Fears grow for safety of 270,000 Syrians fleeing fighting in Deraa
Appeals for help after Russian-backed offensive prompts mass displacement of civilians
Fears are mounting about the safety of more than 270,000 civilians who have fled recent opposing in southern Syria, with assist groups and local physicians issuing urgent appeals for people stranded in the wilderness without shelter.
Fighting in Deraa province, a strategic region that borders both Jordan and Israel, has halted while negotiations for a resignation deal between rebels in the region and the Syrian governments main backer, Russia, continue. But UN officials say more than 270,000 people have fled their homes in the last two weeks, including 160,000 who have headed towards the Golan Heights and the Israeli border.
More than 200 civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting in Deraa, which is meant to be a de-escalation zone with a ceasefire guaranteed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in place. The latest bout of violence began in mid-June after a year of relative peace, while the regime of Bashar al-Assad pursued military campaigns in other parts of the country.
The humanitarian situation is bad, said one doctor in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights, who asked to remain anonymous owing to fears for his familys security. Its a small area to which entire towns and villages have been displaced, and its a major tragedy.
Deraa is symbolic to the Syrian opponent. Deraa city was the birthplace of protests in 2011 that spread throughout Syria before evolving into the rebellion against the Assad regime. Most of the opposition fighters in the region are members of moderate rebel groups, part of the Southern Front alliance backed by the US and UK, and managed from a command centre in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Once one of the most powerful branches of the rebellion, the Southern Front has long been hobbled by the reluctant subsistence of their backers and fractures within their own ranks. Western friends signalled last month they would not intervene militarily to protect their proxies.
The Assad regime and Russia turned their military attention towards Deraa after securing other major swaths of Syria, including Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, following a brutal siege and bombardment. The offensive in Deraa has followed a similar pattern of splitting rebel province and negotiating reconciliation deals, whereby rebels lay down arms and are either forcibly displaced to opposition-held territory north near the Turkish perimeter, or remain under government authority.
Some parts of southern Syria have already surrendered, and a ceasefire has taken hold for two days amid negotiations between rebel groups and the Russians.