Atop Tel al-Hara in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Amjad Assaf.

AMMAN: Syrian government warplanes launched airstrikes against hardline rebel fighters entrenched on a hilltop overlooking the rebel-controlled city of Nawa on Wednesday, amid an ongoing campaign by Damascus-led forces to capture vantage points overlooking rebel territory in western Daraa.

The bombardment at Tel al-Jabiya, roughly four kilometers northwest of Nawa, comes after pro-government forces pummeled Nawa with rockets, airstrikes and artillery shells on Tuesday. Rebels there have yet to agree to a reconciliation deal with Damascus.

Tuesday night’s bombardment was “the most violent the city has ever seen” since the beginning of the war, a Nawa-based rebel commander told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

In videos shared by pro-opposition activists online, dozens of missiles appeared to strike Nawa city on Tuesday night. As many as 500 rocket and artillery strikes killed at least four civilians there on Tuesday, pro-opposition media outlets reported on Wednesday.

The offensive to recapture Tel al-Jabiya, currently controlled by members of the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), is the latest in an ongoing campaign launched by the Syrian government and its allies last week to systematically capture commanding mountains overlooking Daraa province’s western countryside.

The towns and villages of western Daraa province are spread out across swathes of flat countryside with a series of imposing hills and mountains—telal in Arabic—dotting the landscape.

By capturing the mountains that rise out of western Daraa’s lowlands, the Syrian government and its allied militias are securing crucial vantage points for monitoring and striking at rebel forces positioned below, rebel commanders told Syria Direct.

“The regime is prioritizing sending its forces to the high ground,” one rebel commander in the western Daraa countryside told Syria Direct on Tuesday, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Now that the Syrian army controls much of these high points in Daraa, “the surrounding areas have also fallen [to the government],” the commander added.

By controlling western Daraa’s imposing mountaintops, the pro-government forces are effectively isolating rebel positions by using machine gun fire and artillery strikes to cut off the roadways connecting them, the commander added.

‘Shrinking pocket’

Pro-government forces captured the strategic high points of Tel al-Hara and Tel al-Mal from rebel fighters in Daraa’s northwestern countryside earlier this week, Syrian state news outlet SANA reported.

Perched atop the 1,000-meter tall Tel al-Hara and the smaller, yet still imposing Tel al-Mal, pro-government forces have placed what remains of Daraa’s opposition fighters “in a vice grip,” SANA claimed.

Pro-Syrian government forces launched a massive air and ground assault against rebel-held territory in Daraa province in mid-June. Within weeks, the Damascus-led campaign recaptured almost the entirety of the province as rebel forces there either retreated or surrendered through reconciliation deals with the government.

Now, all that remains of opposition-held southwestern Syria is a contingent of rebels spread across pockets of the western Daraa countryside and neighboring Quneitra province. As negotiations for ceasefire and reconciliation continue, the Syrian government appears to be putting pressure on rebel holdouts in the region.

With government artillery perched on Daraa’s mountaintops, “the shrinking pocket still under opposition control is now in the cross-hairs of the regime's artillery,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Chicago-based research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

As closed-door negotiations between rebels and government forces continue in western Daraa, pro-government shelling “leads rebels to retreat or agree to reconcile” with Damascus, Tsurkov added.

In a video posted online by Syrian state-run TV channel Al-Akhbariya a-Souriya on Wednesday, a reporter is seen giving an interview from atop Tel al-Mal in Daraa’s northwestern countryside. In the background, kilometers of flatland dotted with towns and villages stretches out into the distance.

Tel al-Mal “is a crucially important position that overlooks major areas of Daraa province,” said al-Akhbariya a-Souriya reporter Rania Zaloum in the Wednesday video report.

“It is a battle for the mountains,” she added.