Syrian forces consolidate control of Aleppo, air strikes under way

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups “wherever they are found”.

The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.

Assad said on Monday his forces’ rapid recent gains presaged the eventual defeat of the nine-year insurgency that sought to oust him from power. But in an appearance televised by state media, he also cautioned that the conflict was not yet over.

“We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” Assad said. “This is a prelude to their (opposition forces’) final defeat, sooner or later.”

Backed by heavy Russian air strikes and aided by pro-Iranian militias, government forces have intensified since the start of the year their campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in the far northwest of Syria where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds.

Russian and government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza, near the Turkish border about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo city, wounding several civilians and forcing two hospitals to close, according to hospital staff.

Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province in what the opposition said was a “scorched earth policy” that has left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.

The advances sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.

The United Nations said on Monday that over 875,000 Syrians, mostly children and women, have now fled towns and villages targeted by the heavy aerial bombing campaign since Dec. 1.

More than 40,000 have been displaced in the last four days alone from western Aleppo province, the scene of heavy fighting, said David Swanson, a U.N. spokesman.

The offensive has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.

Turkey and Russia began a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Islamist militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions have continued and “it is not possible to leave this unanswered”.

“Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” said Lavrov.

However, the Syrian armed forces said they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.

Syrian forces had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said in a statement.

Syrian Transport Minister Ali Hammoud announced on Monday the reopening of Aleppo international airport with the first flight, from Damascus to Aleppo, scheduled for Wednesday and flights to Cairo to be announced within days, state news agency SANA reported.

The pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week. Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.

The Syrian army has also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl toward the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.

The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pullback.

Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry, Khalil Ashawi and Suleiman Khalidi, additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Russian-led assault in Syria leaves over 500 civilians dead: rights groups, rescuers

FILE PHOTO: A street vendor sells toys next to rubble of damaged buildings in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 544 civilians have been killed and over 2,000 people injured since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria began two months ago, rights groups and rescuers said on Saturday.

Russian jets joined the Syrian army on April 26 in the biggest offensive against parts of rebel-held Idlib province and adjoining northern Hama provinces in the biggest escalation in the war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his enemies since last summer.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights,(SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various UN agencies, said the 544 civilians killed in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army include 130 children. Another 2,117 people have been injured.

“The Russian military and its Syrian ally are deliberately targeting civilians with a record number of medical facilities bombed,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters.

Russia and its Syrian army ally deny their jets hit indiscriminately civilian areas with cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, which residents in opposition areas say are meant to paralyze every-day life.

Moscow says its forces and the Syrian army are fending off terror attacks by al Qaeda militants whom they say hit populated, government-held areas, and it accuses rebels of wrecking a ceasefire deal agreed last year between Turkey and Russia.

Last month U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the Russian-Syrian joint military operation had used cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in the attacks along with large air-dropped explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated civilian areas, based on reports by first responders and witnesses.

Residents and rescuers say the two-month-old campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins. According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for the safety of areas closer to the border with Turkey.

“Whole villages and towns have been emptied,” said Idlib-based Civil Defence spokesman Ahmad al Sheikho, saying it was the most destructive campaign against Idlib province since it completely fell to the opposition in the middle of 2015.

On Friday, 15 people, including children, were killed in the village of Mhambil in western Idlib province after Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a civilian quarter, the civil defense group and witnesses said.

The heads of 11 major global humanitarian organizations warned at the end of last month that Idlib stood at the brink of disaster, with 3 million civilian lives at risk, including 1 million children.

“Too many have died already; even wars have laws” they declared, in the face of multiple attacks by government forces and their allies on hospitals, schools, and markets, the U.N.-endorsed statement said.

Last Thursday an aerial strike on Kafr Nabl hospital made it the 30th facility to be bombed during the campaign, leaving hundreds of thousands with no medical access, according to aid groups.

“To have these medical facilities bombed and put out of service in less than two months is no accident. Let’s call this by what it is, a war crime,” Dr. Khaula Sawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which provides aid in the northwest, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Plight of stranded Syrians worsens as food blocked

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees wait to board a Jordanian army vehicle after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families, in Al Ruqban border area, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the town of Ruwaished, 240 km (149 miles) east of Amman September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians stranded on Jordan’s border with Syria are running out of food as routes leading to their camp are closed by the Syrian army and Jordan is blocking aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said on Thursday.

