Syrian Military Extends Assault on Deraa Prompting Fears of Wider Conflict, UN Says 45,000 Flee

Syrian troops widened a major offensive against rebels in the southwest on Tuesday and Jordan said it would not open its border to tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the attack, France24 reports. At least 45,000 people have fled the upsurge in fighting in Syria’s southwestern Deraa province, heading towards the border with Jordan, the United Nations said.

President Bashar al-Assad is aiming to restore control over a strategically vital part of Syria at the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, building on his military’s momentum elsewhere in the seven-year conflict.

Government forces opened a new front on Tuesday against the rebel-held part of Deraa city, the provincial capital, state media reported. A commander in the regional alliance that backs Assad told Reuters the aim was to reach the Nassib crossing with Jordan, an economic artery in rebel hands since 2015. Assad is pressing the offensive with Russian support despite warnings from the United States which has been seeking to uphold a “de-escalation” deal it brokered with Moscow in the southwest last year. Washington had warned Assad of serious repercussions.

But there has been no sign of action to stop him: Washington has told Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels they should not expect military support against the offensive, according to a message sent to rebel commanders seen by Reuters.

On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that forces loyal to Assad had taken control of the town of Busra al-Harir and the nearby Lajat area, prompting an exodus of families and cutting the rebels’ stronghold in half, The Washington Post adds.

“Warplanes and helicopters continued hovering in the skies above Daraa province,” said the monitoring group’s director, Rami Abdulrahman, who goes by a pseudonym. He placed the number of airstrikes in the hundreds.

Relief workers said hospitals also had been targeted. According to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which supports medical staff in opposition areas, an ambulance driver was killed Tuesday in Busra al-Harir as he ferried patients to a clinic.

“Nothing can justify his killing,” said Ghanem Tayara, the organization’s chairman. “It is beyond comprehension that after six years medical workers are still being killed with impunity.”

Air strikes hit the rebel-held town of Nawa for the first time in nearly a year, the Observatory said. The UK-based war monitor said air strikes killed six people in Deraa province. The offensive has so far focused on Deraa, not rebel-held parts of neighbouring Quneitra province at the Golan frontier that are more sensitive to Israel. Israel is determined to keep Iranian and Iran-backed forces that support Assad away from its border including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and wants them removed more widely from Syria. Two Israeli missiles hit near Damascus airport overnight, state news agency SANA and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said. An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on the reports.SANA said the missile strikes near Damascus international airport were a sign of support by Israel for the rebels in the southwest.

The United Nations said Tuesday that at least 45,000 people have fled government advances in recent days, a figure that officials said could double as the fighting intensifies. But Jordan — already home to almost 700,000 registered Syrian refugees — said it would keep its border closed. Local activists and a doctor described the surrounding areas as ghost towns. Much of the population has been displaced, and those left behind are hiding in basements, they said.

According to EWN, the attack has fuelled concern of a new wave of displacement in a conflict that has already uprooted 11 million people, forcing millions abroad as refugees. Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said civilians including children had been killed and injured and an air strike had put a hospital out of operation.

“People don’t know where to go,” said Ahmad al-Dbis, safety and security manager at UOSSM, a medical charity that works in opposition parts of Syria.

He said five of the aid group’s facilities in the south, including a mobile clinic and a healthcare centre, went out of service during the latest clashes. The UN’s World Food Programme has provided food to 30,000 people and plans to deliver more in the coming days over the border from Jordan, said spokeswoman Bettina Luescher.

“We expect the number of displaced people could more than double as violence escalates,” she added.

Jordan will keep its borders shut and the United Nations can help displaced Syrians in their own country, Jordan’s foreign minister said.

“The Jordanian contacts over southern Syria aim to stem bloodshed … and help the displaced inside Syria,” Ayman Safadi said on Twitter. “We do all we can to help the brothers and we protect our interests and our security.”

A rebel source said Jordanian authorities, citing safety, have warned factions there not to allow refugee flows next to the border, which has in effect been closed for years.