Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are intensifying their offensive over key rebel-held towns in the southern province of Deraa, as thousands of people continue to flee the area, witnesses tell Al Jazeera.
Clashes broke out on Tuesday between pro-government forces, which have amassed on the outskirts of the town of Basr al-Harir, as fighting between the two sides escalated.
“At least 200 air strikes and 150 barrel bombs targeted Basr al-Harir this morning as government forces moved in on the village,” said Jihad Hamza, a pro-opposition activist in Deraa.
“Rebel fighters are organising themselves to push back the assault,” he added.
At least 45,000 people have fled intensified fighting in the southern Deraa province towards Jordan, according to the United Nations.
Syrian government forces launched the military push on June 19 aiming to retake the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and parts of Sweida, still mostly held by opposition fighters.
Since then, at least 41 people have been killed and more than 100 others were wounded, according to Lawrence Adam, a journalist with the activist-run Nabaa media group in the suburbs of Deraa.
“At least 27 of those killed were civilians, including five children and nine women,” Adam told Al Jazeera on Monday.
“If the international community doesn’t respond quickly, we’re going to be facing a disaster soon,” said Adam.
On Thursday, the United Nations warned that escalation in Syria’s south could have dangerous repercussions for the estimated 750,000 civilians in the area.
‘Families are terrified’
After a string of military victories earlier this year in areas surrounding the capital, Damascus, the Assad government set its sights on re-taking rebel-held areas in southern Syria – either through negotiations or militarily.
State media has said the government is shelling what it called “terrorist posts” northeast of Deraa to destroy their weaponry. Government troops have also been amassing in the nearby Sweida province.
But sources on the ground said the assault has also targeted civilians in the eastern and western areas surrounding Deraa city.
“Families living in the eastern suburbs of Deraa continue to flee their homes towards villages and camps along the Jordanian borders that remain under rebel control or are not affected by the bombardment,” said Sami, a pro-opposition activist in the eastern side of the Deraa suburbs.
According to the activist, whose name was changed for security reasons, at least 10 villages in Deraa are now mostly empty.
On the western side of the province, families fleeing their homes have moved to villages along the occupied Golan Heights, according to Hamza, the pro-opposition activist in Deraa.
“Families are terrified and are leaving in a rush to save their lives,” said Hamza.
“Just this morning, about 40 barrel bombs and air strikes targeted family homes in small villages on the western side of the province,” he added.
Rebel factions hold parts of Deraa city and areas to its west and east. The rebels also control areas along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Eastern Ghouta comparisons
In recent weeks, Syrian government forces dropped leaflets over the southern provinces, warning of the impending military operations and calling on the rebels to surrender.
Some leaflets compared the area to the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta – captured in April after a ferocious Russian-backed offensive that reportedly killed about 1,500 civilians – and urged its residents to “cooperate” with the government forces to drive out armed groups.
Sami, the pro-opposition activist, said the families leaving their homes in Deraa “have no intention of supporting Assad who forced them to flee”.
“But people are afraid of what is yet to come. They aren’t waiting around to see it because they know what happened in Ghouta,” he added.
In response to the movement of fleeing civilians towards the Jordanian border, Jordan’s Minister of State Affairs Jumana Ghanimat said on Sunday the country would be unable to host a new wave of Syrian refugees.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, Jordan has the second-highest share of refugees compared with its population in the world – 89 per 1,000 inhabitants.
“Everyone should cooperate to deal with any new wave of displacement within Syria’s borders,” Ghanimat was quoted as saying by AFP news agency, adding that Jordan would work with “concerned organisations” to find an arrangement for the displaced inside Syria.
‘De-escalation’ deal undermined
The Assad government’s offensive meanwhile is undermining a “de-escalation” agreement negotiated by the US, Russia and Jordan in July 2017. Since then, the deal contained fighting in the southwest of Syria.
Assad said earlier this mont that he was still pursuing a political solution for Syria’s rebel-held southwest, but would use military force if the effort failed.
Responding to Assad’s statements, the US state department said on June 14 that any government assault would “broaden the conflict” and threatened “firm and appropriate measures in response”.
Speaking to Iranian TV last week, Assad said that while talks between the Russians, Americans and Israelis are still “ongoing”, Iran‘s presence in the area was not negotiable.
Tehran is a close ally of the Assad government, and its advisers are embedded with his troops. Iranian-backed armed groups are also believed to be deployed in the area.
Israel, on its part, is believed to be seeking an agreement in which Iran and its allied militias would withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights.
Syria’s war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.