BEIRUT (Reuters) – Government forces in south Syria are advancing along the frontier with Jordan and will soon reach a border crossing in rebel hands, a pro-Damascus commander said on Friday, in a push to recapture one of the country’s last rebel strongholds.
Several witnesses along the Jordan border fence with Syria said they spotted armored vehicles and a tank with a Russian flag heading to the Nasib crossing, a vital trade artery.
A war monitor said troops in Deraa province reached the frontier on Thursday for the first time since 2015, part of a major offensive to capture the southwest from insurgents.
The commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus told Reuters that the army and allies had arrived after seizing a string of villages. “Within a short period of time, they will reach the (Nassib) crossing,” the non-Syrian commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
With the help of Russian air power, the assault has swept into swathes of Deraa over the past two weeks.
The U.N. refugee agency has urged Jordan to open its borders as Syrians flee the battles and heavy air strikes en masse. It says fighting has uprooted more than 320,000 people, with 60,000 gathered at the Jordan border crossing and thousands more at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan heights.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has called it the largest displacement of Syria’s seven-year war.
Ibrahim Jabawi, a rebel official, told Reuters the insurgents and Russians started a new round of talks over the southwest on Friday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said government forces were now around three km (two miles) away from the Nasib border crossing with Jordan.
The UK-based group said an armed faction which held some border villages had handed control over to the advancing troops without resistance.
A military media unit run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which fights alongside Damascus, said the army captured eight border outposts on Friday. The forces have taken most of the towns and villages in eastern Deraa, including a few where insurgents had surrendered, it said.
Hezbollah is helping lead the offensive but keeping a low profile, pro-Damascus sources told Reuters, defying Israel’s demands that Iran-backed forces stay away.
Both Israel and Jordan, which beefed up their borders, said they would not let refugees in but distributed aid inside Syria.
Jordan said on Thursday it had convinced the Syrian opposition and the Russians to meet again for talks over a deal to end the fighting.
Abu Shaima, spokesman for an operations room for rebels under the Free Syrian Army banner, said Syrian and Russian jets had pummeled towns across the southwest and villages near the border crossing. Most of the hospitals had shut down amid the destruction in insurgent territory, which now barely had access to water or electricity, he said.
Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Ellen FrancisEditing by Alison Williams, Tom Perry, William Maclean