Syrian forces widen south west offensive, some rebels leave for north

Fire from fighting is seen from Quneitra, Syria July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al Faqir

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces widened their offensive in the country's southwest on Sunday to Quneitra province, a region adjoining the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, a war monitor and rebel sources said.

Government forces, backed by the Russian military, have captured most of the southwest's Deraa province in a push that began in June. Rebels still hold a strip straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces which adjoins the occupied Golan Heights. Islamic State-affiliated militants also occupy a pocket on the Jordanian border.

At the same time, a few hundred Syrian rebel fighters and their families were preparing to leave Deraa city, the birthplace of revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, to be taken on buses to opposition-held areas in the north under a surrender deal agreed last week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rebels said jets, which they believed to be Russian, bombed an opposition-held village in Quneitra province in the first such aerial strike in around a year.

The Observatory said the forces had seized the village of Mashara, about 11 km (7 miles) from the Golan frontier, after heavy shelling, and were now trying to capture elevated land south of the village with shelling and air strikes.

But a rebel official in Quneitra denied Syrian forces had taken the village and said fighting continued.

"Over 28 (air) strikes struck Mashara and intense artillery and missile bombardment," Suhaib al-Ruhail said.

SENSITIVE ZONE

The violence is taking place around 4 km from the line marking the start of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force zone, an area monitored by a U.N. force since 1974 in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War.

Israel has threatened a "harsh response" to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy in that zone. Israel does not want its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, both allies of Assad, to move forces near its border.

U.S. President Donald Trump is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki, when Syria is expected to be high on the agenda. Ahead of the summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Putin in Moscow and on Sunday spoke to Trump about Iran and Syria.

A string of towns and villages in Deraa province have accepted surrender deals, opposition sources in touch with rebel negotiators said, leaving only two main towns under rebel control.

Under some of these deals, Russian military police would oversee local security - rather than Syrian government forces - and rebels would become part of Russia-supervised local security forces.

REBEL TRANSFERS

Deraa city was the scene of the first major peaceful protests against Assad's authoritarian rule in March 2011 which spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people.

On Sunday fighters began to leave the Deraa al-Balad neighborhood which had been under rebel control for years. Under the recent surrender deal rebels would hand over weapons, and fighters who do not wish to live under state rule would be transferred out.

A rebel official, Abu Shaima, said at least 500 fighters were going to get on around 15 buses and that his bus was already on the road north to opposition-held Idlib province.

A live broadcast on Facebook from a Syrian state television reporter showed buses on what he said was the outskirts of Deraa city, accompanied by Russian military police and Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles.

Abu Bayan, a rebel commander, said most rebels in Deraa have decided to stay put rather than face an uncertain future in the opposition-held north, in the hope Damascus ally Russia keeps to its promises to protect them against any retribution by Syrian authorities.

Fighter Abdullah Masalmah, who had chosen to leave and was about to board the bus, said: "I cannot forget the thousands of those who were killed by the regime let alone the orphans, wounded and the detainees. I don't trust the Russians or the regime."

Assad on Sunday met visiting Iranian foreign ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari and the two agreed that the "elimination of terrorism from most of Syria's territory has laid the most suitable ground to achieve results at the political level to put an end to the war", Assad's office said.

The Syrian government refers to all groups opposed to its rule as terrorists.

AID

A large humanitarian aid operation to government-held areas of southwest Syria began this week, after the U.N. on Monday said the government had asked it to begin deliveries.

The offensive had displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Sixteen trucks carrying 3,000 food parcels reached the towns of Nassib and Um al-Mayathen in Deraa province near a border crossing with Jordan on Sunday, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) statement said.

Aid was also delivered to four other areas of Deraa earlier in the week, SARC said.

Sunday's convoy was accompanied by a delegation containing the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"We continue to deliver humanitarian assistance and we will be doubling our efforts on the basis of people's needs. Water, health and education are top needs of the population we are urgently responding to," al-Za'tari said.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Robert Birsel/Keith Weir)

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