AMMAN: Opposition factions shelled a convoy reportedly carrying pro-government fighters toward frontlines in Daraa city on Wednesday, a rebel spokesperson told Syria Direct, amidst international negotiations over the fate of southern Syria.
Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated fighters “targeted a convoy traveling from the regime-held city of Khirbet Ghazaleh” to the provincial capital of Daraa city with mortar shells at dawn on Wednesday, Abu Shima, spokesperson for the joint rebel operations room al-Banyan al-Marsous, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
The spokesperson claimed that the mortar attack injured at least six members of the convoy, citing reconnaissance information relayed by the operations room’s local monitors.
Syrian state media did not report an attack on Wednesday.
The shelling coincides with reports of high-level negotiations between regional and international actors over the future of a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria and the presence of foreign militias on the ground there. It also comes amid speculation about a possible Syrian government offensive against the country’s south, one of the last remaining pockets where opposition forces maintain territorial control.
On Monday, Israeli media reported that Israel and Russia reached an undisclosed agreement aiming to keep non-Syrian forces, including Iranian militias and Hezbollah, out of the southern Syria border region—a key Israeli demand. In exchange, Israel agreed not to intervene in any attempt by the Syrian government to advance on rebel-held territory along the border.
A rebel-held area of Daraa city on Monday. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.
“Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu will meet with his Israeli counterpart on Thursday in Moscow to discuss the details of a military operation that Syrian government forces are preparing to launch in the country’s south,” read a statement posted by Russia’s Hmeimim Military Base in Syria on Wednesday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov affirmed on Tuesday that “all non-Syrian forces must be pulled out of [southern Syria] . . . as soon as possible,” speaking at a forum in Moscow, state media agency TASS reported.
Rebel spokesperson Abu Shima told Syria Direct on Wednesday that he was hesitant to make conclusions about the fate of the opposition-controlled south in light of “contradictory and conflicting reports over negotiations.”
Abu Shima said factions within the Daraa-based al-Banyan al-Marsous operations room monitored an uptick in the movement of Syrian government forces and military equipment over the past week. An FSA spokesperson in Quneitra province, west of Daraa, said his faction observed similar mobilizations near frontlines there.
A Syrian government offensive against Syria’s rebel-held southwest—a region spanning parts of Daraa and Quneitra provinces—would shatter nearly one year of calm in the region after the implementation of a American-, Russian- and Jordanian-backed de-escalation agreement in July 2017.
The ceasefire agreement, one of four de-escalation deals implemented across the country at the time, saw months of heavy clashes, airstrikes and artillery fire in the provincial capital of Daraa city come to a near-total halt.
But Syrian government forces and allied militias have launched major military operations against rebels in two regions covered by de-escalation agreements—the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and the northern Homs countryside—since the beginning of the year.
Rebel factions capitulated to surrender and evacuation agreements in both regions.
The United States, one of the guarantors of the southwestern ceasefire, expressed concerns over reports of “an impending Assad regime operation in southwestern Syria,” in a statement by US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert last Friday.
“Russia is duly responsible,” read the statement, “to use its diplomatic and military advantage over the Assad regime to stop attacks and compel the Assad regime to cease further military offensives.”
Syria Direct sent a request for comment to the Tiger Forces, an elite unit of Syrian army soldiers that reportedly deployed to Daraa last week, on troop mobilizations and Wednesday’s rebel attack but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
The Daraa branch of the National Defense Forces, a paramilitary group loyal to the Assad government, also did not reply to a request for comment.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Wednesday that Russia would meet with representatives from the US and Jordan in the latter’s capital of Amman to discuss the southwestern de-escalation zone, TASS reported. No date for the meeting has been announced.
“We are ready to hold such a meeting,” TASS quoted Bogdanov as saying, “at any level acceptable to our partners.”