The Syrian army has tightened its siege of the camp, in Rukban, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, preventing smugglers and traders from delivering food to its 50,000 inhabitants, mostly women and children.

“More than a week ago the Syrian regime cut all the routes of supplies towards the camp. There are now only very small amounts of food that smugglers bring,” Abu Abdullah, the head of the civil affairs council that runs the camp, told Reuters.

“The camp is a balloon that could explode at any moment because of hunger, sickness and lack of aid … if the situation continues like this there will be real starvation,” he added by phone.In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from Islamic State-held parts of Syria that were being targeted by Russian and U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

Rukban is located near a U.S. garrison in southeastern Syria at Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The camp falls within a so-called deconfliction zone set up by the Pentagon with the aim of shielding the Tanf garrison from attacks by pro-Assad forces.

Damascus says the U.S. forces are occupying Syrian territory and providing a safe-haven in that area for rebels it deems terrorists.

Jordan has since the start of the year blocked any aid deliveries to the camp over its frontier and says now that the Syrian government had recovered territory around the camp, it could not be made responsible for delivering aid.

LIVES AT RISK

With Damascus intransigent, U.N. aid agencies have been pressing Jordan to let in urgent deliveries to stave off more deaths, aid workers and diplomatic sources said.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF warned on Thursday that without “critical action” by parties to the conflict to “allow and facilitate access” the lives of thousands of children in the camp were at risk.

“The situation for the estimated 45,000 people – among them many children – will further worsen with the cold winter months fast approaching, especially when temperatures dip below freezing point in the harsh desert conditions,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

Already two more infants died in the last 48 hours, Cappelaere added. Relief workers inside the camp say a woman also died this week.

Jordan wants the United Nations and Russia to put pressure on Damascus to give the written authorizations needed to allow supplies into Rukban from Syrian government-held territory.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said recently that his country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, could not be made responsible for delivering aid to the camp.

Western diplomatic sources believe the siege of the camp is part of a Russian-backed Syrian government effort to put pressure on Washington to get out of Tanf.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

Exclusive: Turkey boosts arms to Syrian rebels as Idlib attack looms

FILE PHOTO: A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Turkey has stepped up arms supplies to Syrian rebels to help them stave off an expected offensive by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies in the northwest near the Turkish frontier, rebel sources told Reuters.

Senior rebel officials said Turkey had sent more military aid to rebels in and around the Idlib region since a summit meeting with Iran and Russia last week failed to agree a deal to avert a government offensive into the area.

Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is warning against such an attack, fearing it could force more Syrians over the border. President Tayyip Erdogan has warned of a humanitarian disaster and security risks for Turkey.

“They pledged complete Turkish military support for a long, protracted battle,” a senior FSA commander who was privy to talks in recent days with senior Turkish officials said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The weapons, which have entered Syria in large quantities in recent days, include ammunition and GRAD rockets.

“These arms supplies and munitions will allow the battle to extend and ensure our supplies are not drained in a war of attrition,” the commander added.

A second rebel commander said: “They are getting new shipments of munitions — they don’t need more than munitions.”

“The Turks are making sure they have enough munitions that keep them going for a long while,” he added.

Turkish officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

FILE PHOTO: A Turkish military armoured vehicle guards on the border line located opposite the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Turkish military armoured vehicle guards on the border line located opposite the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

AIR STRIKES

The Idlib area forms part of an arc of territory in the northwest representing the last big area held by the opposition.

Some three million people are living in Idlib, half of them Syrians who have fled from other parts of the country.

Russian and Syrian warplanes have stepped up air strikes on southern Idlib and adjacent areas of Hama province in an apparent prelude to a ground offensive. The Syrian army is building up troops near front lines.

Turkey has backed an array of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels during the war that spiraled out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. With decisive Iranian and Russian help, Assad has now recovered most of Syria.

Idlib’s main towns and cities are under the sway of jihadists linked to al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, though they are outnumbered by Turkey-backed FSA fighters grouped under “The National Front for Liberation”.

