the "Map Data Source(s)":
The data of this map has a limited number of sources, including parties of the conflict. The data has not been independently verified and is subject to error or omission, deliberate or otherwise, by the various sources.
There is the explanation for the unbelievable high refugee numbers the UN is peddling around. They are based on claims made by the Islamic State, the al-Qaeda offshoot Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and various other sectarian "rebel" groups and their propaganda outlets. These claims have not be verified at all. Whoever made up that map did not even ask if the numbers were plausible or made any sense. They obviously don't.
It is irresponsible that UN spokespersons come out and make claims of an extreme refugee flow when only some dubious 'rebel' sources say that these happened and no reasonable explanation exists at all why such a movement might have taken place.
There has so far only been moderate fighting during the two weeks of the Daraa campaign. Most of the affected towns reconciled with the Syrian army without any fight. The real recent refugee flow in the whole Daraa governorate is thus more likely in the order of ten-thousands than in the order of hundred-thousands.
The UN must stop to distribute such alarming numbers that evidently can not be backed up at all. Otherwise its credibility and long term efficiency will be severely damaged.