BEIRUT: Rebel groups in Deraa scored a morale boost Wednesday when they seized the province’s central prison and freed political prisoners held by the regime.
The attack was also notable for being entirely the work of the rebel Free Syrian Army, without the usual participation by Islamist militias or Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front.
The prison, in the Gharz region 10 kilometers east of Deraa, had been under a rebel blockade for 55 days, activists and media reports said.
The rebels stepped up their assaults on the complex in recent days and launched the decisive attack in the early hours of Wednesday.
An independent media activist from the region, using the name Moatasim, told The Daily Star that the storming of the prison represented a “victory – not a big victory – but important for morale.”
He said the facility contained 294 prisoners and detainees, but added, “we expected that many, many more people would have been inside” the multi-story buildings in the complex.
“Unfortunately, we were also expecting to free female detainees, but it appears that all of them had been transferred out,” he said.
Activists quickly posted video footage of the rebels as they made their way around the facility and an adjacent police station, where they found some weapons and equipment left behind by regime forces.
“There were about 100 or more fighters involved in the attack, backed up by around 400 other fighters,” Moatasim said. “We documented 35 regime casualties, while the rest appear to have fled to a nearby regime post.”
Based on the video footage, a number of rebel formations took part in the attack, while Moatasim said five main FSA groups – the Falluja Hawran, Omari, Yarmouk, Usud al-Sunna and Southern Tawhid Brigades – were responsible for the achievement.
The commander of the Omari Brigade, Colonel Qais Qataineh, was seen informing a number of captives that they would be treated well and referred to Shariah Committees that would decide their fate.
The activist said opposition groups were aware that both political and criminal detainees were inside Gharz prison.
“The political prisoners were released immediately,” he said. “The criminals – those in for a variety of offenses – will see their cases looked into. Some will probably be moved to FSA-run prisons.”
One lucky political prisoner was seen arriving home on the same day, with his mother and family members receiving him.
The activist said that based on rebel information, the fall of the complex was preceded by tension between police personnel and the prison’s guards. When a number of police indicated that they wanted to surrender to the rebels, they were summarily executed, he claimed.
Moatasim said the achievement was not necessarily linked to a change in the fortunes of the FSA and other insurgents operating in Deraa province.
“Coordination among these various groups hasn’t been particularly good, and it remains that way,” he said. “In addition, the entire [southern] front suffers from a lack of adequate supplies.”
But after the rebel loss of the city of Yabroud over the weekend, supporters of the armed opposition have been desperate for good news.
In addition, the freeing of individuals, whether civilian or military, has received more attention in the wake of another event connected to the Yabroud front – the exchange of 16 Lebanese and Syrian nuns and their assistants kidnapped by rebels, for detainees held by the regime.
The exchange, which took place last week, sparked a storm of outrage by regime supporters. One of their complaints was that Lebanese or Iranian nationals have been the subject of such swap deals, while Syrians, and particularly those from the Alawi sect, continue to languish in captivity.
Regime supporters celebrated earlier this week the return of 48 military personnel, mainly from the Alawi sect, after a murky incident saw them held for more than a year by rebels in the province of Raqqa.
Pro-regime accounts of the incident described the army’s “liberation” of the captives, while opposition sources said a regime spy was responsible for the capture of the commander of the rebel group, and the freeing of the prisoners.
However, Wednesday also saw the grim news that 10 men, believed to have been regime soldiers, were summarily executed by the Nusra Front in Aleppo.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, posted a video that purports to document the atrocity.
The Observatory said the men were killed by the Nusra jihadists and an unnamed Islamist militia after the taking of the Kindi Hospital in January.
The gruesome footage shows a large crowd gathered to watch the men, who are kneeling on the ground in a line.
An executioner tells his colleagues to use only “one bullet – in the neck” before the men are ruthlessly dispatched.