x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Southern rebels strike as Syrian regime issues warning

Rebels brace for intensified regime offensive but one commander reports attempt to reach a Homs-style deal ahead of June 3 presidential election.

AMMAN // Rebels in southern Syria shelled a gathering of regime supporters, killing at least 21, as the president’s forces issued an ultimatum for them to lay down their weapons or be “erased from the face of the earth”.

Leaflets telling rebel groups it was their “last chance” to surrender or be sent “to hell” were air dropped on Deraa city late on Thursday night and on Friday morning, according to residents.

At about the same time, a mortar bomb fired by rebels in the city hit a tent packed with supporters of president Bashar Al Assad killing at least 21 people, among them a child and pro-regime militiamen, while another 30 were wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.

Mr Al Assad is contesting the presidential election on June 3, which he is certain to win against token opposition of two regime approved-rivals. In the run-up to the vote, regime forces are pushing to regain lost territory in the south.

“You will pay the price if you decide to keep your weapons. The decision to restore security is something we will not reverse,” the leaflets showered on Deraa said.

“The next strike will be harder and more forceful than before, we have the power to crush terrorism and erase it from the face of the earth,” the message warned. It was signed by the General Command of the Armed Forces.

Since the unarmed uprising in Deraa in March 2011 that sparked a wider revolt, Syria’s authorities have always maintained they are facing a foreign plot, and that their opponents are “terrorists”, not peaceful demonstrators wanting reforms to a corrupt and violent autocracy that has controlled the country for more than four decades.

In response to a bloody crackdown by regime security forces, an armed rebellion had broken out by early 2012.

Having regained control of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, this month following a deal whereby rebels pulled out, forces loyal to Mr Al Assad have turned their attention to upping the tempo of military operations in the south, where a largely united opposition front has been making slow and steady – if limited – gains, stubbornly resisting airstrikes and artillery bombardment.

For the past week, rebels there say they have come under some of the most intense attacks they have suffered since the conflict began, with tank forces deployed to the disputed town of Nawa and barrel bombings across rebel-held areas of southern Syria.

However, even with government forces threatening an unprecedented assault, there appeared to be some suggestion the regime might seeking a Homs-style deal in Deraa.

The rebels hold much of the old city and areas to the west and south, with government forces on the northern edge and in pockets of territory in the east and west of Deraa province.

A commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Deraa said an independent mediator, whom he identified as European, had contacted rebels and asked them what terms they would set for pulling out from strategically important areas.

“The mediator asked us what our conditions would be for a truce,” the FSA commander said. “We demanded an immediate cessation of airstrikes, and for regime forces and military security to withdraw from Tal Jumou [a location of recent fighting], and we would retain our right to fight.”

These terms would be rejected by the regime, the commander said, because it would weaken what control over the south the authorities in Damascus retain.

Details of such a mediation taking place could not be independently confirmed.

Rebels in the south appear confident they will be able to withstand any increased attacks, and cited their own recent progress in assaulting Tal Jumou, a hilltop near the border with Israel where regime forces are believed to have an electronic surveillance station.

“If Tal Jumou falls into the hands of the rebels then we can say the area stretching from Nawa to the Jordanian border is liberated,” the FSA commander said.

About 1,000 additional opposition fighters have been sent to reinforce units in and around Nawa and Tal Jumou, where much of the recent combat has been taking place, rebel sources said, announcing the start of a new campaign called Fazat Huran.

Opposition to Mr Al Assad has been more united on the southern front than in other parts of the country, where rebels have fought one another as much as they have the regime.

But an uneasy alliance between the moderate FSA, backed by western and Arabian Gulf countries, and the increasingly powerful Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria wing, appear to have collapsed this month over Al Nusra’s capture of Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh, a senior FSA officer.

Similar leaflet drops have often been used by regime forces trying to suppress a widespread uprising-turned-war that has dragged in regional and world powers, and in which more than 165,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

These latest notices dropped on Deraa said rebels had achieved nothing, destroying “all that was built to confront the Zionist enemy”.

Southern Syria has a border with Israel, long held up by the regime as a focal point for national animosity, and used to justify its repressive, authoritarian rule, including emergency powers kept in place for decades on the grounds that the two countries are at war.

Rebels in southern Syria have been given medical aid by Israeli forces, who have also set up communications channels with moderate rebel factions in an effort to monitor the growth of Al Nusra on the border.

psands@thenational.ae