Assad Presses Assault in Southwest Syria, Civilians Flee

Syrian government forces pounded rebel-held areas of the southwest with artillery on Thursday, in a steady escalation by President Bashar al-Assad who has vowed to win back the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Reuters reports.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12,500 civilians had fled the town of Busra al-Hariri and nearby areas of Deraa province in the last two days. Rebel officials gave conflicting assessments of the scale of displacement. A major government offensive in the southwest risks further escalating the seven-year-old war. The United States has warned it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to government violations of a “de-escalation” deal it brokered with Russia last year to contain the conflict in the southwest.

The conflict has pivoted toward the southwest since Assad, with critical help from his Russian and Iran-backed allies, crushed the last remaining pockets of rebel-held territory near Damascus and the city of Homs.Although he has vowed to win back the area, a military campaign to recover it is set to be complicated by the interests of both U.S.-allied Jordan and Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Iran’s role in Syria. The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply troubled by reports of increasing Syrian regime operations” in the area.

EWN quoted the Syrian state news agency SANA as saying the army was carrying out “focused artillery strikes” on militant positions in the towns of al-Harak and Busra al-Harir. State media said rockets fired by rebels from the Deraa area had killed two people in the government-held city of Sweida to the east.

A rebel commander, Colonel Nassim Abu Arra, commander of the Youth of Sunna Forces, said government forces seemed intent on capturing Busra al-Harir and the surrounding area, where he said shelling had escalated to a degree. Abu Bakr al-Hassan, spokesman for another southern rebel group, Jaish al-Thawra, described the shelling in that area as heavy.

“The civilians are afraid that the random bombardment is the start of a campaign the regime and the Iranian militias have been planning to launch in the south,” he told Reuters.

The United Nations was “concerned about reports of an escalation of violence in Deraa governorate”, which was “endangering civilians and displacing hundreds of families”, Jens Laerke, the UN humanitarian spokesman in Geneva, said.

According to Middle East Eye, the UN was “concerned about reports of an escalation of violence in Daraa governorate,” which was “endangering civilians and displacing hundreds of families,” said Jens Laerke, the UN humanitarian spokesman in Geneva.

Assad said earlier this month that the government, at Russia’s suggestion, was seeking to strike a deal in the southwest similar to agreements that have restored its control of other areas through withdrawals of rebel forces. But he also said there had been no results yet and blamed “Israeli and American interference”. He said the territory would be recovered by force if necessary. Rebels have vowed not to surrender “an inch” of the territory to Assad, one of their commanders said this week.

The United States warned Russia and Syria’s President Bashar Assad of “serious repercussions,” Global News ads. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement the U.S. remains “deeply troubled” by reports of “increasing Syrian regime operations” within the boundaries of the truce and demanded that Russia “restrain” Assad’s forces from further action in the zone covered by the truce. She said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relayed that message to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by phone over the weekend.

“Syrian regime military and militia units, according to our reports, have violated the southwest de-escalation zone and initiated air strikes, artillery, and rocket attacks,” Nauert said in a statement, warning the Russian government and Assad of “serious repercussions” of the violations.

The statement, however, omitted a line in a past statement on the subject that said the U.S. would take “firm and appropriate measures” if Syria violated the de-escalation measure. A spokesman said Thursday the U.N. is “deeply concerned” about the safety of 750,000 people in the region and called on all the parties involved to protect civilians. The government has turned its attention to the south after capturing the last rebel-held areas around the capital, Damascus, earlier this year.