Russian airstrikes that included mortar shells and regime barrel bombs broke a ceasefire agreement brokered with the U.S. and Jordan in 2017 when they struck southwest Syria Saturday night and into Sunday according to the Wall Street Journal. Russian forces united with Syrian president Bashar al-Asaad in this effort to take over one of the few remaining opposition strongholds that include Daraa and Quneitra. The attack killed at least five civilians and destroyed a hospital and an emergency rescue center. Forces who support President Asaad have dropped leaflets in the area demanding rebels to surrender and threatening a ground attack. Media that supports Asaad report that several rebel towns have already been captured. They also report that rebels killed one person and destroyed property when they fired mortars on government-held areas Saturday.
A Jordanian official stated that he has been in contact with parties who will help protect his country, but the U.S. appears to be avoiding any military involvement as U.S.-allied rebels were told not to expect military intervention by the U.S. Saber Siefer, political representative of one of Daraa’s largest rebel groups addressed the attack on civilians.
“The Russian intervention is a flagrant violation of the de-escalation deal. They are aware that the regime is not capable of advancing on its own. The airstrikes are targeting civilians and they are trying to intimidate them.”
Syrian forces once available to Asaad have been seriously depleted due to more than seven years of war. Because of this, he relies greatly on military support from his allies, including Russia. Also among its allies is Iran, and Asaad has used that relationship in recent weeks by putting Syrian uniforms on Iranian fighters and giving them Syrian flags to raise as they work to rid the country of its last rebels.
It’s unknown whether Russia’s Sunday attack is a prelude to a large-scale attack on southwest Syria or whether it may be an effort to bring Jordan and the U.S. back to the bargaining table. Any attempt to reach a new agreement between Syria and a Jordan-U.S. alliance would include a request from Asaad to be allowed to take back the Daraa and Quneitra area without a battle.
One Western diplomat said that there is a general consensus that Asaad will regain control of the southwestern region and that he will do it with much less violence than has been seen in other areas. Adding to the possibility that Asaad may get the agreement with Jordan and the U.S. that he wants is a warning from the United Nations that a battle in the southwestern corner of the country would have extensive humanitarian and regional impacts on the area. They say over 6,000 people have already fled the area in fear.
Rebel groups indicate they are still committed to the ceasefire agreement but they are also committed to protecting the southwest region. Those groups once received aid from the U.S. and U.S. allies through a covert CIA program, but that came to an end last year when President Trump terminated the program. One advantage of these fighters is that, unlike places like Aleppo, they aren’t besieged by Syrian troops.