JEDDAH/BEIRUT: Waves of airstrikes rained down on southern Syria on Thursday as pro-regime forces unleashed their most intensive bombing campaign yet in a two-week offensive.
Giant clouds of smoke rose over fields, rooftops and industrial areas as Russian jets pounded the Daraa region with more than 600 attacks in 15 hours. Throughout the day, hundreds of missiles and crude barrel bombs struck opposition-held towns.
“From last night until now, Russian planes are pursuing a scorched-earth policy,” said Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for the joint opposition command for the south.
“The warplanes are bombing like crazy. We can’t even find a safe place to put the wounded.”
The renewed assault followed the failure on Wednesday of Russian-brokered talks to end the offensive in Daraa, which has killed dozens and forced tens of thousands from their homes.
Opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi blamed Russia for the failure of the talks and said Moscow was behaving “like a colonizing power.”
“They come to the meeting with diktats — you do this, you do that, otherwise our Sukhois (fighter planes) are ready to destroy Daraa,” he told Arab News.
“The regime was sidelined completely in the negotiations because it doesn’t exist. The only party that exists is the Iranian and Hezbollah militias.”
The UN Security Council will hold a closed-door emergency meeting on the offensive early on Friday, but world powers have been able to do little to halt the onslaught.
Al-Aridi said that the opposition did not expect much from the Security Council. “Everybody will express their anger about what’s happening, but all they care about is their own interests and scoring points off each other. Everybody knows what Russia is doing is a war crime. If the Security Council takes any decision, it should be a call for a cease-fire.”
Bahia Al-Mardini, a rights campaigner and founder of Syrian House, an organization that helps Syrians in the UK, told Arab News Russia was responsible for the failure of the talks “because it sets impossible conditions aimed at humiliating the Free Syrian Army. This includes handing over all of its weapons and equipment, so that its pro-democracy position is weakened.”
She said: “I do not expect much from the Security Council, but I hope desperately that the bombing will be stopped, that civilian lives will be saved and a genuine political solution will be opened to preserve Syrians’ freedom and dignity.”
Jordan urged to open borders
Amid the onslaught, the UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting.
It said the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.
Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last opposition strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.
With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, regime forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining opposition bastions near Damascus and Homs.
Pro-regime television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.
Jordanian mediation has brought Syrian opposition negotiators back to the table with Russian officers to discuss a final deal to end fighting and restore Syrian regime’s control of Daraa province, spokesman Ibrahim Al-Jabawi said.
He said the two sides were expected to hold talks on Thursday evening in the southern town of Busra Al-Sham. Four rounds of talks have been held there since Saturday, without reaching agreement.
Opposition officials say the main differences include whether the fighters surrender their weapons in one go or in phases, before handing over their areas to regime control under Russian military police supervision.
After four days of reduced bombardment, intense airstrikes resumed on Wednesday.
“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar Al-Zoubi, a prominent opposition leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Daraa area, the focus of the regime offensive.
“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 airstrikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.
Pro-regime media said Assad’s forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km east of Daraa city. An opposition command center said on Twitter that the regime’s attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids,” barrel bombs and rocket barrages.
The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of opposition territory northeast of Daraa city, where some fighters surrendered. The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.
For the president, the Daraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Daraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.
Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.
Pro-regime TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Daraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, Al-Nuaima, Um Al-Mayadan and Taiba.
Its correspondent said the troops aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Daraa city, where opposition territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.
This would split the territory in two.
The troops have been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Daraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the opposition command center Twitter account said.
Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.
Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the US to reduce violence.
Near the start of the regime’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.
For the anti-Assad opposition, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where US forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.
Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the US.
(With Reuters & AFP)