x

Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Syrian army bombards rebels in flashpoint region

Attacks on Deraa region have drawn threats of retaliation from Israel and the US

Syrian rebel fighters sit behind deployed machine guns during a military parade near the southern city of Deraa on June 7, 2018, with a surface-to-surface missile in the background. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP
Syrian rebel fighters sit behind deployed machine guns during a military parade near the southern city of Deraa on June 7, 2018, with a surface-to-surface missile in the background. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP

The Syrian army and its allies bombarded rebels in the south-western Deraa region on Friday, killing at least six people, a war monitor said, in a region widely seen as a potential flashpoint for further escalation in the conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the army had shelled the towns of Kafr Shams and Al Harah, near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region.

It was the highest death toll from bombing since a "de-escalation zone" was agreed in south-west Syria last year by the government's ally Russia, along with Jordan and the United States.

President Bashar Al Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and has been preparing an assault on rebels holding areas in the south-west bordering Israel and Jordan.

His military gains in the war have partly depended on support from Iran and allied Shiite militias including Lebanon's Hezbollah, which have provided ground forces.

Israel wants those forces removed from all of Syria, but is particularly sensitive to their presence near its frontier, and has carried out numerous air strikes against them. It regards Iran as its biggest external threat, and Hezbollah as the biggest threat on its borders.

The United States has also warned the Syrian government it would take "firm and appropriate measures" in response to any violations of the south-west de-escalation zone.

Any major battle in the area might risk a serious escalation in Syria's seven-year war, pitting Israel more directly against Iran and its allies.

On Wednesday, Mr Al Assad said in an interview that his government was still pursing a political solution for the south-west, but would use military force if that failed.

A commander in the military coalition backing Mr Al Assad also said this week that the preparations for an offensive in the area were complete, and that the government had installed new anti-aircraft defences near the Golan Heights frontier.