Shells hit south Syria city for first time in three years

Syrian rebel fighters flash the victory gesture while riding in the back of a military truck during a military parade near the southern city of Daraa on June 7, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 June 2018

Shells hit south Syria city for first time in three years

  • The Syrian Observatory said opposition forces fired shells into Sweida city
  • This was the first attack since 2015

BEIRUT: Rebel shellfire slammed into the southern Syrian city of Sweida on Tuesday for the first time in three years, a monitor said, as fresh regime reinforcements arrived in the area.
The government holds most of Sweida province, but rebels still control much of the nearby Daraa and Quneitra governorates.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition forces fired shells into Sweida city, “which led to loud blasts but no casualties.”
“It is the first time since 2015 that the city has been subjected to shellfire,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
State news agency SANA also blamed rebels “spread out in the towns and villages in eastern parts of Daraa province” for firing shells on Sweida.
It also said one girl was killed and two people were wounded in opposition fire on government-held parts of Daraa city.
Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has remained relatively insulated from seven years of war that ravaged the rest of the country.
But rebels hold a sliver of territory in western Sweida that borders their main bastion in the province of Daraa, and clashes and exchanges of fire have erupted in that area in recent days.
Syria’s government has set its sights on ousting rebels from the south and has been dispatching troops and equipment there for weeks.
Rebel commander Abu Hassan told AFP on Tuesday his units had seen the reinforcements and were on high alert.
“We are almost always mobilized. The joint operations room has upped its coordination to the highest level,” he said.
On Tuesday, the regime dropped new flyers on the rebel-held half of Daraa city, calling on residents to expel rebels, “like your brothers did in Eastern Ghouta and Qalamun,” referring to two areas near Damascus recently recaptured from the opposition.
Opposition fighters appeared to fear the regime would use Sweida’s civilian population as justification for the assault, and issued a message addressed to them on Tuesday.
“We call on our people in Sweida province not to serve as bait for the goals of the regime, sectarian militias from Iran, and Hezbollah, which are trying to occupy this land and divide its people,” they said in a statement.
But the government has also hinted a political settlement could be reached over the south’s fate.
“We have moved toward the south and we are giving the political process a chance,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said last week.
“If that doesn’t succeed, we have no other option but to liberate it by force.”
Assad has regained the upper hand since 2011, when protests erupted across the country demanding he step down.
Demonstrations then turned into an armed conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people, drawn in world powers, and given rise to militants like the Daesh group.
IS has been defeated across much of Syria but the militants hold a few positions in desert areas of Sweida, where it has clashed with government troops recently.
On Tuesday, eight regime forces were killed in clashes with Daesh in the area.


Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

Updated 22 min 40 sec ago

Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

  • Troops drive north toward Turkish border
  • Kurdish buffer zone ‘fully operational’

BEIRUT: Assad regime troops massed in northwest Syria on Saturday in preparation for a new drive north toward the border with Turkey.

The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition. Until last week, it was controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured the key town of Khan Sheikhun from the militants on Wednesday, and on Friday they overran the countryside to the south of the town.

“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces began massing in the area north of it,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They were “preparing to continue their advance toward the area of Maaret Al-Noman,” a town about 25km north, he said.

Heavy bombardment hit the area on Saturday in preparation for a further push north. Thick gray smoke billowed up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Noman. Like Khan Sheikhun, the town sits on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, a key target for the regime to recapture.

However, the new offensive that began in April has heightened tension with Turkey, which fears an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect civilians.

FAST FACTS

  • The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition.
  • Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region.

The regime accuses Turkey of using the observation posts to arm and supply the militants. Last week, airstrikes targeted a Turkish military convoy traveling south down the main highway toward one of the posts at Morek. The convoy was still stranded on Saturday north of Khan Sheikhun.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the Morek observation post had been surrounded and said Turkish troops would not withdraw from the position.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east in Syria, a joint Turkish-US control center to establish and manage a safe zone is fully operational, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. 

“The command of the center is by one US general and one Turkish general,” he said, and the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday after Turkish drones carried out surveillance work in the safe zone last week.

Syrian Kurds said on Saturday they would support the implementation of the buffer zone. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a key role in the battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as terrorists.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” said Mazloum Kobani, head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.