UN warns of catastrophe as Syrian attack uproots 120,000

Assad campaign shatters ‘de-escalation’ agreement brokered by US, Russia and Jordan

Internally displaced people from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria, on Friday. Photograph: Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

Internally displaced people from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Quneitra, Syria, on Friday. Photograph: Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

 

More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by a Syrian government offensive in the southwest, a war monitor said on Friday, and a senior UN official warned of catastrophe as they risked being trapped between warring sides.

The Russian-backed offensive has driven tens of thousands of people towards the border with Jordan, and thousands more to the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since June 19th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Israel and Jordan – which is already hosting 650,000 Syrians – say they will not let refugees in.

“We left under bombardment, barrel bombs, [air strikes by] Russian and Syrian warplanes,” said Abu Khaled al-Hariri (36), who fled al-Harak town to the Golan frontier with his wife and five children. “We are waiting for God to help us, for tents, blankets, mattresses, aid for our children to eat and drink.”

UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was a grave risk of many civilians being trapped between government forces, rebel groups and Islamic State militants who have a small foothold in the area, an outcome he said would be a “catastrophe”.

“The real concern is that we are going to see a repetition of what we saw in eastern Ghouta – the bloodshed, the suffering, the civilians being held, being under a siege,” UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have turned their focus to the rebel-held southwest since defeating the last remaining besieged insurgent pockets, including eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The campaign has shattered a “de-escalation” agreement negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan that had mostly contained fighting in the southwest since last year.

Russian intervention

President Bashar al-Assad has pressed ahead with the offensive despite US condemnations and warnings of “serious repercussions”. The United States has told rebels not to expect military support against the assault.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri on Thursday decried “US silence” over the offensive and said only a “malicious deal” could explain the lack of a U.S. response.

The Kremlin said Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Donald Trump would have a detailed discussion about Syria when they met in July.

The war has been going Mr Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015, when he held just a fraction of the country. Today he commands the single largest part of Syria, though much of the north and east is outside his control.

Syrian government forces have seized a chunk of rebel-held territory northeast of Deraa city. State TV broadcast scenes of what they said were locals celebrating the arrival of the army in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, north of Deraa, where state media said rebels were turning in their weapons.

Al-Manar TV, run by Mr Assad’s Lebanese ally Hizbullah, said government forces had captured a hill overlooking a road linking eastern and western parts of Deraa province – an advance that would mean rebels could no longer safely use it.

A rebel commander, Col Nasim Abu Arra, said fierce clashes were underway near a military base west of Deraa city where government forces had been unable to advance. “There is a barbaric campaign against the Syrian south,” he said in a voice message sent to Reuters.

The seven-year-long war has already displaced six million people inside Syria and driven 5.5 million abroad as refugees, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Many of the civilians on the move have fled from areas east and northeast of Deraa city and from the heavily populated rebel-held town of Nawa to its northwest.

Refugee camps

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman, speaking by phone, said some people had also crossed into government-held areas, while others had gone to a corner of the southwest held by an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Jordan reiterated its position that newly displaced Syrians must be helped inside Syria. “Jordan has reached its capacity in receiving refugees,” foreign minister Ayman Safadi told the pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera late on Thursday.

Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz, in an interview with Tel Aviv Radio 102FM, said: “I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases.”

The Israeli military said an increased number of civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations to people fleeing hostilities.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing. – Reuters