On 25 April 2011, during the Syrian uprising, the Syrian military launched a large operation in the Syrian city of Daraa. The government said it was targeting terrorist groups, while the Syrian opposition called it a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. The operation lasted until 5 May 2011.
On 15 March, a protest movement against the Syrian government began to escalate, as simultaneous demonstrations took place in major cities across Syria. The uprising was sparked by the arrest of children aged 9 to 15 years who had written anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa. Thousands of protestors gathered in al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama. There were some clashes with security forces, according to reports from dissident groups. On 18 March, the most serious unrest to take place in Syria for decades erupted. After online calls for a “Friday of Dignity” (Arabic: جمعة الكرامة), after Friday prayers, thousands of protesters demanding an end to alleged government corruption took to the streets of cities across Syria. The protesters were met with a violent crackdown orchestrated by state security forces. The protesters chanted “God, Syria, Freedom” and anti-corruption slogans.
Increasingly, the city of Daraa became the focal point for the uprising. On 20 March, thousands took to the streets of Daraa for a third day, shouting slogans against the country’s emergency law. One person was killed and scores injured as security forces opened fire on protesters. The courthouse, the Ba’ath party headquarters in the city, and Rami Makhlouf’s Syriatel building were all set on fire. The next day, hundreds of people protested in Jassem, and there were also reports of protests in Baniyas, Homs and Hama.
Syrian President Assad made some conciliatory gestures, but crowds continued to gather in and around the Omari mosque in Daraa, chanting their demands: the release of all political prisoners; trials for those who shot and killed protesters; the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law; more freedoms; and an end to pervasive corruption. Mobile phone connections to Daraa were cut during the day and checkpoints were set up throughout the city and manned by soldiers. On 8 April, heavy clashes erupted in the city between protestors, the military and unknown groups of gunmen in which 23 protestors and 19 soldiers were killed. The military also stated that 75 soldiers were wounded by, what they called, terrorist gunmen.
On 25 April, the Syrian government deployed tanks to Daraa killing at least 25 people. The tanks were accompanied by soldiers (estimates varied from hundreds to 6,000); rooftop snipers; and the cutting of water, power and phone lines. One resident said that protesters had burned an army car and taken a soldier hostage. There were unconfirmed reports that the storming of the city was spearheaded by the Fourth Armoured Division, which was commanded by President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The government also closed the nearby border with Jordan. At least one high-ranking Syrian military commander refused to participate in the operation against Daraa. A resident of Daraa said to media reporters over the phone: “Let Obama come and take Syria. Let Israel come and take Syria. Let the Jews come. Anything is better than Bashar Assad.”
During the whole siege, opposition members claimed that rooftop snipers were constantly picking off any males trying to go into the streets and were only letting the women go out to the bakeries and only at a pre-determined time. The military was also reported to have shelled parts of the city and used heavy machine guns against opposition members. The Army, for its part, stated that during the operation they engaged terrorist groups and managed to kill or capture dozens of them and seize weapons and mobile phones with foreign cards in them. The military also reported several incidents during which unidentified gunmen attacked military checkpoints and homes of officers in the city.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous” use of violence, and the U.S. prepared to freeze Syrian officials’ American assets. E.U. countries, including permanent Security Council members France and the U.K., pushed the U.N. for international sanctions, though it remained unclear whether permanent council members Russia and China would support them. Syria said it was responding to an Islamist-inspired uprising.
On 28 April, Al Jazeera aired footage of what appeared to be injured soldiers receiving aid from civilians in Syria after they reportedly refused orders to shoot at protesters and were fired upon by loyalist units. The network warned it could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage but claimed that it came from a reliable source. A day later, Al Jazeera reported that at least 50 people were claimed dead across the country as a result of the security forces’ response to protests, which started after Friday noon prayers. Fifteen of those killed were reported to have died near Deraa after security forces fired on thousands of protesters trying to enter the besieged city.
On 30 April, an operation was conducted against the Omari mosque in the old part of the city, from which protests were organised every Friday in the town. According to a resident, tank shells and heavy machine guns were fired at the mosque, and at least three helicopters were involved in the operation, which dropped paratroopers onto the mosque’s roof. During the assault on the building, six people were killed including the son of the mosque’s imam, and dozens were arrested including the imam himself. After the operation, snipers were positioned on the roof of the mosque. During the day, an anonymous person posted what appeared to be video of soldiers in Sheik Meskeen attacking and killing unarmed protesters with live ammunition.
On 5 May, the military concluded its operation and started to pull out of the city. However, some troops and tanks remained to keep the situation in Daraa under control. At the same time, troops were reported to be deploying around another opposition hub in the coastal town of Baniyas.
In the fall of 2011, the province of Daraa became a major scene of fighting between government troops and army defectors, calling themselves the Free Syrian Army. Since that time, there have been protests and ongoing fighting.