More than 160,000 people have fled their homes during a Syrian government assault in the country’s southwest, the United Nations said, as negotiations for rebel capitulation in the region and to avoid clashes that could embroil Jordan and Israel broke down on Saturday.
Calling on the same playbook it used to subdue other rebel enclaves, the Syrian government, along with its Russian backers, have made quick gains in the southwestern province of Deraa.
The strategic region, one of the last remaining bastions of rebel control, borders Jordan and links to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
With the campaign in its 11th day, government troops, backed by a barrage of Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery clearing their path, easily snatched a handful of towns amid news of a collapse in rebel lines.
A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported 116 people had been killed since the fighting began on June 19.
The violence sparked a mass exodus, with an initial flood of some 50,000 earlier this week rising to more than 160,000 people fleeing their homes, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report Friday.
Many of the displaced have settled in the fields near the Jordanian-Syrian border and in Qunaiterah province, close to the Golan Heights.
“We’ve managed to get [the refugees] assistance despite the difficulty of using the land crossing offered by Jordan,” said Mohammad Hawari, a spokesman for the U.N.’s refugee agency in Jordan in a phone interview Saturday.
He added that some 34,000 people had been provided with basic assistance, including tents, plastic protectors, blankets, mattresses, water, as well as basic foodstuffs and hygienic materials.
Jordan, which already hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees, insisted it was “at capacity,” according to Ayman Safadi, the country’s foreign minister, and “cannot host more.”
“Before we speak of enforced migration of Syrians away from their land,” tweeted Safadi on Friday, “we should speak of protecting Syrians in it.”
In response, Jordanians in recent days have posted under the hashtag #Open_Our_Borders, urging the government to allow the refugees in.
Israel also said it would not allow Syrians to cross into its territory. On Friday, however, the Israeli army’s Arabic-language spokesman, Avichay Adraee, uploaded a video that showed Israeli soldiers opening the barrier to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, before conducting a nighttime aid delivery of approximately 300 tents and several dozen tons of food.
Though Israel maintains a public policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, it has for years treated war wounded in its clinics and given assistance, including military, to various rebel factions in the Golan Heights. Observers estimate that, at its height, some 600 people weekly were bused into Israeli-held territory.
Israel has also launched repeated strikes against the Iranian-affiliated battlefield allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose ground troops have been bolstered by Tehran-backed militiamen from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, the Syrian government announced four corridors for residents in the enclave to reach government-held areas. The United Nations said on Friday that an estimated 768 families had used the passageways.
Other residents in towns still under rebel control dispatched envoys to discuss terms of surrender with the government in a bid to spare them from what they describe as “barbaric” airstrikes.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported on Saturday a string of towns, including Tafas and Mzeireeb, had entered into “reconciliation,” Damascus’ euphemistic term for the restoration of state rule in exchange for a general amnesty. (Critics dismiss reconciliations as surrender, where residents who refuse to live under Assad’s government are forced to leave, while those who remain are conscripted or persecuted.)
Meanwhile, efforts to avert what the United Nations warned could become a humanitarian catastrophe failed on Saturday when rebel representatives walked out of negotiations with a Russian delegation. Moscow has taken the lead in hammering out a handover agreement between the government and the rebels.
Earlier on Saturday, a mixed six-man committee of opposition civilian and military leaders met with a Russian military delegation in the Syrian town of Busra Al-Sham, said rebel spokesman Col. Ibrahim Jabawi.
It followed a meeting the previous day in Amman, where the Russians, said Jabawi in a phone conversation Saturday, had held “in one hand a carrot and in the other hand a stick.”
Initial terms stipulated the rebels relinquish their heavy weapons. State institutions would return to the area, while the rebels would administer and secure the city with Russian military police oversight. There would be no forced resettlement for rebels unwilling to reconcile.
But on Saturday, Jabawi continued, the Russians came with a fresh set of conditions: The rebels were to give up all of their arms, including light weaponry, while the opposition would hand over lists of rebels’ names so as to move forward with their reconciliation with the government, but with Russian oversight. They would also hand over the Naseer border crossing.
The rebels had refused, Jabawi said.
“The Russians had given us conditions that no reasonable person or free revolutionary could accept,” he said.
But the rebels now stand alone in the face of impossible odds, even as their backers have abandoned them.
A government victory in Deraa would also have symbolic overtones: It was where the first fledgling marks of dissent grew into the Syrian uprisings that called for Assad’s downfall. More than seven years later, the crisis has killed hundreds of thousands, uprooted millions and turned the country’s name into a byword for suffering.
Deraa was also where Western-backed rebel groups organized under the Free Syrian Army held sway. An Islamic State affiliate also holds territory in the triangle between Israel, Jordan and Syria.
The Military Operations Command, a Jordan-based intelligence hub staffed by intelligence officers from 11 countries, including the CIA, had lavished money, materiel and training on fighters. Their aim was to pry Deraa open and make it the gateway of a blitzkrieg on Damascus, Assad’s seat of power, less than 60 miles north.
The thunder run never happened, and the ensuing stalemate, with the rebels in control of the vital crossing between Syria and Jordan, solidified into a year-long ceasefire under the stewardship of Jordan, Russia and the United States, while the government concentrated on retaking opposition pockets near Homs and Damascus.
After government troops began a mass-mobilization toward Deraa, the U.S. Embassy in Amman circulated a message to the rebels saying that although Washington understood “the difficult conditions you are now facing,” they should not base their decision to fight “on the assumption or expectation of any military intervention from us.”
On Friday, a U.S. State Department official said the situation in southwest Syria is “grim,” but there was little sign of U.S. engagement in the negotiations.
And Jordan, several rebel commanders complained, isn’t willing to allow their families into the country, let alone supply rebel lines for a counterattack.
Still, pro-opposition activists reported on Saturday that several factions had mounted counterattacks and had wrested back control of seven towns and villages.
“Our only choice is to resist. Is it possible for a reasonable person to hand over their will to their executioner?” said Jabawi.
“We are going ahead with resistance to the last drop of blood.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.