The Turkish army has also deployed in the last week more troops and heavy weaponry to 12 positions in the Idlib region that observe a “de-escalation zone” agreed with Iran and Russia. The Turkish army has also sent troops into Syrian rebel-held territory further east, in an area north of Aleppo city.

With extensive Turkish support, efforts have been underway to organize FSA groups north of Aleppo into a unified force known as the “National Army” numbering some 30,000 fighters.

Two rebel commanders said Turkey had ordered the bulk of this force to move toward the Idlib frontlines.

TEHRAN SUMMIT

At the summit in Tehran, Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani agreed in a statement that there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.

But while Erdogan had also called for a truce, Putin said this would be pointless as it would not involve the Islamist militant groups that Russia deems terrorists, and Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.

Russia has said Turkey has the job of separating Islamist militants from the moderate opposition in Idlib.

Rebel sources said Turkey had pledged to take strong measures against the jihadists once Russia holds back the Syrian army from waging a major assault.

The jihadists have so far resisted calls by Ankara to dissolve themselves or take an offer that allows fighters to join FSA factions after breaking all ties to al Qaeda.

(Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

U.N. war crimes team documents further Syrian government use of banned chlorine

FILE PHOTO - Labels of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are seen iside a damaged house in Douma in Damascus, Syria April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces fired chlorine, a banned chemical weapon, on a rebel-held Damascus suburb and on Idlib province this year, in attacks that constitute war crimes, United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday.

The three incidents bring to 39 the number of chemical attacks which the Commission of Inquiry on Syria has documented since 2013, including 33 attributed to the government, a U.N. official told Reuters. The perpetrators of the remaining six have not been sufficiently identified.

Weaponizing chlorine is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by Syria, and under customary international humanitarian law, the investigators said in their latest report.

“To recapture eastern Ghouta in April, government forces launched numerous indiscriminate attacks in densely populated civilian areas, which included the use of chemical weapons,” it said, referring to incidents on Jan. 22 and Feb. 1 in a residential area of Douma, eastern Ghouta, outside the capital.

Women and children were injured in the attacks, suffering respiratory distress and requiring oxygen, it added.

“INDISCRIMINATE ATTACKS”

“The Commission concludes that, on these two occasions, government forces and or affiliated militias committed the war crimes of using prohibited weapons and launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian-populated areas in eastern Ghouta,” it said.

A surface-to-surface, improvised rocket-assisted munition had been used in the two Douma incidents, it said. “Specifically the munitions documented were built around industrially-produced Iranian artillery rockets known to have been supplied to forces commanded by the (Syrian) government,” the report added.

In the northwest province of Idlib – where the United Nations fears a major imminent assault by Syrian and Russian forces against the last rebel-held stronghold – chlorine was also used on February 4, the U.N. report said.

“Government helicopters dropped at least two barrels carrying chlorine payloads in the Taleel area of Saraqeb,” it said, adding that at least 11 men were injured.

“Documentary and material evidence analyzed by the Commission confirmed the presence of helicopters in the area and the use of two yellow gas cylinders”.

The report, based on 400 interviews, also examined aerial and ground attacks by Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’, conducted with allied Syrian rebels, which wrestled the northwest Afrin region from Syrian Kurdish forces this spring.

Afrin’s main hospital, a market and homes were hit, it said.

“In conducting airstrikes beginning on 20 January, the Turkish air force may have failed to take all feasible precautions prior to launching certain attacks, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the report said.

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army were “notorious for their arbitrary arrests and detention” in Afrin, it added.

More than a million civilians were displaced in six major battles across Syria during the first six months of the year, many marked by war crimes, the report said.

Thousands of displaced civilians still live in dire conditions in severely overcrowded centers, “where many are still being unlawfully interned by Government forces”, it said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel threatens ‘harsh response’ to any Syrian forces in demilitarized Golan

People walk near the Israel-Syria border line as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel threatened a “harsh response” on Monday to any attempt by Syrian forces advancing against southern rebel areas to deploy in a Golan Heights frontier zone that was demilitarized under a 44-year-old U.N. monitored truce between the neighboring foes.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia have launched an offensive in the southern Deraa province and are widely expected to move on rebel-held Quneitra, which is within a part of the Syrian Golan covered by the armistice.

