Assad Pushes into Southern Syria, Rebels Negotiate Surrender

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian military and police forces fly their national flags on a damaged building and hold a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood, southern Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Syrian state TV said Tuesday …
SANA via AP

The forces of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad pushed hard into the southern region of the country over the past two weeks and captured most of Deraa, the province where the uprising against Assad’s regime began seven years ago.

Besieged rebel forces are reportedly negotiating terms of surrender with Assad’s Russian allies. Meanwhile, Israel shot down a Syrian drone that violated its airspace on Wednesday even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to discuss the Syrian offensive.

Assad’s forces have taken control of about 80 percent of Deraa, according to reports on Wednesday. Rebel forces in four towns across the province struck a deal to hand over their weapons.

The remaining rebel enclaves are talking with the Russians to work out evacuation plans for their fighters, who would ideally move to the remaining opposition-controlled regions of northwestern Syria. The city of Deraa proper is said to be surrounded by government forces.

Rebel commanders accuse the Russians of violating ceasefire agreements and no-conflict zones to facilitate the Syrian government advance and failing to honor an agreement to provide safe passage out of the city for those who reject Assad’s rule.

Intense Russian airpower was crucial to the rapid advance of Syrian forces. The siege of Deraa began in earnest just three days after Russia brokered a “ceasefire” deal for the province.

The assault on Deraa has displaced over 320,000 civilians from their homes. Some 60,000 of them are trapped along the border with Jordan, which has resisted international pressure to accept them as refugees, citing security and economic concerns.

The Syrian-Russian assault also featured an attack on the Yarmouk Basin area near the Golan Heights, a region that contains holdout enclaves of the Islamic State. ISIS and its allies have controlled the area since 2014.

Russian warplanes struck the town of Saham al-Golan on Wednesday morning, along with Syrian military helicopters dropping Assad’s notorious “barrel bombs”—indiscriminate low-tech weapons noted for causing horrendous civilian casualties.

ISIS counterattacked with artillery fire against a town where rebel forces had accepted surrender terms, reportedly killing several civilians, including children. A suicide attack was also conducted against what the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described as a gathering of soldiers and rebel fighters who had “reconciled” with the Assad regime.

A Syrian drone penetrated Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights on Wednesday, prompting Israel to shoot it down with a Patriot missile.

“We are still looking into why it crossed—whether it was on a military mission and crossed on purpose, or it strayed,” said an Israeli military spokesman.

The Israelis have been on high alert ever since Assad’s big push into Deraa began, concerned that Syria might make a move on the Golan or create space for Iran and its proxies to do so. At the same time, Israel hopes to improve relations with Syria, resuming a diplomatic process that effectively stalled out when the Syrian civil war erupted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow on Wednesday for talks on “Syria, Iran, and Israel’s security needs,” as he put it before boarding his plane.

“I very much appreciate the excellent direct connection, without intermediaries, between myself and the Russian president. It is very important for the national security of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

.