BEIRUT, Lebanon — Rebel shellfire slammed into the Druze-majority southern Syrian city of Sweida on Tuesday for the first time in three years, a monitor said, as fresh regime reinforcements arrived in the area.
The government holds most of Sweida province but rebels still control much of the nearby Daraa and Quneitra governorates near the Syrian Golan Heights.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition forces fired shells into Sweida city, “which led to loud blasts but no casualties.”
“It is the first time since 2015 that the city has been subjected to shellfire,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
Syrian state news agency SANA also blamed rebels “spread out in the towns and villages in eastern parts of Daraa province” for firing shells on Sweida.
Sweida has remained relatively insulated from seven years of war that ravaged the rest of the country.
A 2015 rebel advance in the area, and in Druze-majority areas on the Syrian Golan Heights, led to concerns among Israeli Druze that their brethren could see the bloodshed reach their doorstep.
The war moved on from Sweida by the end of 2015 and largely passed by the Druze community.
But rebels now hold a sliver of territory in western Sweida that borders their main bastion in the province of Daraa, and clashes and exchanges of fire have erupted in that area in recent days.
Syria’s government has set its sights on ousting rebels from the south and has been dispatching troops and equipment there for weeks.
On Tuesday, they dropped new flyers on the rebel-held half of Daraa city, calling on residents to expel rebels, “like your brothers did in Eastern Ghouta and Qalamun,” referring to two areas near Damascus recently recaptured from the opposition.
Rebels appeared to fear the regime would use Sweida’s civilian population as justification for the assault, and issued a message addressed to them on Tuesday.
“We call on our people in Sweida province not to serve as bait for the goals of the regime, sectarian militias from Iran, and Hezbollah, which are trying to occupy this land and divide its people,” they said in a statement.
But the government has also hinted that a political settlement over the south’s fate could be reached.
“We have moved towards the south and we are giving the political process a chance,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said last week.
“If that doesn’t succeed, we have no other option but to liberate it by force.”
The Druze are followers of a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam, and made up around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million, or some 700,000 people.
The community has been somewhat divided during the war, with some members fighting on the government side and others expressing sympathy for the opposition. Mostly, the Druze have taken up arms only in defense of their own areas. Sweida’s Druze formed a local militia in the war’s early years to protect themselves from the rebels.
There are an estimated 100,000 Druze in Israel, mostly in the country’s north.
Agencies contributed to this report.