AMMAN: Russian and Syrian airstrikes on rebel-held territory in southwestern Syria killed dozens of civilians in the past 36 hours, local sources told Syria Direct, in what appears to be the deadliest period of bombardment since a Damascus-led campaign against rebels there began earlier this month.
The last two days have seen “the most intense” airstrikes since the Syrian government and its allies launched a major air and ground campaign against rebel-held territory in Daraa, Suwayda and Quneitra provinces on June 15, Abu Hussein Sharaf, a citizen journalist with the pro-opposition Houran Free League (HFL) media outlet, told Syria Direct on Thursday afternoon.
“The pace of airstrikes and barrel bombs has increased” since Wednesday morning, Sharaf, who directs HFL’s Documentation Office, told Syria Direct. “So has the number of dead and injured,” he added.
Reportedly Russian airstrikes killed 17 civilians and injured several others in the rebel-held town of al-Musayfra, 20km east of Daraa city, on Thursday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Graphic pictures purportedly showing victims of the al-Musayfra airstrikes circulated widely on pro-opposition social media accounts on Thursday afternoon. In the images, the bodies of several children lie lifeless and bloodied in the back of a van.
Local media outlets reported bombings in towns and villages across the eastern and western Daraa countryside throughout the day on Wednesday.
The Daraa Civil Defense, which responds to and records airstrikes and shelling in the opposition-held province, had not released updated casualty statistics by the time of publication on Thursday. Official civil defense statistics from a day earlier, however, reported 25 civilians killed on Wednesday.
Syria Direct reached out to a Daraa Civil Defense spokesperson on Thursday morning, but he was unavailable for immediate comment.
Citizen journalists with the Houran Free League told Syria Direct that hundreds of airstrikes hit southwestern Syria over the past 36 hours, killing 66 people. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the HFL figure.
The United Nations estimates that as many as 45,000 of Daraa’s 750,000 civilians have been displaced by airstrikes and ground fighting since mid-June, while local opposition officials estimate that as many as 120,000 residents have fled their homes, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.
Smoke rises over opposition-controlled areas of Daraa province on Wednesday. Photo by Mohamad Abazeid/AFP.
Alongside the intense bombardment, ground forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pressed their attack on opposition front lines on Thursday in what rebel military leadership called an attempt to divide and conquer the southwest.
“The regime continues its strategy of opening gaps on rebel fronts—they’re trying to divide the eastern countryside,” one rebel commander who asked not to be named told Syria Direct on Thursday morning.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied Iranian-backed militias captured the city of al-Hirak, located some 20 kilometers northeast of Daraa’s provincial capital, on Thursday afternoon, two rebel military commanders confirmed. The commanders asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the press.
Al-Hirak is the latest opposition-held city taken by pro-Damascus ground forces since their assault on rebel positions in the eastern Daraa countryside began this month.
On Tuesday, SAA and allied forces took control of the city of Busra al-Harir—roughly five kilometers from al-Hirak—forcing a contingent of rebel fighters to flee southwards towards the Syrian-Jordanian border and laying siege to others in the al-Lajat region, Syria Direct reported at the time.
In the east Dara countryside, opposition fighters and Damascus-led forces clashed near the government-controlled city of Sheikh Miskeen—approximately 20 kilometers northwest of Daraa city—on Thursday afternoon, according to the recently formed unified command for the southern opposition.
The ongoing government campaign is the largest assault on opposition-held southwestern Syria since a de-escalation deal brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan came into effect in July 2017.
On Tuesday, a post by a Facebook account previously linked to the Russian Hmeimim Airbase in Syria’s government-held Latakia province claimed that the de-escalation deal had come to an end.
Russian state media outlet TASS denied that Moscow had pulled out of the de-escalation agreement on Thursday and said that no official Hmeimim Airbase social media accounts exist.