Israel worries that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could let its enemies Iran and Hezbollah move forces into the area, giving them a foothold near its border. Tehran and the Lebanese group both back Assad in the complex conflict.

“For our part we will sanctify the 1974 disengagement agreement, and there too we will insist that every last letter be abided by, and any violation with meet a harsh response from the State of Israel,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his parliamentary faction in broadcast remarks.

Assad’s conduct in southern Syria is expected to come up in talks in Moscow on Wednesday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, whose 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war turned the tide in Assad’s favor, has largely turned a blind eye to repeated Israeli air strikes in Syria targeting suspected Iranian or Hezbollah emplacements and arms transfers.

But diplomats on both sides say Russia has made clear that it would oppose any Israeli action endangering Assad’s rule.

On Sunday night, Syria said its air defense repelled an Israeli sorties against the T4 air base in Homs province, where seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel died in an April 9 attack that Damascus and Tehran also blamed on Israel.

Israel, in keeping with its customary reticence on such operations, declined all comment.

“Regarding yesterday – I read about it in the newspapers today and I have nothing to add,” Lieberman said on Monday.

“Perhaps just one thing, that our policy has not changed. We will not allow Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and we will not allow Syrian soil to be turned into a vanguard against the State of Israel. Nothing has changed. There is nothing new.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens)

Syrian army steps up attacks in southwest, Jordan concerned

FILE PHOTO: Men inspect a damaged house in Busra al-Harir town, near Deraa, Syria March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army stepped up shelling of opposition-held parts of the southwest as it mobilizes for a campaign to regain the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, opposition sources said.

Violence erupted at the frontline town of Kafr Shams, near the Syrian-held Golan Heights, and further east in the town of Busra al Harir, which was struck by dozens of mortars from nearby army positions, the sources said.

Syrian state media said militants had escalated 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.

An offensive in the southwest 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. Washington has warned it will take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to violations of the “de-escalation” deal.

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 President Bashar al-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.

Elite government 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.

HIT AND RUN ATTACKS

Assad said earlier this month the government, 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.

One major objective for the government 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.

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.

A rebel commander said a bomb injured several fighters in Naba al Sakr town, saying it was one of a growing number of such attacks blamed on Iranian-backed militias in the area.

“They are moving more reinforcements and there have been several infiltration attempts which we have so far repelled,” said Abu Ayham, a rebel commander in the Salah al Din brigades operating in Quneitra.

Residents and opposition sources say that in the few days they saw larger movements of troops with armored vehicles and tanks along two main highways that cut through rebel areas.

The last two days have seen wider skirmishes, an air strike and rebel ambushes along two main highways being used by the army to reinforce the city of Deraa, which is split into areas controlled separately by the government and rebels.

The army and rebels have also been exchanging gun fire and shelling in a frontline in Deraa city.

Employees and hospital staff in two government hospitals in Sweida and Deraa provinces have also been put on high alert, according to a resident contacted by phone from Deraa city.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

Syrian rebel fighters pull out of their last besieged area

A woman gestures as she stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The remaining fighters started to withdraw from the last rebel-held enclave in central Syria on Wednesday, state television reported, sealing the government’s control over the area and opening a major stretch of the country’s most important highway.

It further cements President Bashar al-Assad’s dominant position over the most populated parts of Syria after years of fighting, but means any new military campaign might risk direct conflict with foreign powers.

The withdrawal may also be the last in a series of agreed evacuations used by the government to defeat besieged insurgents by forcing them to surrender territory in return for safe passage to opposition areas in the north.

Often brokered by Assad’s Russian allies, such agreements have in recent years become a defining characteristic of Syria’s seven-year war.

In the last two months alone, the United Nations says 110,000 people have been evacuated to northwestern Syria and rebel-held areas north of Aleppo.

The opposition has called it a policy of forced displacement amounting to demographic change to force out Assad’s opponents. The Syrian government has said nobody is forced to leave and those who stay must accept state rule.

The last besieged rebel area, being fully evacuated on Wednesday, is the large enclave located between the cities of Hama and Homs around the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla.

