BEIRUT

Middle East

Syrian air force steps up attacks in south

Men carry the body of a girl from under the rubble of collapsed buildings after what activists said was an air raid by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Bab al-Nayrab district in Aleppo February 21, 2014. (REUTERS/Jalal Al-Mamo)

BEIRUT: The Syrian army intensified its aerial bombardment Friday of southern Syria as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a wide offensive in a province bordering Jordan, activists said.

The Local Coordination Committees opposition network and an anti-government activist in the area said air raids and government shelling in the southern province of Deraa killed at least two people.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist group, reported that airstrikes on several areas in Deraa killed a man and a child. It said warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked the towns of Inkhil and Ghabagheb, as well as the village of Naima and the capital of Deraa province that carries the same name.

Deraa is where Syria’s uprising started nearly three years ago with anti-government protests that later spread throughout the country.

The army in recent days also has stepped up its use of barrel bombs in deadly airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Deraa. The crude bombs – barrels filled with explosives, fuel and scraps of metal – had so far been used mostly against rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo and near Damascus, Syria’s capital.

Barrel bombings in Aleppo injured dozens more Friday, in the areas of Al-Bab, Salaheddine and Sheikh Najjar, activists reported. They say over 800 people have been killed in the strike campaign, which began in mid-December.

An amateur video released by activists showed smoke billowing from Naima after being struck by barrel bombs. Another video showed men running through dust created by a strike in the city of Deraa before reaching a two-story house bombed into a pile of rubble. A man could be heard shouting in the background: “My father!”

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded with other reporting of the attacks.

Activists said the attacks come as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a push from Deraa toward Damascus in the coming days. The rebels tried several times over the past two years to reach the capital but were crushed by Syrian troops.

The activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were speaking of military plans, claimed thousands of U.S.-trained rebels are getting ready to attack government positions throughout Deraa province.

Syria’s Al-Thawra newspaper, a mouthpiece of President Bashar Assad’s government, harshly criticized Jordan Thursday, accusing it of taking part in a U.S.-backed conspiracy against Damascus.

There is an “official Jordanian role in coordination with intelligence services from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, with some Gulf Arab mix,” the paper said. It added that Jordan was taking part in an “American escalation” after the second round of peace talks between rival Syrian groups in Geneva ended without any progress.

Moscow meanwhile accused Washington of prolonging the Syrian conflict by supporting the opposition ahead of a U.N. Security Council vote Saturday that threatens to further deepen big power divisions.

Speaking in Baghdad Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said America’s policy on Syria “encourages extremists who are financing terrorism and supplying terrorist organizations and groups with weapons.”

“In the end, this will not result in anything except the escalation of the Syrian conflict,” he said in remarks translated from Russian into Arabic.

The CIA has led U.S. outreach to the rebels outside Syria, meeting them at refugee camps and towns along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. CIA paramilitary officers, as well as special operations trainers, have trained select groups of rebels in Jordan on the use of encrypted communications equipment – the nonlethal aid provided by President Barack Obama’s administration – and they have helped the rebels learn how to fire anti-aircraft weapons and small arms provided by Gulf states.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees also reported heavy clashes Friday in the southern region of Qunaitra. The army has been reinforcing its positions in Qunaitra as part of an effort to dislodge rebels from the area that is near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Russia, with support from China, has blocked three previous resolutions aimed at pressuring the Damascus regime since the crisis began, with an estimated 250,000 people across Syria awaiting help.

The resolution calls on all parties to immediately provide humanitarian access to populated areas, including the besieged city of Homs.

It also demands the “the immediate cessation of all attacks against civilians,” such as the use of barrel bombs, a clear reference to army tactics used in Aleppo, in the north.

And it calls for all parties, in particular the Syrian regime, to authorize humanitarian groups to deliver aid across front lines and borders.

Humanitarian groups have been seeking cross-border access for some time to allow aid to be shipped directly into Syria from neighboring countries such as Iraq or Turkey.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

The Syrian army intensified its aerial bombardment Friday of southern Syria as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a wide offensive in a province bordering Jordan, activists said.

The Local Coordination Committees opposition network and an anti-government activist in the area said air raids and government shelling in the southern province of Deraa killed at least two people.

Deraa is where Syria's uprising started nearly three years ago with anti-government protests that later spread throughout the country.

The army in recent days also has stepped up its use of barrel bombs in deadly airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Deraa.

Activists said the attacks come as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a push from Deraa toward Damascus in the coming days. The rebels tried several times over the past two years to reach the capital but were crushed by Syrian troops.


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