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Regime forces step up attack on eastern Daraa, casualties reported

(Zaman Al Wasl)- Syrian regime forces stepped up its aerial and ground offensive on eastern side of Daraa province, leaving dozens killed and wounded, activists said Friday.

Most of the towns in the eastern countryside came under heavy artillery fire as well as the barrel bombs hit the opposition-held areas, according to activist Ahmed al-Hariri.

The Daraa-based activist said the heavy bombardment have pushed hundreds of families to flee the eastern countryside towards the Jordanian border.

Two people killed on Friday in the town of al-Herak as death toll reached total of 22 in the past 72 hours.

The United Nations expressed its deeply concern for around 750,000 people in southwestern Syria, where the regime offensive has displaced people in Daraa towards the Jordanian border, a U.N. humanitarian statement said on Thursday.

"Today, fighting and shelling continued to be reported in many towns on the eastern and western side of Daraa governorate," it said.

"Yesterday [Wednesday], on 20 June, shelling and fighting in several areas of Daraya governorate reportedly resulted in the deaths of 20 people, including 11 in Daraa city; many others were injured," Reuters reported.

Sources told Zaman al-Wasl on Thursday that Washington is intensifying efforts to halt the imminent offensive in southern Syria, urging rebels to ‘be patient’, according to a 'support message' by the State Department.

Over the past weeks, the U.S. State Department had expressed its concerns over the major operation in southwestern Syria, warning  the regime against “any actions that risk broadening the conflict.”

But despite the warning of taking “firm and appropriate measures” to protect a ceasefire in southern Syria, the regime is still mobilizing troops along the border area with Jordan.

After expelling the last rebels and Daesh militants from around Damascus in May, the regime began moving reinforcements to Daraa province.

Rebels say elite army troops backed by Iranian-backed local militias have been escalating hit and run attacks on their posts in a so-called "Triangle of Death", which connects southern Damascus countryside with Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

The regime forces have recently dropped leaflets on rebel-held areas, warning of an imminent offensive and urging fighters to lay down their arms.

The area in southwestern Syria, between the border city of Daraa and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between regional archrivals Israel and Iran.

The U.S., Russia and Jordan agreed last year to include Daraa in a “de-escalation zone” to freeze the lines of conflict. 

One major objective for the regime is recapturing the border crossing with Jordan that served before the conflict as a vital trade gateway for goods moving across the region. Its closure has hit both the Syrian and Jordanian economies hard.

Field sources said regime forces plan to seize the strategic hilltop of al-Harra in the western countryside as well to isolate rebels in al-Lajat region that lies on the border with Jordan.

Regime-run media has accused rebels of escalating attacks on civilians in the area which is part of a "de-escalation" zone agreed by the United States and Russia last year with the aim of containing the conflict in the southwest.

The offensive would risk a major escalation of the seven-year-old war. The area is of strategic importance to Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Iranian influence in Syria.

U.S.-allied Jordan is increasingly worried about a spillover of violence and has been engaged in stepped up diplomatic efforts to preserve the de-escalation zone which it also helped to broker last year, a Jordanian source said.

Rebels say Iranian-backed fighters allied to Bashar Assad have boosted their numbers in the area, though a commander in the regional alliance fighting in support of Assad denied Tehran-aligned forces had a big presence there, Reuters reported.

Elite regime troops known as the "Tiger" force, which have spearheaded a campaign that recaptured the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, have also been mobilized for the attack.

The pro-Damascus newspaper al-Watan said there were "growing indications about preparations for the start of a wide military operation to liberate" the south.

Assad said earlier this month the regime, at Russia’s suggestion, was seeking to strike a deal in the southwest similar to agreements that have restored its control of other areas through withdrawals of rebel forces.

But he also said there had been no results yet and blamed "Israeli and American interference". He said the territory would be recovered by force if necessary.

The Syrian uprising began in Daraa in 2011. The ceasefire has slowly disintegrated as regime warplanes have carried out airstrikes against rebel-held areas.  Agencies, Zaman Al Wasl

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