Rebels still hold large swathes of northwest and southwest Syria that are not besieged because they border Turkey and Jordan, which have at times backed the insurgents and are guarantors of limited truces in those areas.

The only other area still surrounded by the Syrian army, in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, is held by Islamic State fighters who look unlikely to agree to withdraw to the patch of desert they still hold in east Syria.

More than a quarter of Syria is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that the United States helped in the fight against Islamic State.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull American troops from Syria, but the Pentagon has said they are staying for now.

SIEGE

Assad focused on the remaining besieged rebel pockets last month after taking back Eastern Ghouta, the biggest insurgent enclave near Damascus, in a ferocious, weeks-long offensive.

Having held the area being evacuated on Wednesday for years, rebels agreed earlier this month to withdraw along with their families and other civilians who did not want to come back under Assad’s rule.

Since the enclave straddled Syria’s main north-south highway in the stretch between Hama and Homs, recapturing it will significantly ease communication lines in government areas.

Some 27,000 people have left the enclave already since the evacuations began earlier this month, a local government official said. The last convoy of buses began to leave on Wednesday, according to state media.

Last month, 66,000 people left Eastern Ghouta under similar agreements, the U.N. has said. Other major evacuations have included from east Aleppo in late 2016, when more than 30,000 people left.

Tens of thousands of other people have left smaller pockets in recent years. It has added to a humanitarian crisis in northwestern Idlib province, where the pre-war population of about 1 million people has been doubled by those fleeing other parts of the country.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

‘I lived alongside death and didn’t die’: a Syrian frontline breathes again

Muhammad al-Masri, 75, gestures at his house in Jobar, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By Laila Bassam

JOBAR, SYRIA (Reuters) – Muhammad al-Masri spent the Syrian war in a house the 75-year-old described as being on the frontline with death.

In his partly roofless, cobweb-filled house on a government frontline with the formerly rebel-held eastern Ghouta district of Jobar, al-Masri stayed put through years of conflict.

“Many said I was crazy … Everyone fled.”

But since the fighting ended three weeks ago, a trickle of life has returned to the war-ravaged, deserted streets around him.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, regained eastern Ghouta, an area of farms and towns just outside Damascus, in early April in a ferocious assault.

The army offensive to capture it, heralded by one of the heaviest bombardments in the seven-year war, killed more than 1,600 people, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.

Today the boom of mortars around al-Masri has been replaced with voices.

“Listen!” he says, as the sound of girls singing a traditional Syrian song reached him. “Life has returned to the neighborhood!”

Former residents are starting to come back, hoping to see what years of grinding warfare have done to their homes.

Near al-Masri’s house, soldiers yell at children and teenagers to stop exploring the barricades, trenches and war debris which had previously been off limits to them.

Most of the Jobar district is still uninhabited. Classified as a security zone by the Syrian army, the streets are strewn with destroyed buildings, bullets and explosives.

Underground, the army is still discovering a network of tunnels used by eastern Ghouta’s fighters and smugglers during years of siege.

Al-Masri’s house was the last inhabited position in his neighborhood before a bank of earth marked Damascus’s frontline with Jobar.

The house, shared at times with his son and daughter-in-law, was shelled three times. Shrapnel injured his son on one occasion.

“The mortars fell while I was inside. I didn’t leave. We cleaned up and sat back down,” he said.

“I lived here alongside death and didn’t die.”

His house was surrounded by Syrian government security forces who would bring him his food. He spent his days sweeping war debris from streets around him, watching television and telephoning family.

In the early days of the conflict he was scared and unsure of what might happen.

“For more than a month I slept with my shoes on, on full alert.”

Jobar adjoins government-held central Damascus. Parts of Jobar are just 500 meters from one of Damascus’s most famous public spaces: Abbasid Square.

Although Damascus has remained largely peaceful during the seven-year conflict, the proximity of formerly rebel-held areas like Jobar to the capital means rockets sometimes killed and injured people in the city.

“I didn’t take a single step from here. Not at night, not during the day. There was just 10 meters between me and the tanks. I was the only one in this area, no other buildings, no nothing. Me and the army were like brothers,” he said.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Firas Makdesi; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)