Syria Army Widens Offensive on Rebels 06/23 11:12
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government troops advanced on rebel-held areas in the
country's southwestern region amid intense clashes Saturday, state media and
opposition activists said, in a widening offensive that has shattered a
Syrian State news agency SANA reported fierce clashes in al-Lujat area, a
rocky region in the eastern countryside of Daraa. It said troops advancing from
the adjacent Sweida province seized two villages, adding that the rebels
responded by shelling government-held areas.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the
government advances, saying they were accompanied by intense shelling and
airstrikes. The Observatory said the escalation on the fifth day of the
fighting left eight government troops dead, and 20 others wounded. Russia, the
main backer of the Syrian government, said five Syrian soldiers were killed.
Since Tuesday, at least 18 civilians and 10 rebel fighters have been killed,
the Observatory said.
Washington warned the offensive in the region bordering Jordan and
Israeli-occupied Golan Heights risks widening the conflict. It called on Russia
to restrain its ally and warned of the repercussions of the fighting but didn't
elaborate on how it intends to salvage the truce in place for nearly a year.
The de-escalation zone was negotiated by Russia, Washington and Jordan and
has maintained calm in the strategic area since. But in recent weeks, the deal
appeared to be unravelling as both the Syrian government and Israel turned to
military means to achieve their goals. Damascus is seeking to build on the
momentum of its successive military victories elsewhere and has turned its
troops and elite forces toward the southwest. Israel, fearing the expansion of
the influence of Iran and its allied militia fighting alongside the Syrian
government in the area, has carried out airstrikes there against suspected
Russia has been in talks to reach a settlement in the area, building on the
July deal. But the talks have stalled as the fighting escalates. On Saturday,
Moscow, which has come under criticism from the U.S. for the teetering
agreement, blamed al-Qaida-linked militants for targeting and killing
government troops. The Russian defense ministry said about 1,000 fighters
attacked the government army tank division in Daraa.
The majority of the rebels in southwestern Syria are backed by the U.S. and
Jordan. A minority among them who are mostly local fighters are al-Qaida-linked.
Local media activist Abu Mahmoud al-Hourani said the clashes Saturday were
an escalation in a widening offensive, but denied that the rebels lost any
territory. Government advances from the northeastern part of Daraa could
isolate some of the rebels in al-Lajat area, cutting them off from the south.
"It is an extensive military campaign. Today there was a substantial
escalation as ground battles started," al-Hourani said. "It seems they want to
storm the area and to take control. But the clashes are ongoing."
Separately, Iraq's air force carried out an airstrike in eastern Syria
targeting a meeting of Islamic State militants, killing 45 of them, including
at least eight senior members of the group. In a statement, the Iraqi military
command said the airstrike Saturday hit the meeting in Hajin, one of the last
strongholds of the militants in eastern Syria. Iraq's government has been
collaborating with the U.S.-led coalition and the Syrian government separately
to fight the remnants of IS in Syria along the border with Iraq.
The senior level IS members killed in the strike were only identified by
their posts. The Iraqi command said among the targets were the group's war
minister, the head of IS's police, a senior media operative and the messenger
of the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There were no further details.