AMMAN: Pro-government forces vying to recapture southwestern Syria from opposition fighters made their first significant advances there on Tuesday morning, capturing a key rebel town and dividing the eastern Daraa countryside in two, local sources said.
Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units accompanied by pro-government militias and Iranian-backed fighters captured the northeastern Daraa towns of Busra al-Harir and Maleehat al-Atash at dawn on Tuesday morning, a rebel commander told Syria Direct.
The pro-government advance trapped opposition fighters in the sparsely populated al-Lajat region—40 kilometers northeast of Daraa’s provincial capital—and prompted their allies to retreat deeper into rebel-controlled territory in southern Daraa.
“Rebels withdrew [from Busra al-Harir and Maleehat al-Atash] as they were attacked from the air,” the rebel commander said via WhatsApp, requesting anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Tuesday’s pro-government capture of Busra al-Harir—a large town situated along a major east-west highway—bisected rebel territory in Daraa’s eastern countryside and linked Damascus-led forces in central Daraa with their allies in the adjacent, mostly government-controlled Suwayda province.
Syrian state news also reported the government capture of Busra al-Harir and several surrounding towns and villages from rebel forces on Tuesday.
Opposition forces in eastern Daraa are now working to regroup after their first major territorial loss since a Syrian- and Russian-led air and ground campaign to capture southwestern Syria began earlier this month.
Rebel factions in Daraa and Quneitra provinces formed a joint operations room last Thursday to combat the government-led offensive against their positions, Syria Direct reported.
The opposition operations room did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The rebel body reported “hit and run” clashes between rebels and pro-government fighters near Busra al-Hariri Monday night via Twitter, but has not yet formally confirmed territorial losses in eastern Daraa province.
Photos and videos shared online by pro-government social media accounts on Monday purportedly showed SAA soldiers posing for pictures and walking freely around Busra a-Harir on Tuesday morning.
Retreating opposition forces not encircled in the al-Lajat region withdrew to the town of Nahtah, due south of Busra al-Harir, early Tuesday morning. There, fleeing rebel fighters continued to exchange fire with pursuing pro-government forces into the afternoon, the opposition commander told Syria Direct.
Since the Damascus-led campaign began on June 15, Syrian and Russian warplanes have pummeled rebel-controlled towns and villages across Daraa province with more than 350 airstrikes, Daraa Civil Defense spokesman Amer Abazeid told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Tuesday.
The pro-government onslaught, which included more than 200 helicopter-launched barrel bombs, has killed at least 44 civilians and three first responders over the past two weeks, the spokesman added.
Airstrikes in rebel-controlled neighborhoods of Daraa city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media.
While most bombardment to date has centered on the eastern Daraa countryside, pro-government airstrikes and artillery have also struck the province’s rebel-controlled west. Government warplanes dropped leaflets urging civilians in western Daraa to drive rebels from their towns and villages, local activists reported on social media
Reported Russian airstrikes in the western Daraa city of Nawa killed six civilians and injured ten others late Tuesday afternoon, pro-opposition activists reported.
An estimated 60,000 Daraa residents fled their homes in recent weeks to escape ground fighting and bombardment, the Civil Defense and local opposition officials told Syria Direct on Sunday.
Displaced residents are now sheltering deeper in rebel-held territory, with thousands reportedly gathered near the Syrian border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Government officials in Jordan, which shares a 375 kilometer-long border with southern Syria and is home to an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees, told the Jordan Times on Sunday that the country would not allow any Syrians fleeing fighting in southwestern Syria to take refuge in Jordanian territory.
“We already have a large number and we simply cannot receive more,” a Jordanian state official said.
Airstrikes in the city of Nawa in the western Daraa countryside on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of The United Media Office in Nawa.
The Jordanian statements prompted criticism from several international humanitarian organizations this week.
“People fleeing war in Syria are in a desperate life-or-death situation, and the Jordanian government cannot simply abandon them,” Amnesty International said in a statement released on Tuesday.
“Closing the border to people in need of protection violates Jordan’s international obligations,” the human rights organization continued.
Daraa, home to an estimated 750,000 civilians, is one of the last remaining rebel strongholds in Syria after a systematic pro-government campaign this year saw the formerly besieged territories of East Ghouta, south Damascus, northern Homs and East Qalamoun recaptured and local rebels displaced to the country’s northwestern reaches.
The current government campaign to retake southwestern Syria is the largest assault on opposition-held territory there since a de-escalation deal brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan came into effect in July 2017.
A post on the official Facebook page for the Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase in the coastal, government-controlled Latakia province appeared to announce the end of the de-escalation deal in southwestern Syria on Tuesday morning.
The de-escalation agreement ended after “extremist and illegal armed groups working against Syrian government forces” violated its terms, the Russian statement read.