Clashes and shelling in northern Daraa Province in southern Syria
Pro-Assad forces may have started their long-awaited offensive on opposition areas in southern Syria, despite warnings of Israeli intervention and a supposed US-Russia “de-escalation zone”.
There were reports of clashes, regime shelling — including by tanks — and bombing across eastern Daraa Province, where the uprising began in March 2011. Claims circulated of dozens of casualties.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) June 19, 2018
A rebel comander warned of “volcanoes of fire” if the pro-Assad forces extended their attacks along the Jordanian border and near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Among those killed by the shelling was a volunteer of the White Helmets civil defense, who have lost almost 200 personnel to pro-Assad attacks and Russian bombing since 2013:
The Syrian Civil Defense lost another hero "Saif Alkadry" a #WhiteHelmets volunteer was killed today, during his humanitarian duty of search and rescue operations after artillery shilling on #Nahta city in the eastern countryside of #Daraa. pic.twitter.com/BPwRS4Kt1M
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) June 19, 2018
The Assad regime, which insists that it will regain “every inch” of Syria, has looked towards the south after reoccupying the East Ghouta area near Damascus in April with months of bombing, ground assaults, and chemical attacks. The opposition has held much of Daraa and Quneitra Provinces since 2012.
Israel warned that it would intervene if any Hezbollah or Iranian-led foreign militia are involved in the offensive. After talks with Russia, which has had a cooperative arrangement with Israel since September 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all “non-Syrian forces” should leave the south and called for a political process to bring about rebel departure.
Lavrov’s statement left open the option of an offensive with only regime forces; however, the Syrian army has not been able to regain opposition territory without Russian airstrikes and foreign militias on the ground.
The US and Russia declared a de-escalation zone in July 2017. Moscow has broken other de-escalation commitments across the country, however, including its essential involvement in the recapture of East Ghouta and parts of northwest Syria.
The US warned last week that it will take “firm and appropriate measures” against any violations of the zone. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more cautious yesterday amid reports of the pro-Assad attacks.
.@SecPompeo spoke w/ Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov by phone today, to discuss issues & concerns related to #Syria and the bilateral relationship. Sec. Pompeo also reemphasized the U.S. commitment to the southwest ceasefire arrangement approved by @POTUS and President Putin. pic.twitter.com/THU7PdFO9J
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) June 18, 2018
No Advance in Russian-Led Talks for New Constitution
Russia, Turkey, and Iran have failed to advance in their discussions of a committee to draft a new Syrian Constitution.
Since early 2016, Moscow has taken over the political process, holding a series of conferences in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and in Sochi in southern Russia. The Russians are seeking arrangements which will maintain the Assad regime in power, as it regains most — but not all — of Syria.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has backed the effort, with Tuesday’s meeting held in Geneva. In a brief statement yesteray, de Mistura maintained that “some common ground was beginning to emerge”: “Constructive exchanges and substantive discussions took place on issues relevant to the establishment and functioning of a constitutional committee.”
He said the Assad regime has presented a list of 50 names to be part of the committee.
But Yahya al-Aridi, spokesperson for the opposition Syrian Negotiation Commission, said from Istanbul, Turkey:
There are many aspects that are not yet clear about the prospected constitutional committee.
We are asking many questions about the formation, functions, terms of reference of this committee. Who will be accredited to participate? Is it going to be part of the transitional process? That is why there is a delay in the presentation of the list of names that should be part of it on behalf of the opposition.
Aridi warned that “there are small groups that are not considered by the people as opposition who are rushing to present their credentials” to join the committee.