Daraa (Syria) (AFP) – Deadly air strikes hit rebel-held towns across southern Syria on Wednesday putting three hospitals out of service after the government launched a Russian-backed push for the region’s main city Daraa.
President Bashar al-Assad has set his sights on retaking the south, a strategic region that neighbours Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A ceasefire was put in place in the region last year, brokered by Jordan, Russia and the United States.
But, after clearing the last rebel pockets around Damascus in recent months, government forces have waged an intensifying assault over the past week against the much larger rebel zone in the south.
After days of air strikes and artillery fire against rebel-held towns and villages across Daraa province, on Tuesday it was the turn of the rebel-held sector of the divided provincial capital.
The bombardment of rebel-neighbourhoods in the south of the city lasted throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“There are rockets, barrel bombs and Russian and Syrian air strikes hitting rebel areas of Daraa, particularly the Daraa al-Balad neighbourhood,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The rebels hold a horseshoe-shaped band of territory and government forces have already isolated one end of it with the recapture of two strategic villages on Monday night.
They are seeking to cut rebel territory into more manageable chunks, a strategy they have successfully employed elsewhere in Syria.
But they have yet to make any ground advance on the rebel sector of Daraa city.
Air strikes on the south killed eight civilians on Wednesday, the Britain-based Observatory said, bringing the civilian death toll over the past week to 54.
– Hospitals damaged –
The strikes also ravaged infrastructure, with health services taking the brunt of the bombardment.
Three hospitals were forced to close after strikes hit the rebel-held towns of Saida, Al-Mseifra and Al-Jiza, the Observatory said.
“The hospital in Al-Jiza was damaged this morning. There were Russian air strikes close to the hospital, which damaged it and put it out of service,” Abdel Rahman said.
The latest closures bring to five the number of hospitals that have been put out of service by the government’s offensive in the south.
Syria has become infamous for attacks on health workers.
The United Nations said earlier this year that more hospitals and clinics had been hit in the first four months of 2018 than in all of last year.
It has warned that the government’s offensive in the south is putting more than 750,000 people in rebel-held areas in harm’s way.
More than 45,000 have already fled their homes, it added.
Among them is Ahmad Abazeid, a media activist who fled the town of Al-Herak in the east of Daraa province.
“For more than three days, Syrian and Russian warplanes — and barrel bombs — didn’t leave the sky,” Abazeid said.
Government troops reached the outskirts Al-Herak on Tuesday, and Abazeid fled with other residents.
“People are lost — they don’t know where to go. Some are along the border with Jordan, others on the border with Israel,” he told AFP.
“But the warplanes are following them wherever they go.”
– ‘Nowhere else to turn’ –
The UN has said most of the 45,000 who fled were heading towards the sealed border with Jordan.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said late Tuesday that the border crossings would stay closed.
“We’ll keep doing all we can for them. But we can’t host more (refugees). UN can help IDPs (internally displaced persons) inside Syria and we’ll fully help,” he tweeted.
Jordan already hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees and estimates the actual number is closer to 1.3 million.
The Norwegian Refugee Council appealed to Amman on Wednesday to grant asylum to those fleeing the latest violence.
“The fighting in Syria is squeezing people further and further south. They will eventually be left with nowhere else to turn,” said the NRC’s acting Regional Director Youri Saadallah.
“Jordan has done so much over the years to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, but unfortunately the international community must rely on it to be generous once more.”
In a bid to avoid greater bloodshed, Russia is leading talks with Syria, Jordan, Israel and the United States to reach a negotiated settlement for the south but so far there has been no public progress.