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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

45,000 flee Deraa as Syrian army advances

Tuesday's advance was the biggest since the regime began an assault near the Jordanian border

People ride on a truck with their belongings in Deraa countryside. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir
People ride on a truck with their belongings in Deraa countryside. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir

Syrian regime forces have taken ground in eastern Deraa, with air strikes pounding the breadth of the rebel held province, as pro-government forces muscle in on southern Syria’s final pocket of opposition territory.

Regime sources claimed to have taken control of the strategically important villages of Busra Al Harir, Mlehat Al Atash and Nawah, while state media announced an assault on Deraa city itself late on Tuesday.

Videos posted to social media showed heavy shelling and air strikes within Deraa city in the neighborhood of Deraa Al Balad, and a number of other villages in Deraa’s countryside.

Activists claim the regime dropped napalm and barrel bombs on the city.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said at least 32 civilians and 29 opposition fighters had been killed since the push began last week.

SOHR added that Busra Al Harir represents the most significant advance of the offensive so far, due to its strategic importance. Its capture severed a north-eastern section of rebel held territory from the rest of the opposition pocket. Regime-aligned social media accounts showed the regime had captured several tanks in the village.

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The advances on Tuesday focused on eastern Deraa, giving the rebel held western parts of the province which straddle the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights a wide berth. The proximity of the provinces to Israel presents unique challenges to the regime, which has been buoyed by recent victories in Yarmouk and Douma.

The United Nations said at least 45,000 people had been forced to flee as a result of the fighting, many towards the Jordanian and Israeli borders. This week Jordan said it would not accept any more Syrian refugees.

Last year, the areas had been included in a “de-escalation zone” nominally excluding them from government operations, but Russia declared the zones null as the current push began. Last month, the US threatened “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violation of the ‘de-escalation” agreement.

But any opposition hopes for American support were dashed on Sunday when a US communique told them not to expect US support in the event of a government push.

The regime and Russia will be cautious about making ground offensives in western Deraa, and neighboring Quneitra before they make an agreement with Israel, notes Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking. “[The regime] launched the offensive without agreement from Israel, an agreement intended to allow regime to recapture southern Syria without Israeli hindrance.”

Ms Tsurkov says that the regime’s advance in Deraa province has galvanised support for some of the opposition groups.

“A lot of civilians are mobilising to join the armed groups, but they are people who in most cases were not trained properly.

“Whilst it’s better for the factions to have these individuals, they are not as effective as the rebels themselves.”

Despite this, Ms Tsurkov warns that, having lost US funding last year, many of Deraa’s armed groups are not well equipped.

“They have not really fought a significant battle in a long time, many rebels took up civilian occupations to survive financially.

“A lack of fighting, and lack of training has diminished their fighting capacity”.

Meanwhile, government media reported that two suspected Israeli rockets had struck targets near Damascus airport late on Monday, the SOHR claimed the sites where Hezbollah arms depots, though Israeli officials refused to comment.