Activists say Syrian government stepping up offensive in southwest

Regime forces using artillery, airstrikes and barrel bombs to intensify pressure on rebel-held areas bordering Israel

This frame grab from video provided on  June 12, 2017, by Nabaa Media, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows smoke rising over buildings that were hit by Syrian government forces bombardment, in Daraa city, southern Syria. (Nabaa Media, via AP)
This frame grab from video provided on June 12, 2017, by Nabaa Media, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows smoke rising over buildings that were hit by Syrian government forces bombardment, in Daraa city, southern Syria. (Nabaa Media, via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces kept up their pressure on the country’s strategic southwest on Friday, using artillery, airstrikes and dropping barrel bombs that targeted rebel-held parts of the region, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 12 barrel bombs hit the province of Daraa, in the first use of the rudimentary and non-discriminatory weapons there in over a year when a truce went into effect in the area. Rockets and artillery shells have also targeted northern and eastern Daraa, and there were reports of overnight airstrikes on Busr al-Harir, a northeast Daraa town where government troops are trying to isolate the rebels.

The government campaign in the southwestern Syrian region bordering Jordan and the Golan Heights comes despite US warnings of “serious repercussions” for anyone violating a de-escalation agreement in place since last July. The de-escalation zone was negotiated by Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally, Washington and Jordan.

Rebel factions, meanwhile, said they responded with missiles at a government air base in the adjacent Sweida province.

The Observatory said 16 people have been killed in government strikes since Tuesday, including nine children. At least 12,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the area since, according to the war monitor.

The agreement has been unraveling in recent weeks as the Syrian government turned its attention southward, after seizing opposition-held areas near the capital, Damascus. Israel, meanwhile, has become more active in opposing Iran’s expansion in Syria, carrying out airstrikes against suspected Iranian targets in the area.

Syrian rebel fighters sit behind deployed machine guns during a military parade near the southern city of Daraa on June 7, 2018. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP)

Iran is a major backer of President Bashar Assad, and its military advisers and allied terrorist groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have been fighting alongside his troops.

The US envoy to the UN condemned the reported cease-fire violations In a statement Friday.

“The Syrian regime’s violations of the ceasefire in southwest Syria need to stop,” said Ambassador Nikki Haley, adding that “Russia will ultimately bear responsibility for any further escalations in Syria.”

Southwestern Syria is a mix of government and rebel-controlled areas, with rebels controlling parts of Daraa city and areas along the border with Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights.

Russia and the Syrian government have been pressing for an agreement with the rebels in the area to restore government authority, including over the commercial crossing with Jordan that has been out of its control for years. Talks over extending the de-escalation zone have faltered, although Assad said last week that Moscow, the US and Israel continued discussing a settlement in the area.

Israel wants Iranian-backed militias out of the border area. Jordan wants to avoid a humanitarian crisis at its borders with the renewed violence and is eager to see the border crossing with Syria reopened. The UN estimates that 750,000 Syrians live in the region, which has been spared the devastation that hit other parts of Syria in the last three years.

A picture taken on June 21, 2018 shows smoke plumes rising from regime bombardment on the town of Al-Mulayhah al-Sharqiyah in the eastern Daraa province countryside in southern Syria. (AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED)

The Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, told the Lebanese al-Akhbar daily that Israel fears the presence of Hezbollah and Iran in the south.

“We say that the Syrian army, with support from the Russian troops, is regaining control of its territories and restoring the state authority there,” Zasypkin said. “There is no justification for Israel to carry out any action that would hamper fighting terrorism.”

Meanwhile, highlighting the tension in the southern area, skirmishes late Thursday between a US-backed rebel group and pro-government forces miles away were followed by a US airstrike that left a Syrian soldier killed, Syrian media and a US official said.

The US maintains a base in Tanf, miles east of Daraa province where the government has been striking rebel positions.

Members of the Russian military stand past a banner showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad, at Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in the western countryside of Idlib province on June 1, 2018. (AFP/George Ourfalian)

A US official said that during a patrol by the US-backed fighters inside a de-confliction zone around the base, a small number of pro-government forces fired at them from outside of the zone. US and aligned forces retreated, but the pro-government forces continued to fire, the official said.

A US airstrike was later called in, in “self-defense,” said the official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the situation publicly and insisted on anonymity. The airstrike in the al-Halba area killed one soldier, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The US official said the airstrike was near the de-confliction zone around the base, where US trains Syrian fighters, and which was agreed to in a deal between the US and Russia. The Syrian government and its Iranian allies want the US to evacuate the base.

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