Syria pushes western offensive

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Syrian government forces widened their offensive in the country’s south-west to Quneitra province, a region adjoining Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, a war monitor and rebel sources said.

Government forces, backed by Russian military, captured most of Deraa province in a push starting in June. Rebels still hold a strip straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces adjoining the occupied Golan Heights. Islamic State-affiliated militants occupy a pocket on the Jordanian border.

At the same time, a few hundred Syrian rebel fighters and their families were preparing to leave Deraa city, the birthplace of revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, to be taken on buses to opposition-held areas in the north under a surrender deal agreed last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rebels said jets, believed to be Russian, bombed an opposition-held village in Quneitra province in the first aerial strike in around a year.

The Observatory said the forces had seized the village of Mashara, about 11 km from the Golan frontier, after heavy shelling,and were now trying to capture elevated land south of the village with shelling and air strikes.

A rebel official in Quneitra denied Syrian forces had taken the village and said fighting continued.
“Over 28 air strikes hit Mashara and there was intense artillery and missile bombardment,” Suhaib al-Ruhail said.

SENSITIVE ZONE

The violence is taking place around 4 km from the line marking the start of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force zone, an area monitored by a UN force since 1974 in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War.

Israel threatened a “harsh response” to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy there. Israel does not want enemies Iran and Hezbollah, both allies of Assad, to move forces near its border.

US President Donald Trump is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki and Syria is expected to be high on the agenda. Ahead of the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Putin in Moscow and on Sunday spoke to Trump about Iran and Syria.

A string of towns and villages in Deraa accepted surrender deals, opposition sources in touch with rebel negotiators said, leaving two main towns under rebel control.

Under some of the deals, Russian military police would oversee local security – rather than Syrian government forces – and rebels would be part of Russia-supervised local security forces.

REBEL TRANSFERS

Deraa city was the scene of the first major peaceful protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule in March 2011 which spiralled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people.

On Sunday fighters began to leave the Deraa al-Balad neighbourhood which had been under rebel control for years. Under the recent surrender deal rebels would hand over weapons and fighters who do not wish to live under state rule would be transferred out.

A rebel official, Abu Shaima, said at least 500 fighters were going to get on around 15 buses and his bus was already heading north to opposition-held Idlib province.

A live broadcast on Facebook from a Syrian state television reporter showed buses on the outskirts of Deraa city, accompanied by Russian military police and Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles.

Abu Bayan, a rebel commander, said most rebels in Deraa decided to stay rather than face an uncertain future in the opposition-held north, in the hope Damascus ally Russia keeps its promises to protect them against retribution by Syrian authorities.

Fighter Abdullah Masalmah, who chose to leave, said: “I cannot forget the thousands killed by the regime let alone the orphans, wounded and detainees. I don’t trust the Russians or the regime.”

Assad on Sunday met visiting Iranian foreign ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari and the two agreed the “elimination of terrorism from most of Syria’s territory laid the most suitable ground to achieve results at political level to put an end to the war”, Assad’s office said.

The Syrian government refers to all groups opposed to its rule as terrorists.

AID

A large humanitarian aid operation to government-held areas of south-west Syria began last week, after the UN said government asked it to begin deliveries.

The offensive displaced hundreds of thousands.

Sixteen trucks carrying 3,000 food parcels reached Nassib and Um al-Mayathen in Deraa province near a border crossing with Jordan, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) statement said.

Aid was also delivered to four other areas of Deraa last week, SARC said.



Sunday’s convoy was accompanied by a delegation including United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives.
“We continue to deliver humanitarian assistance and will be doubling our efforts on the basis of people’s needs. Water, health and education are top needs we are urgently responding to,” al-Zaatari said.