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Syrian Assault Flouts U.S.-Backed Cease-Fire and Sets Off New Exodus

BEIRUT — A Syrian government assault on one of the country’s last two rebel-held territories has driven 160,000 people from their homes across southwestern Syria, violating a U.S.-backed cease-fire and threatening to entangle Israel and Jordan in the conflict.

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Vivian Yee
Hwaida Saad, New York Times

BEIRUT — A Syrian government assault on one of the country’s last two rebel-held territories has driven 160,000 people from their homes across southwestern Syria, violating a U.S.-backed cease-fire and threatening to entangle Israel and Jordan in the conflict.

Government troops, backed by Syrian and Russian airstrikes and barrel bombs, have steamrollered through several towns in eastern Daraa province over the past week, setting off the latest humanitarian calamity in the seven-year war and moving the government a step closer to consolidating control over the country.

The attack has ripped up a brittle cease-fire negotiated last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States, the Trump administration’s main peacekeeping achievement in Syria.

The United States, which has about 2,000 troops in Syria, has publicly criticized Russia for breaking the deal but has done little to enforce it, retreating from its initial warnings of “serious repercussions” for cease-fire violations and leaving southern rebels and civilians largely on their own.

“The Americans abandoned us,” said Muhammad, 30, a Daraa resident who had evacuated his home in the eastern countryside to dodge the airstrikes, and who asked not to be fully identified for fear of reprisals from the government. “They put us in the bloody swamp and left us. We’re facing the worst scenario.”

The battle has the potential to reverberate dangerously beyond Syria’s borders. Pressure is mounting on Jordan to take in what could amount to hundreds of thousands of refugees, at risk of destabilizing the country. And the shadow war between Iran and Israel could escalate if Iranian-backed militias accompany Syrian forces to the Israeli border.

Daraa is where the Syrian uprising to topple President Bashar Assad first erupted seven years ago, setting off a multifaceted civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced 12 million people. Over the past two years, government forces supported by Russian air power and Iranian-backed ground forces have mowed down one rebel-held pocket at a time, forcing draconian surrenders and killing civilians with prolonged sieges, airstrikes and chemical weapons.

The outcome in Daraa is hardly in doubt. With Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian and Iranian allies, battling an overmatched rebel force with no apparent outside support, the only question is how long it will take the region to fall to Assad and at what cost.

The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned the Security Council this week that the violence could outstrip even the bloodiest episodes of the war.

“If the southwest sees a full-scale battle to the end,” he said, “it could be like eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta combined together.”

But unlike those clashes, this one lies in a geopolitically delicate location, abutting both Jordan and the Israel-controlled Golan Heights.

So far, 98 civilians have died, including 19 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor based in Britain. Airstrikes have punched out several local hospitals and killed medical personnel. Another airstrike hit a shelter Thursday, killing five children. And the fighting threatens to shut the Jordan border crossing that is the main conduit for humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians.

The number fleeing the fighting rose to 160,000 on Friday, the United Nations estimated, but those who have tried to escape to Jordan and Israel have found those borders sealed.

At the Jordanian border Friday, some refugees had brought tents but thousands were sleeping in the smothering heat in open fields. There was no drinking water or medical aid.

At least five children died after being bitten by scorpions, said Hussein al-Massaiid, who had left his home in the village of Taybeh with his wife and five children so suddenly that his children had no time to put on shoes. They left barefoot.

“Battles are in front of us and closed borders behind us,” al-Massaiid said, exhaustion in his voice. “Our misery is growing every minute. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us. The NGOs aren’t here. Nobody is helping us.”

Jordan, already strained by a Syrian refugee population of 1.3 million, has padlocked its border against the hundreds of thousands of civilians expected to come its way.

The head of the U.N. humanitarian task force for Syria, Jan Egeland, pleaded with Jordan on Thursday to again offer refuge to Syrians.

“There is no other place to go,” he said.

On Thursday, the United Nations said it had been forced to halt convoys carrying relief from Jordan to Syria because of the fighting. At the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, several thousand refugees are sheltering in tent camps along the border, “often lacking access to water, electricity, sources of food or other basic necessities,” the Israeli military said.

On Friday, Israel said it had distributed humanitarian aid overnight to four locations in the Golan Heights, including 300 tents, 13 tons of food, 15 tons of baby food, three pallets of medical equipment and medicine, and 30 tons of clothing and footwear.

“We’re closely monitoring the turn of events in southern Syria,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on Twitter on Friday. “We will make sure to safeguard the State of Israel’s security interests. Like always, we will be willing to extend any humanitarian aid to civilians, women and children, but we will not admit a single Syrian refugee into our territory.”

Perhaps the bigger risk for Israel is that Iranian-backed militias, who have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces, will join the advance toward the Golan border, a prospect Israel will not tolerate. Israel has largely stayed out of the war, but it has carried out several attacks on what it says are Iranian assets in Syria.

Several analysts said they believed that Israel has been negotiating a deal with Syria, with Russia as an intermediary, to keep Iranian-backed militias and fighters from Hezbollah, the Iranian-aligned group based in Lebanon, away from the border. But such an agreement has not been publicly confirmed.

“Ideologically, neither Iran nor Hezbollah will relinquish the idea of confronting Israel,” said Haytham Mouzahem, the director of the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies. “But in real terms, Iran may bow to Russian pressure” to steer clear of the border.

Yet analysts say it would be less than surprising if Iranians turned out to be among the fighters moving south despite any Russia-Israel agreement, perhaps posing as Syrian troops.

The mushrooming pressures on Israel and Jordan, two U.S. allies, could draw the United States and other foreign powers back into diplomatic negotiations, analysts said.

“They don’t want a crisis in Jordan, they don’t want a flare-up between Israel and the Iranians and a regional war, so the U.S. could very well get involved diplomatically,” said Aron Lund, a Century Foundation fellow and Syria analyst. Diplomacy could freeze the fighting, help those displaced by the violence and possibly head off more tensions between Iran and Israel. But it is hard to imagine an agreement that does not cede the region to Assad.

The United States has backed away from the crisis. As recently as two weeks ago, the Americans promised “serious repercussions” if the cease-fire was violated. Yet after Syrian and Russian forces began bombing, the United States privately advised the southern rebels whom they had until recently funded not to expect a military intervention.

In a text message sent to rebel commanders after the offensive began, U.S. officials told them that as they faced the onslaught, “you should not base your decision on the assumption or expectation of military intervention by us.”

Talks among Russia, Jordan and the rebels aimed at coaxing the rebels to surrender resulted in two temporary truces Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory.

It was unclear whether there were other negotiations behind the scenes. The State Department said it had no comment on diplomatic conversations. The reality, analysts say, is that the Syrian government has exploited the cease-fires and so-called de-escalation zones to squeeze the rebels from one pocket at a time while the others remain quiet, breaking the agreement whenever it is ready to pick off another enclave.

Daraa, whose cease-fire was reaffirmed by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Vietnam in November, has been no different. And the pattern is likely to be repeated in Idlib province, the other remaining rebel stronghold, where Turkish monitors patrol another so-called de-escalation deal.

In Daraa, there have been reports that townspeople have sought an agreement with the government to head off violence in recent days, but the rebels refused to ratify it.

Massaiid, who is living in an animal shed near the Jordanian border with his family, said he would gladly settle for life under Assad if it would end the fighting.

“I want to live a normal life with my children,” he said. “I have no problem with the government.”

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