Syrian government accused of dropping barrel bombs ahead of fresh offensive
BEIRUT - Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on opposition areas in the country’s south-west on Friday ahead of a widely anticipated push to reclaim one of Syria’s remaining rebel enclaves.
The UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Syrian government helicopters dropping more than 12 barrel bombs on rebel-held territory north-east of Deraa, causing damage but no deaths. So far, according to both the monitor and rebel sources, the government offensive has included artillery but only limited use of air power.
Abu Bakr al-Hassan, spokesman for the rebel group Jaish al-Thawra, said the munitions had been dropped on three towns and villages, and that war planes had hit another.
The attack has been concentrated on the towns of al-Harak and Busra al-Harir, which would bisect a finger of rebel ground jutting northwards into land held by the Syrian government.
Syrian state television said on Friday that army units had targeted "lairs and movements of terrorists" in the area.
However, the government's initial recourse of barrel bombs in advance of the offensive tests the US position, rebel spokesperson Hassan said, whose group fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) coalition.
"I believe it is testing two things: the steadfastness of the FSA fighters and the degree of US commitment to the de-escalation agreement in the south," he told Reuters.
The Syrian government has denied using barrel bombs, containers filled with explosive material that are dropped from helicopters and which cannot be accurately aimed. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented its use by the Syrian government of them during the conflict.
In anticipation of the government offensive, the US State Department expressed concerns that any regime push would draw its forces, possibly supplemented by those of Hezbollah, to the Jordanian and Israeli borders.
On Thursday, the Department said it had reports the Syrian government had violated the de-escalation zone agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump last year. According to the Department, Damascus had “initiated air strikes, artillery and rocket attacks," against the area and warned of "serious repercussions" should it continue to do so.
However, the Russian ambassador to Lebanon was quoted on Friday in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar as saying the Syrian military was recovering the disputed region with Moscow’s support.
"We say that the Syrian army now, with support from Russian forces, is recovering its land in the south and restoring the authority of the Syrian state," it quoted him as saying in an interview.
Referencing any possible counterattack from Tel Aviv, he added "Israel has no justification to carry out any action that obstructs the fight against terrorism."
(Arab Weekly Staff and Agencies)