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
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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.


US accuses Iran of destabilizing Mideast with missile program

Updated 20 March 2019
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US accuses Iran of destabilizing Mideast with missile program

  • Cites Iran’s support to the Houthi movement in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon
  • Says Iran's ballistic missile test and satellite launches violated UN Security Council resolution

JEDDAH: Iran’s missile program is destabilizing the Middle East, and Tehran risks starting a regional arms race by supplying weapons to armed groups in Lebanon and Yemen, a senior US arms control official said on Tuesday.

“Iran must immediately cease activities related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and halt the proliferation of missiles and missile technology to terror groups and other non-state actors,” Yleem Poblete, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said in a speech to the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Iran’s missile program is a key contributor to increased tensions and destabilization in the region, increasing the risk of a regional arms race,” she said, denouncing Iran’s support to the Houthi movement in Yemen and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

She said Iran had provided ballistic missiles to the Houthis that were fired into Saudi Arabia and unmanned aerial systems to Houthi groups that enable strikes against land-based targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We are committed to aggressively countering Iran’s regional proliferation of ballistic missiles and its unlawful arms transfers,” she said.

US President Donald Trump said when he quit the 2015 deal that lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities that the agreement failed to rein in Iran’s missile program or curb its regional meddling.

The US has accused Iran of defying a UN Security Council resolution by carrying out a ballistic missile test and two satellite launches since December.

Poblete urged “all responsible countries” to enforce UN Security Council resolutions restricting the transfer of missile-related technologies to Iran. She also accused Iran of “pursuing pharmaceutical-based agents for offensive purposes,” but did not provide details.

Harvard scholar and Iranian affairs expert Dr. Majid Rafizadeh said Iran had the largest ballistic program in the Middle East. “Through its ballistic missile program, the Iranian regime appears determined to escalate tensions in the region and seek every opportunity to project its power in order to reassert its hegemony,” he said. “The international community ought to hold Tehran accountable for its military adventurism and violations of international standards.”