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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Russia carries out first air strikes in south Syria ceasefire zone

US tells rebels "you're on your own" as Deraa offensive continues 

Syrian soldiers stand guard by a convoy returning displaced people home into government-controlled territory at Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in the western countryside of Idlib province. George Ourfalian / AFP
Syrian soldiers stand guard by a convoy returning displaced people home into government-controlled territory at Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in the western countryside of Idlib province. George Ourfalian / AFP

Russia carried out strikes on rebel-held areas in south-west Syria, in breach of a ceasefire it agreed to guarantee just a year ago.

And the US warned opposition forces to not expect military support to enforce the agreement.

A “de-escalation” zone in rebel-controlled parts of southern Syria was agreed to by Washington, Moscow and Amman in July last year to tone down hostilities and stop clashes spilling into Jordan or the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Since then, the truce has largely held until the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad announced it was gathering troops to retake the area.

Until this weekend, Russian fighter jets had avoided bombing rebel posts in the area under the agreement.

The UK monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported late on Saturday that nearly 25 Russian strikes targeted the province of Daraa, which has faced escalating regime shelling since last week.

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“Intense Russian air strikes are hitting towns in Daraa’s eastern countryside for the first time since the ceasefire was agreed in southern Syria last year,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“Five civilians including two women were killed on Sunday in Russian strikes on the towns of Al Herak, Al Sura and Alma,” Mr Abdel Rahman said.

A total of 23 civilians have been killed in opposition areas since the escalation began on Tuesday, the observatory said.

Syrian rebel fighters ride a tank in Daraa, southwestern Syria, on June 23, 2018. Syrian regime forces on Saturday made their first gains on the ground against rebel fighters in the southern province of Daraa after several days of intensified bombardment, a monitor said. Since Tuesday, regime troops have been ramping up shelling on opposition-held areas in Daraa's eastern countryside ahead of an apparent military offensive against rebels there. / AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED
Syrian rebel fighters ride a tank in Daraa, southwestern Syria, on June 23, 2018. AFP / Mohamad Abazeed

The Syrian government had so far made heavy use of artillery, rockets and barrel bombs, with reports of napalm and phosphorus strikes.

But Russian warplanes have not until now been used. Russian air power has been a key factor in helping the regime regain territory.

But Washington warned the heads of Free Syrian Army in the south that they should not expect military help to repel a ground offensive or recapture areas bordering Jordan and the Golan Heights.

“We must clarify our position: we understand that you must make a decision based on your interests, the interests of your people and your faction as you see them,” Reuters quoted a letter from US officials in Washington as saying.

It said that the US government wanted to make clear that “you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us”.

In response, the opposition commander who received the letter said: “The letter’s contents mean that America will not be able to help the south. In other words, they are saying ‘you’re on your own’.”

The latest message contrasts that from US ambassador to the UN Nikky Haley, who last week urged Moscow to rein in its Syrian ally saying that they would face “serious repercussions” if the ceasefire breaches continued.

Near the Golan Heights, the Israeli army launched a Patriot missile to take down an unmanned drone heading from Syrian territory. A Syrian regime allied commander later said the drone had been engaged in “local operations”.

The south-west is of strategic concern to Israel, which has this year stepped up attacks on Iranians and their proxy forces such as Hezbollah, who is allied to Mr Al Assad.

Mr Al Assad yesterday told Russian TV that the army would also wrest control of the country’s north by force if the rebels and Kurdish forces there refuse to surrender.

“We have chosen two paths: the first and most important one is reconciliation,” he said. “The second path is to attack terrorists if they don’t surrender and refuse to make peace,” Assad said. The Syrian president regularly refers to all opposition groups as terrorists.

“We will fight with them [rebels] and return control by force. It is certainly not the best option for us, but it’s the only way to get control of the country.”

Meanwhile, a two-day curfew was imposed by the Syrian Democratic Forces – a US-backed force largely made up of Kurdish fighters – in the northern city of Raqqa yesterday after they declared a state of emergency, saying ISIS fighters had entered the city and planned a bombing campaign.

The militant group held Raqqa as the capital of its self-proclaimed state after 2014 until the SDF, backed by the an international anti-ISIS coalition, retook it last year.

In the east, the Iraqi military said on Saturday said it had targeted a gathering of ISIS leaders, killing about 45 members of the insurgency.

Iraqi fighter jets destroyed three houses that were connected by a trench in the town of Hajin, between Deir Ezzor and the border town of Al Bukamal in eastern Syria, where the leaders were apparently meeting.