AMMAN: Syrian elite forces aided by pro-Iranian militias stepped up an offensive on Tuesday against a rebel enclave in a southwestern pocket bordering Jordan and Israel, according to residents, military and opposition sources.
Fighting escalated earlier this week after the collapse of a Russian peace plan meant to avert an all-out offensive against Deraa al-Balaad, the core of the city of Deraa that has defied state authority since surrounding Deraa province was recaptured by President Bashar al-Assad's forces in 2018.
Witnesses and military sources that dozens of improvised missiles were fired into Deraa al-Balaad by the Syrian military's pro-Iranian Fourth Division, backed by Iranian-financed local militias.
Army sources said troops that have encircled the urban rebel bastion for the last two months brought forward reinforcements on Monday ahead of a final thrust into the centre of Deraa.
Deraa al-Balaad was the birthplace of peaceful protests against autocratic Assad family rule that broke out a decade ago - part of the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings - before spreading in response to deadly crackdowns by security forces and morphing into a devastating civil war.
The latest army campaign came amid a spate of attacks over the past 24 hours by remnants of rebel groups on army checkpoints and outposts in Dael, Jasem and other towns across Deraa province, opposition sources and residents said.
A Western intelligence source said several thousand families in towns caught in the crossfire had fled to safer areas near the Jordanian border where the Jordanian army was on alert for a possible new wave of refugees.
The Syrian army said at least four soldiers were killed in ambushes on troops in the towns of Sanameen and Nawa, and that rebel shelling had caused several casualties in residential areas.
Government forces, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook Deraa province in 2018, and Moscow assured Israel and the United States at the time that it would prevent Iranian-backed militias encroaching on the border zone.
That deal forced thousands of Western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons but kept Assad's forces from entering Deraa al Balaad, whose administration remained in opposition hands.
Local elders said rebels told Russian mediators they had rejected an ultimatum delivered overnight by the army to hand over their light arms and allow troops to set up checkpoints inside Deraa al-Balaad.
Pro-Assad forces have prevented food, medical and fuel supplies coming into Deraa al-Balaad but opened a corridor for civilians to leave, according to local officials and residents.
The United States and its allies have voiced concern about Assad's military campaign in Deraa, which they say is challenging Russia's pledge to maintain stability and rein in Iran-backed militias hostile to Israel.
Assad withstood the long insurgency against him and has regained control of around 70 per cent of Syria with Russian and Iranian help. But Idlib in the far northwest remains under rebel control and patches of the northeast are in Kurdish hands.