BEIRUT/NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a new call for “an immediate cessation” to military operations in southwest Syria, where regime forces are attacking opposition-held areas.
Guterres is “deeply alarmed by the military offensive in southwestern Syria and its devastating toll on civilians,” said a statement from his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“The secretary-general recalls that the southwest area of Syria is part of a de-escalation agreement agreed between Jordan, Russia and the United States,” the statement said.
Guterres “calls on all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, protect civilians and facilitate safe, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access.”
The UN chief had made a similar call earlier this month, after Russian-backed regime forces began attacking opposition-held parts of Daraa province on June 19.
Death of civilians
Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled since the beginning of the offensive, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says that nearly 100 civilians have been killed.
On Saturday, the monitor said at least eight battered opposition-held towns in southern Syria had returned to regime control under Russian-brokered deals after nearly two weeks of bombardment.
The agreements for the eight towns were reached even as regime airstrikes on Saturday pounded other opposition holdouts in the wider southern province of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
With the latest deals brokered by regime ally Russia, regime forces now control more than half of the province, up from just 30 percent at the start of the escalation, it said.
“At least eight towns in the northern and eastern Daraa countryside agreed to ‘reconciliation’ deals after talks in each town between Russian generals as well as local notables and remaining rebels,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The deals are the latest in a string of such “reconciliation” agreements across the country that have seen the government retake opposition-held areas, often after deadly air and ground offensives.
These deals imposed by the regime often see opposition fighters hand over their heavy weapons and allow those who want to leave to board buses headed to opposition-held areas in the north of Syria.
Pro-regime news agency SANA confirmed the deals for the five towns of Dael, Western Ghariya, Eastern Ghariya, Talul Khlayf and Tal Al-Sheikh Hussein. They had come under regime control “after fighters handed over their weapons to the army in preparation for settling their status” with the regime, it added.
State television broadcast live images from Dael of residents holding up posters of President Bashar Assad in front of the camera, and chanting slogans in support of the army.
With the “reconciliation” deals in Daraa, the regime has further chipped away at a U-shaped patch of territory controlled by the rebels in southern Syria.
Retaking the whole of Daraa province would be a symbolic victory for the regime, as it is seen as the cradle of the anti-Assad uprising seven years ago that spiralled into civil war.
It would also allow the regime to reopen the Naseeb border crossing with neighboring Jordan and resume lucrative trade across the frontier.
But half of the province — including part of the provincial capital Daraa city — still remains in the hands of opposition forces not willing to give up the fight.
“The regime wants us to hand over everything — Daraa city, the Naseeb crossing, ourselves and the heavy weapons. It’s inadmissible,” said a negotiator in the rebel-held part of Daraa city.
The Observatory said the towns to return to regime control also included Ibtaa, Um Walad and Eastern Karak.
In the last town, a community leader was killed along with five members of his family on Friday in obscure circumstances likely linked to the “reconciliation” talks, the monitor’s Abdel Rahman said.
Regime and Russian strikes on other parts of Daraa on Saturday killed at least five civilians, the Observatory said.
That brought the total number of civilians killed in regime bombardment on the province to 105 including 19 children since June 19.
In that same period, 96 pro-regime fighters and at least 59 rebels have lost their lives.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.