Regime forces are deployed in Al Ghariya Al Gharbiya in Dara’a province. Image Credit: Reuters

Beirut: The Syrian government has exploited the cease-fires and so-called de-escalation zones to squeeze rebels from one pocket at a time while the others remain quiet, breaking the agreement whenever it is ready to pick off another enclave.

It has done this areas around Damascus’ countryside including Ghouta earlier this year.

Dara’a, 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 Dara’a, 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 Syrian President Bahsar Al 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.”

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 US-backed cease-fire and threatening to entangle Israel and Jordan in the conflict.

Government troops, backed by Syrian and Russian air strikes and barrel bombs, have steamrollered through several towns in eastern Dara’a 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 criticised 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 Mohammad, 30, a Dara’a resident who had evacuated his home in the eastern countryside to dodge the air strikes, 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.”

So far, 98 civilians have died, including 19 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor based in Britain.

Air strikes have punched out several local hospitals and killed medical personnel. Another air strike 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.

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.

Some pictures circulating on social media have purportedly shown Iran-backed militias on the Dara’a frontlines.